The Rise of the Real-ationship

25 Nov 2011

Forget hearts and flowers, a new realistic attitude is ruling our love lives. It’s empowering, it’s effective and it doesn’t involve Bridget Jones

For years, romcom stereotypes and endless media images of paradisal celebrity unions purported to define reality for women. Think of love and images of hearts, flowers, chocolates and being swept away on mini-breaks where we’d be wined and dined without the worry that we hadn’t shaved our legs would be forefront in our minds (equally, think of singledom and it would be pyjamas, ice-cream, Celine Dion on loop and a Gillette Sensor gathering dust in a bathroom cabinet). Such brain bashing inferred that nothing less than Having It All would do, generating an exhausting and unrealistic love/lifestyle benchmark. But now we’re beginning to admit that this kind of relationship status pressure is not only damaging our happiness, but it’s utterly unnecessary. Slowly but surely we’ve had enough of the battle to desperately find Mr. Right, and to discard anyone or anything that doesn’t fit the perfection bill. We tried the fantasy and it didn’t work out – now when it comes to affairs of the heart, we’re getting real.

Last year, online UK dating giants issued the LoveGeist report which revealed a new type of dater they termed ‘The Pragmantic’. These daters had reappraised their values in response to societal and economic changes, swapping unrealistic demands for a more considered, experiential approach to love, focusing on long-term commitment and stability, rather than stereotypical views of romance. Also, in a survey this year of 3,000 women, six out of 10 said perfection was out and a reliable, domestic bloke with some humour and a good job was in.

So why has perfection dictated our relationship choices for so long? “At the age of seven, children develop an image of their perfect partner fuelled by fairy stories and Prince Charming,” explains Dr. Rina Bajaj, psychologist at UK dating agency Seventy-Thirty, (seventy-thirty. com). “As adults, our ideals can remain stuck in fantasy - a fantasy re-informed by the media telling us that we shouldn’t settle for less. Long-term happy relationships on TV and film obviously offer a skewed perception of what love is.” Add to this the ever-increasing demands women have placed on themselves in all areas of their lives these last twenty years. “We’re all striving for perfection,” Bajaj continues. “In relationships especially, but careers too. Consequently, nothing fits our expectations, which affects self-esteem and confidence and it may also lead us to believe that we’re not worthy of love, or that we’ll never find it.”

The good news is that experts say women are increasingly trading in the ideal for something that still takes work but is ultimately more deeply rewarding - even celebrities, archetypes of the unattainable. “Marriage is hard,” Michelle Obama recently declared, adding that the last thing she’d want to project was a ‘flawless union.’ Jessica Alba unequivocally stated that “marriage is about survival, not soulmates” and in fact Kristin Davis recently revealed that she didn’t even believe in soulmates saying “I hate even hearing those two terms together”. Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who’s been married since 2009, agrees that for a couple to succeed they must work at it and actress Katherine Heigl - whose bread and butter is as the romcom leading lady - agrees: “There’s always work. There’s always compromise....all the little underhanded, snarky comments, all the resentment...marriage is an ebb and flow. There will forever be rough spots to work on.” Indeed, the poster-girl for this new relationship realism has to be Cameron Diaz, who at 38 has turned her back on all the stereotypes and been honest that settling down is not top on her priority list (and have you seen how happy she always looks?!).

The rise of online networking sites is indicative of increasing pragmatism, despite arguments that they allow demanding partners to raise the bar further. “It may have begun as the hunt for perfection, but certainly it’s now the pragmatic’s way forward,” explains Bajaj. “Today we’re basing choices on real needs rather than how we are told love should happen. Women view the media now and say ‘I don’t have to do it that way.’” Companies like Bajaj’s, rather than helping narrow the perfection field, are ultimately helping women relax the demands that have made finding love so hard.

So, is romance dead?

We should add that all this doesn’t come at the cost of romance. Certainly, there are extreme realist exceptions, like women deliberately seeking out rich partners to soften the recession blow, or the civil code reform currently being addressed in Mexico that proposes issuing marriage licenses with a time limit of two years (if you want to stay together you renew it. If you don’t, you can simply separate). Lori Gottleib, author of Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough (Dhs30, amazon. com)possibly mis-delivered the message when she said, “marriage isn’t a passion-fest. It’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often boring non-profit business.” Realists don’t have to settle for okay by any means.

“Rather,” says Bajaj, “They know that there isn’t one single ‘The One’ but rather ‘The One’ is created - through teamwork and hard work. Romcom whirlwind scenarios only satisfy in the short term and longevity is based on work, investment and trust built over time.” Kate Taylor, relationship expert at adds, “ We all occasionally meet people with whom we have a greater compatibility but the pioneers of these new real-ationships know that waiting all your life for your soulmate could be a waste! John Gray, author of the Mars & Venus books, believes that your soulmate might be someone with whom you actually experience relationship difficulties that they are someone to help you develop”

This pragmatism is now also reaching into our marriages and long-term relationships. Longer working hours and money worries have demanded greater practicality in order to make love work, but where used to view cracks as indicative of our failed attempt at perfection, now they’re seen more as a collaborative chance to grow. Openness about couples counselling vastly increased over recent years - even for celebrities. Indeed, following Ashton’s recent alleged infidelities Demi was reported to have headed for counselling rather than the divorce courts straight away.

Women who were once cracking with the strain trying to juggle it all now seem to be relaxing their demands on themselves and making what romantics would unusual choices. Research from Reuters revealed pragmatic couples were successfully enjoying separate holidays in order to take a break from each other focus on themselves after relationship problems. One in five married couples in the UK and one in four in the U.S. are even taking to separate beds and there’s currently a new wave of ‘happily semidetached’ couples heralding the beginning of part-time relationships – not a married couple that is only half committed, but one that cohabits separately which in turn strengthens their bond.

Increasingly positive

The secret behind pragmatic love is focusing on long-term goals and challenging your own ideals. “The process of going through lots of dates hoping for romance to do the work leads to an increasing sense of disappointment,” warns Bajaj. “Realists however look to themselves not fantasy, their peers or potential partners for solutions. It’s a very empowering stance.” Pragmatists also try and understand how their partners might think. Says Taylor, “You may discover that his quieter, more ‘boring’ actions – like getting your car serviced so it’s safe – are in fact his practical way of making your life run more smoothly and letting you know he loves you. This isn’t about tossing out your relationship needs, however. “Still list them but don’t stop there,” explain Bajaj. “Take that list and question where those needs come from. Next, consider which would you be prepared to relax or not? Now assess those answers. Why have you set these as your rules?” She continues, “Simple self-reflection makes us more realistic. You’ll ultimately find that when you’re not relinquishing Mr. Perfect, your criteria simply changes. Women approaching love this way are more energised, positive about their ‘failures’ and likely to learn from them - which in the long run makes that fulfilling relationship much more likely,” insists Bajaj. “Coming from our own, realistic needs increases our confidence in our choices and by approaching love pragmatically, we actually raise the quality of the people we’re dating too.” Who needs Prince Charming anyway?

Love was…

  • Hearts and flowers
  • Sweet whisperings on the phone
  • Looking to your other half for fulfillment
  • Waiting for that date
  • Hating his faults
  • Growing apart when problems occur

Love is…

  • Some peanuts and a glass of red
  • A quick SMS
  • Looking to yourself for fulfilment
  • Making that date
  • Accepting that no one is perfect
  • Sorting through problems, however painful