Why the dream of romantic love is short lived
The cultural roots of the warrior/hunter man and the feminine/passive-gatherer woman run deep. The princess and the knight in shining armor are one reflection of this mentality, which is too often employed today. Girls may be indoctrinated with the idea that romance and a lasting commitment by a partner will present itself with magical, fairy tale-like qualities. This conditioning often begins very early by way of parental cues and supported in movies, books and sometimes fashion (consider toddler princess dresses, tiny tiaras and the recent remake of Cinderella). Men may be similarly drawn into believing that a “real man” must never show vulnerability and be a protective provider for his partner.
These unrealistic expectations cause many men to shy away from what they begin to perceive as a love and commitment burden. These expectations leave women adrift in disappointment when they don’t receive what they have decided men should be able to give them.
Frequently, we hear Millennials saying in effect that they “won’t settle” for less than the fairy tale in order to commit to a long-term romantic love partnership. At points in a relationship, they may think they have found it, but inevitably, reality penetrates the fantasy.
Here are five reasons why fairy tale dreams often lead to misery in marriage and romantic love.
1. Princesses and Knights Have a Dark Side. For the woman who wants to be treated like a princess, power in her romantic relationships comes by way of being prized by men and placed on a pedestal to be cared for, protected and cherished. In exchange for this security, he gets to be “The Man.” The hidden dark side of the princess/knight mentality is something researchers(link is external) term “benevolent sexism” — which means that believing women should be protected is actually used (intentionally or unintentionally) to justify gender inequality. The idea being that the princess and the knight with a protective shield is predicated on the woman being so weak that she needs male protection, which includes the man making the bigger decisions for her. This, in a way, is degrading to women, because it means even on a pedestal, she is not meant to be taken seriously or trusted with the real decisions or the heavy-lifting of life.
2. Princess Status Stunts Growth. For the woman who wants to be the princess in the fantasy, the development and preservation of an exquisitely delicate femininity has one purpose: to exist to be adored. For the man taking the role of the knight in this world, the ability to protect the princess fantasy equals his value as a romantic partner. In the real world, women who depend too much on their ability to project their femininity do so at the expense of their own personal power. Research(link is external) shows that women who are more interested in romantic goals are less interested in mathematics and science-oriented careers. This matters because women who put all of their worth into relationships and do not experience their worth in other pursuits have lower self-esteem than women who occupy a variety of roles.
3. Fairy Tale Fantasies Rarely Match Reality. Research(link is external) shows that marriages based on the fairy tale notion of women being protected and cherished for their feminine qualities lead to dismay when both members of the union can’t live up to expectations. For many couples, when men can’t deliver on this unrealistic fantasy, the woman is left feeling defeated and hopeless.
4. The Knight-in-Shining-Armor Adores Delicate Femininity, But Not Assertive Women. For women in this type of relationship, the implicit deal is that she will be passive and let her partner call the shots. Working independently on pursuing empowering pursuits or making decisions on her own will not be supported. Every consequential decision is the province of the man.
5. The Lonely Princess. Women in particular tend to pay the price when a couple adopts unrealistic expectations for their relationship. Research(link is external) shows that women who endorse fairy tale ideas about romance and marriage tend to have less relationship satisfaction and a more negative sense of psychological well-being, including depression, than women who are less compelled by fairy tale ideas of marriage.
That said, endorsing an overly-positive perception of your relationship and/or partner is related to higher relationship satisfaction and can even buffer the impact of other, negative, relationship dynamics. However, there is a difference between seeing your partner positively and expecting things from one another that you simply cannot consistently deliver. Holding one another to rigid gender roles can be suffocating over the long-term. Men and women who allow one another to be their full selves, not overly constrained by gender roles, have greater emotional intimacy as well as more fun and spontaneity in their marriages.
Be aware of the drawbacks of the static fairy tale, both for yourself and also for your partner. Talk openly together about the roles you expect one another to occupy, what you expect from a ‘man’ and see how he feels about that. Find out what he expects from a ‘woman.’ Then go back and determine if these expectations are realistic. This is an empowering process that leaves the door open for long-term personal growth and change for both partners.
For more tweet me your relationship questions @DrJillWeber(link is external), like me on Facebook(link is external) or visit drjillweber.com(link is external). Dr. Weber is a clinical psychologist in Washington, DC and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy–Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.