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Pain and the relationship fantasy


I don't own a television, and I don't miss it at all. I haven't watched any TV shows on a regular basis in five years. Occasionally a friend will recommend that I watch a particular series that has been published in DVD format -- I've watched some Sex and the City, the Simpsons, Six Feet Under, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and South Park via DVDs.

Many of my Queer friends have been talking about the new Bravo show called Boy Meets Boy -- a so-called "reality" dating show where one guy gets to choose between other guys over the course of several episodes of beauty-show elimination. The secret catch, kept secret only from the gay guys on the show, not from the audience, is that about half of the contestants are straight guys being paid extra to pretend they are gay.

Some of my friends have complained that this kind of practical joke is hurting-people-as-entertainment. Well, yeah, but isn't most TV a bunch of exploitative crap? Especially all the reality shows.

Why would somebody expect to find true love via this kind of scheming TV show anyway, even if they hadn't mixed in straight guys? Plenty of less-than perfect people can pretend to be great while the cameras are running. Or, in real life, while the crush is running ...

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Our culture feeds the idea that, for each of us, there is waiting, somewhere, a perfect romantic match who will make our lives complete. Many pop songs, movies, and novels feed this idea. There is even the occasional couple who appears to be a perfect match (though you never really know how they treat each other while nobody else is looking).

The marketing of the perfect couple meme causes a lot of distress among the average non-perfect people who think that if they keep searching, they'll find The One, or that maybe this guy they are currently dating is The One, or that maybe they should dump their boyfriend so they can find The One, or ...

People who try hard to emulate a role as one of a perfect couple sacrifice a lot, in time, money, and worry, imagining fantasy settings and making them appear in reality for their lovers. There is a lot of gift giving, poetry, candlelight, special music, flowers, candy, jewelry, loving notes, dinners, massages ... some people measure the value of their relationships by the amount of sacrifices both people are making for each other -- and the most important sacrifice of all is strict monogamy. By giving up sex with all other potential partners, the perfect boyfriend shows his partner how much he values this relationship above all others. This sacrifice forms the basis of the shared fantasy/reality of mainstream coupledom.

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The fantasy is so strong, that we become deeply attached to people merely on the basis of our own hopes that this relationship will "work out" in the future. And when the relationship doesn't work out, for whatever reason, we feel extreme pain. We feel like the relationship was a failure, we feel angry, we feel sad, we blame the other person for being an asshole, we blame ourselves for our shortcomings ... we rarely blame the fantasy itself for being unrealistic.

Sexual desire is caught up in this mess, making it much more addictive, pleasureable, and painful.

Yes, romantic relationships are definitely a form of addiction. When they are taken away we go through withdrawal pangs that are often worse than those any drug could cause. We don't view them as an addiction though, or we would have treatment centers and 12-step programs for people with broken hearts. No, no. Our culture is not so kind as that ... typically we tell the survivor of a broken relationship that they need merely try again, that someday they'll find Mr. Right and enter the equivalent of heaven on earth.

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Talk to a typical couple who has lasted several years, and if they are honest, you'll typically learn that long-term relationships are "a lot of work" and require "commitment" and that the honeymoon doesn't last forever. Many will tell you that they rarely have sex after the first year, and that the pressures of work, church service, and children make it difficult to get away, relax, and focus upon each other in a romantic way. They'll tell you about the fights they have over money, sex, and chores. They'll tell you about the crushes they occasionally get on other people, and how they've dealt with those (sometimes by cheating, sometimes by cutting those people out of their lives). They'll tell you that the rewards of a long-term relationship are worth it, but they've lasted this long because they are good at putting up with each other, not because they are living out a perfect couple romantic fantasy.

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A minority of couples really do seem to live a storybook existence. Does this mean that you should dump any partner who fails to help you create such a storybook existence? That's a toughie. Maybe you only get to the storybook level if you first fight your way through. Or, maybe not. Studies have shown that the people who stay together, even though they have problems, are more often happier 5 years down the road than the people who break up. But how do you know you'll be in that happier majority? Some people are happier when they do break up!! A generic study can't tell you which group you personally will be in. I don't think anybody can predict the outcome for you.

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I sometimes think that I'm still susceptible to this relationship fantasy ... but I'm no longer consciously pursuing it. Instead, I've made a commitment to love others and myself, without consciously engaging in the pursuit of fantasy. I've made a commitment to love myself as I am, even if I'm single, and a commitment to love each person I meet as he is, even if he doesn't want to become my boyfriend.

Since I made that commitment to myself, I've been just as happy, or unhappy, depending on my mood, as I was when I had a boyfriend. However, I've also made a wider variety of friends than ever before, and I'm as close to some of my siblings as I've ever been, and I've learned more about myself than ever before ... life can be extremely rich without the pursuit of and maintenance of coupled status.


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