Once upon a time, my romantic expectations were sky high. Why wasn’t my partner getting me flowers, writing me songs, or buying me gifts?, I wondered. Unhappiness and resentment ensued.
At some point, I realized that I expected these things because romantic comedies had taught me that these are the actions that show love. Romantic comedy had been affecting my relationship without me even knowing it.
Expectations absorbed from media form so slowly and at such a young age that they can be completely invisible to us. Since we’ve had these expectations so long, we may have forgotten (or never known) what it felt like not to have them.
So how can we manage these expectations without giving up completely on the idea of romance? Believe it or not, research has unearthed some insights that can help us feel happier and less wronged in love.
How romantic comedies create unrealistic expectations
Romantic comedy is a genre that frequently depicts exaggerated plot lines and unrealistic outcomes, like when he fills your room with more roses than you can count, or when he chases you down at the airport to express his undying love—just in time! In romantic comedies, relationships are full of romance, intimacy, and passion—often merging the best aspects of both new relationships and longer-term bonds. We see lots of compliments, gift giving, and affection, predominantly initiated by men. But this isn’t an accurate portrayal of real, healthy relationships—which involve much messier things like acceptance, honesty, and compromise.
Although viewing these idealized versions of romantic relationships may seem innocuous, we often use information from media to teach us what is normal and how to behave. Older viewers can better discern reality from fiction, but younger viewers, who don’t have other experiences to inform their beliefs, may more easily incorporate these idealizations into their idea of what a relationship is supposed to be like. And with exposure to the same types of storylines again and again—thanks to the constant bombardment of media that now starts in childhood—we might start to think our own reality is pretty mediocre.
And that’s exactly what seems to happen: Frequent viewers of romantic media content are less likely to believe that they can change themselves or their relationship, more likely to believe that their partner should intuitively understand their needs, and more likely to believe that sex should be perfect. They also report lower relationship satisfaction.
For me, it wasn’t until I really reflected on my expectations and where they came from that I started to turn it all around. Do you think you, too, might have developed some unrealistic expectations? Here are a few tips for recalibrating them.
1. Separate what’s realistic from what’s unrealistic. First, make a long list of all your expectations for relationships—seriously, everything you can think of. Next, take a red pen to all the ones that are unrealistic. How do you know which ones those are? Well, one way is to try to imagine doing or being everything on your list. Is it possible? For example, can you always tell what other people want? Do you always say the perfect thing? Do you never make mistakes? Having high expectations is fine—but having impossible expectations is problematic. See if you can find where the line is.
2. Separate what you’ve been told “should” matter from what actually does matter, to you. Take another look at your list of expectations. For every item, ask yourself, Is this actually something that matters, to me? For example, does it really matter if your partner wears certain clothes, says certain things, or likes certain activities? Maybe you love trying new restaurants, so it really matters to you that you regularly go out to eat. No need to judge yourself—everybody is different. Just identify your truth, and cross out the rest.
When I did this exercise, I realized that I don’t actually like getting cut flowers (because they just die). I’m not really into being serenaded (because I’m shy), and I don’t like material gifts (because I prefer that money be spent on experiences). That helped me let go of a few items on my list.
3. Separate your wants from your needs. Now look at whatever items are still left on your list. Circle the items that are needs (versus wants). A need is something that fulfills you at a deep level. A need, if unmet, fundamentally affects the quality of your life. For example, maybe you don’t need your partner to buy you flowers, but you do need to feel surprised every now and then. Or maybe you don’t need your partner to guess what you want, but you need to feel heard when you say what you want. It can be hard to figure out the underlying need behind many of our expectations, so take some time here. Once you’re done, use this short list of core needs to guide what you pursue and expect from life.
Once I started disentangling my needs from the expectations that media had created for me, I slowly but surely started pulling myself out of the romantic comedy trap. By figuring out what generates happiness for me, and letting the rest go, I was able to focus on and get a lot more of what actually makes me happy in my relationship—things like seeing love in his eyes when he looks at me, getting extra hugs when I’m sad, and creating experiences that I can remember for a lifetime.
No relationship is perfect, but resisting the influence of romantic comedies enabled me to create happier moments and appreciate my marriage a lot more. It worked because happiness comes from pursuing what makes you happy, not pursuing what media or anyone else says you should.