Learning to love the person behind the fantasy

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loving the whole person - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento Therapist

Someone once asked me how to keep a relationship strong after you’ve gone through the “honeymoon phase” – when everything is new and exciting and the relationship is like a blank screen onto which you project a perfect future. My reply: work. In this article, I want to talk about the self work that we must do if we want to really love another person. By that, I mean the difficult and at times disappointing process of letting go of fantasies and beginning to accept the realities of being in an adult relationship.

We typically have high hopes when a new relationship begins. Like New Year’s resolutioners, we are eager to write off past mistake in hopes of doing things differently. But our big plans can turn into disappointments when we start to recognize old patterns and problems creeping into a shiny new relationship. Without meaning to, we begin to relate to our new partner in ways that remind us of previous relationships. We port old experiences onto this new person, and as the fantasy fades into reality, difficulties can begin to pile up. In any romantic relationship of significant length, we are eventually tasked with facing the reality of the other person. This can be especially difficult because initial attraction is often so heavily imbued with fantasy.

In this respect, adult romance retains important characteristics of childhood. Romance is one of the few areas of adult life that remain supercharged with emotional intensity and magical thinking. It makes sense when you think about it. Romantic relationships replicate many of the sorts of experiences we had as children with our caregivers: we are held, soothed, praised, made to feel special, prized, and occasionally reprimanded. It is easy to expect a level of perfection from our partners that children naturally expect from their parents. We are easily disappointed when a partner fails to anticipate or meet our emotional needs, and we can be flooded with positive emotion when we feel truly seen and appreciated by the person we love.

With few exceptions, romantic relationships are where we, as adults, most strongly encounter the raw idealism and dependency that characterize childhood emotional experience. This encounter can be a source of extraordinary delight. There is absolutely nothing wrong with idealizing the person we love and feeling swept away in his/her gaze like a child lost in the magic of Disneyland. But these powerful feelings can also become a source of extraordinary frustration. At some point, if our adult selves cannot temper the fantasy, it can prevent us from actually seeing – and loving – the real person in front of us.

Letting go of our fantasies about a person can be like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real. Simultaneously, the magic of Christmas is both diminished and enhanced. The nonsensical idea of a magical man who lives in a snowy realm enforcing a simplistic system of good and bad behavior is replaced with the truly heartwarming reality of caring parents who save their money to give gifts to their children out of love. The image of an omnipresent and mysterious moral enforcer is replaced with the reality of mom, dad, or another caregiver making sacrifices to provide their children with a magical experience. When we are learning to love someone, much as when we are children learning about Santa Claus, the fairy tale must at times be sacrificed in order to make room for the much more meaningful reality.

So what does this mean for people who want to make their relationships last? It means that we must work on the ability to fluidly move in and out of the magic and fantasy. If we spend too much time in the fantasy, then we are not able to appreciate the real person. Moreover, we will inevitably expect unrealistic things from our partners. Learning to really love someone is a process of disappointment and discovery. We are inevitably disappointed as the magical fantasies we generated about the other person begin to melt away. But, just like a child learning the truth about Santa Claus, these disappointments are necessary to make room for a much more meaningful reality.

Really loving someone means constantly discovering that the object of our affection is, in fact, a whole other person. Our ideas about who that person is, what s/he thinks and feels, and what s/he wants will always fall short. None of us will ever completely know the people that we love; nor will we, as individuals, ever be completely known. It is the work of a lifetime to let go of our fantasies about who we imagine our loved ones to be and to allow ourselves to experience the continual surprise, delight, and occasional frustration of who they actually are. In so doing, we lose some of that childhood magic. But we gain so much more.


If one loves, one loves the whole person as he or she is, and not as one might wish them to be.”

– Tolstoy

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