Are You a Realist or a Romantic?
Keeping one foot in reality and the other in romance is key
Posted Feb 13, 2017
By Max Belkin, Ph.D.
In romantic relationships, people are generally either realists or romantics. Very few people describe themselves as endowed with both a romantic spirit and a realist's practicality. At the same time, many men and women search for relationships that are both exciting and stable, passionate and long-lasting. Yet, as many of us can attest, finding and sustaining this kind of a romantic relationship is hard. It requires partners learn to tolerate and cultivate both romantic and realistic parts of their own personalities.
Realists try to accept other people as they are, without insisting on improvement. They focus on making their relationships run smoothly and do not demand or crave fireworks. As a result, their romantic life tends to be stable and predictable, yet not particularly passionate or exciting.
My client Valerie is a realist. She grew up with a depressed, emotionally withdrawn father and now looks for closeness and connection in her relationships with men. At the same time, her love affairs lack spontaneity and excitement. Emotional stability and sexual monotony eclipse experimentation and surprise.
But Valerie complains that her romantic relationships become dull. And she blames her boyfriend for their joyless, lackluster romantic experiences. What she doesn’t realize is how precious this stability is to her—even when it borders on boredom.
By contrast, romantics value and pursue spontaneity and surprise. Some romantics are so afraid of boredom and repetition that they refuse to commit to one person. Thomas, a gay man in his thirties, prides himself on being an incorrigible romantic. His ideal partner is a charming intellectual with the body of a fitness model, and he refuses to settle for anybody less than his fantasy man. Romantic love, he states, should not be sullied by bickering about household chores. Unfortunately, that perfect relationship remains a figment of Thomas's imagination and he struggles with loneliness.
Reconciling reality and fantasy
People often realize it would be a good idea to keep one foot in reality and the other in romantic fantasy. But how do you do that?
Whether you are a romantic or a realist, it's tempting to look for a partner whose personal qualities complement your own. However, the same traits that were attractive in the beginning: “she was so fun and romantic” or “he seemed so grounded and reliable” can become the source of tension and frustration as time goes on.
Valerie and Thomas both turned to therapy to make sense of this struggle. I invited them both to examine their roles in romantic encounters; roles often outside of their conscious awareness. As they explored their habitual--and often overlooked--ways of thinking about the romantic and realistic traits in themselves and their partners, I asked them to consider the following:
- Explore the romantic and realistic streaks in your personality both as gifts and potential limitations. For instance, idealizing your lover's beauty and cleverness can make a romantic relationship more exciting and less likely to become boring. However, you may be ignoring red flags, such as a partner's inability to make or keep commitments.
- There is always a tension between the need for routine and stability on the one hand, and desire for surprise and spontaneity on the other. The same romantic or realistic traits that are so attractive in a partner at the beginning of a relationship can become the most bothersome as time goes on.
- Cultivate traits that might not come naturally. Valerie has given herself permission to be less serious and act with more spontaneity. Similarly, Thomas is coming to terms with the fact that sexual passion without commitment has its limitations. Along the way, they are gradually learning to tolerate and appreciate the unavoidable clashes between fantasy and reality, love and desire.
As they become more appreciative and accepting of the inescapable tensions between reality and romance, Valerie and Thomas experience their new romantic involvements as both exciting and grounding, intriguing and intimate.
Max Belkin, Ph.D.,is a relational psychoanalyst and psychologist. He is a graduate of NYU and the William Alanson White Institute and is an Associate Editor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. He teaches graduate courses in couples counseling and individual psychotherapy at NYU. He works with individuals and couples in his private office in Greenwich Village