The phantom image that comes between you and your partner-—your fantasy mate—is actually the cause of your pain.
One of my favorite truths about romantic relationships seems a little dark at first, but stick with me. Here it is: Your partner is not your ideal mate.
Psychologists and neuroscientists generally agree that our minds work in a curious way: Humans first create internal images, then we compare experience against those images. This is how we know what things are, and also how we judge value. The concepts of value and quality are wholly relative, and they exist exclusively in our minds.
At some point in your life—probably quite early—you began to develop an image of what your future romantic partner should look like. Perhaps the seed of it sprang from an experience with a person who was kind to you, or perhaps it was from a movie or book. Regardless, as you got older, you began to add layers and ideas over the initial image until, finally, many many imaginings later, here you are with an internal picture of your dream partner.
Usually people aren’t aware they have an internal image of what “partner” looks like. And yet they constantly compare the real people who come into their lives to that internal picture. Inevitably, the real people come up wanting. No human being can, or ever will, match up to your internal fantasy. You might find someone close, but you’ll never find an exact match. This is not only because the internal fantasy is impossibly perfect, but also because the internal image is constantly changing as your needs and desires change. It has developed over your lifetime, and it continues to develop as you age. No real person can ever anticipate your internal changes as quickly as a fantasy.
The gap between your real partner and your internal image is where pain lives.
Another point that neuroscientists tend to agree on is that the brain has a difficult time distinguishing between truth and fiction. The idea of getting punched in the face lights up the same neurons that actually getting punched in the face does, and triggers nearly all the same responses. This is why imagining a stressful situation makes you feel stressed in the moment, even if it’s not really happening.
Likewise with love. Your mind has a hard time distinguishing between your real partner and your internal ideal. On some level, your brain thinks your ideal partner is real, and that your real partner should behave like the fantasy one. We all know that’s not going to happen, but we live like it should—and that causes suffering.
How do you get around this? Here are a few ideas:
- Remind yourself that not only is your partner not your ideal mate, but you are not your partner’s ideal mate, either. After all, your partner has an internal image as well, and you are definitely coming up short!
- Understand that your internal images are not going anywhere. They’re here to stay—and so are those of your partner. So in some sense, you’re in a four-way relationship. The key is to acknowledge that you each have them, and that it’s okay.
- Have some empathy. You and your partner are both going to have moments of comparing one another to your internal ideals. If you notice your partner appears to be doing this, wait a bit and gently bring them back to the moment. Going on the offensive during these times will likely drive your partner further into comparison mode. Have you noticed how fights often revolve around what each of you thinks the other should be doing better?
- Notice that your suffering exists in the gap between the ideal and your perceived reality. The essence of suffering is resistance—we can call it fear, anxiety, or stress. At the root of all these experiences is the idea that something is not how it “should” be. It’s the “should” that causes resistance to “what is,” and that resistance is the root of your pain. When you start to recognize this gap, it opens you up to appreciating “what is.” This takes discipline but can actually be fun in a relationship. Taking a step back from your “shoulds” allows you to view your partner as she really is, and often hearkens back to feelings you had at the beginning of your relationship.
- Finally, consider that just as you experience your ideal mate as an internal image, you do the same with your actual partner. One tricky bit about the human condition is that we experience reality internally. We selectively store memories and construct our reality from images of the past. This is what’s happening right now for you in regards to your partner. You have an internal image of that person, and that’s who you’re interacting with most of the time. As as result, you have more control over your experience of that image than you give yourself credit for.
Acknowledging that we all have internal ideal partners is the first step to appreciating our partners for who they actually are—rather than constantly comparing. This takes courage to tackle openly, but it pays huge dividends.
Erik Newton is the founder of Together.