Because we’ve all grown up in a relationship culture predicated on the romantic ideal, we enter relationships with the following imprints and fantasies about love, sex, and attraction:
Love should be easy.
Sex should be effortless, which means simultaneous orgasms from intercourse.
If you’re not instantly physically attracted the relationship doesn’t stand a chance.
Butterflies are a sign of true love.
The right relationship will make you feel alive and rescue you from a lifetime of pain.
From where do these fantasies originate? Hollywood and mainstream media, of course. Social media is now a primary culprit, but long before Facebook and Instagram pierced our collective consciousness we were subject to potent images and messages about how love and sex “should” feel, look, and unfold. As Reva Seth writes in First Comes Marriage (I’ve edited the quote slightly to include people of all genders):
“What is it exactly that is making us both consciously and unconsciously expect so much from our partners? Well, partly it’s the result of all of the cultural myths around what or who a partner should be. These are partly the product of the Barbie Doll and Disney princess [and prince] stories told to us from childhood. And of course Hollywood, television, and magazines aren’t helping. Instead, they bombard us with messages about what ‘real love’ should be: If it’s true love and they’re the right one, then they should, in the words of Jerry Maguire, ‘complete us’.
“Essentially, I think all of this feeds into an ultimate myth of rescue, in which our partner comes into our life and sweeps us off our feet, happily solving any outstanding problems, issues, or angst we may have. And along the way, they take us into a marvelously easy future of incredible and intuitive intimacy, where they provide us with our personal version of a life of fun, fulfillment, and romance.”
As I’m raising my boys, I’m acutely aware of the messages they’re receiving about love. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, when we hear love songs that proclaim that the partner is the singer’s sole reason for living, we discuss the message in depth. They often listen to audiobooks together and I make it a point to pause and discuss any dysfunctional messages about relationship that the author may be disseminating. Now, when they hears something that sounds like it falls into the sappy model of romantic love – like a “love at first sight” scene – they’ll look at me and say, “I know that’s not actually how love is.”
Along these lines, a few days ago my older son asked me why I don’t watch much television. I told him that I realized a long time ago in my 20s that every time I watched TV I felt empty, alone, and bad about myself afterwards. I explained that most shows exploit our culture of comparison: they hook you in and then end up making you feel like this is how life “should” be. I “should” have a group of best friends. I “should” have a boyfriend who’s my whole world everything.
In my 20s, I was so much more susceptible to these mainstream expectations than I am now, and something inside of me knew that watching television wasn’t healthy for my development of self, that the 30 minutes of escape wasn’t worth the two hours of digging myself out of an empty, anxious hole afterwards. By the time I reached my 30s, watching TV lost most of its allure, especially as I realized that spending time in the evenings journaling, writing, reading, taking a bath, or talking on the phone to one of my friends was so much more fulfilling.
And now, as I round up to 50, the allure has died completely.
He asked because many of the teens we know watch Stranger Things, and my husband thought it might be fun for our son to watch the show so he could share a common point of reference. As my son and I talked, he could sense my hesitation, and he wanted to know why I was concerned.
“Is it the horror elements?” he asked.
“No. I think you’d be fine with that stuff now.”
“Is it the story?” he asked.
“No,” I responded. “I think you would enjoy the story.”
“Then what it is it?” he asked.
I didn’t quite know. I paused and thought about it, and then the words erupted from my soul and tumbled out of my mouth.
“You know what I think it is? It’s that once you start watching television, you’re bombarded with a fixed idea about how life ‘should’ be, and it activates a place of comparison if your life is different in any way. Right now, you don’t compare yourself to anyone or anything. You know what you like, you know what you’re interested in, you know how you want to spend your time. Once you start watching television, a mindset of comparison starts to seep in. It might be subtle at first. You might not even notice it’s happening. But gradually you might wake up one day and notice a niggling emptiness inside of you. You might feel bad about yourself and you don’t know why. You might think, ‘I should have more friends’ or ‘My body should look like that’ or ‘I should be wearing different clothes.’ I can’t say for sure about Stranger Things because I’ve never seen it, but if it’s like most of the television shows I’ve watched, it’s likely that it will subtly and unconsciously activate a sense of ‘not enough.’
“Also, television depicts a technicolor reality. It shows a condensed version of life – two months squished into a forty-seven minute episode – and just that alone can create a distorted version of how we think life should be. Real life isn’t anything like television life. And I prefer real life. I prefer knowing who I am without comparing myself to this distorted and Hollywood-ized reality.”
He took in what I said. Knowing how much we all struggle with dismantling the unrealistic expectations and fantasies that we’ve been fed about love and attraction, I would like to protect my sons as along as I can from being exposed in the first place. I could see that he was taking in what I said. He also took in my husband’s opinion, which differs from mine. At fifteen, he’s old enough to make his own decisions about what he watches (for the most part), and it will be interesting to see what he decides.
The fact is that at least ninety percent of what you ingest through mainstream media – social, YouTube, magazine, Netflix, etc – is steeped in a mindset designed to activate the part of you that feels inadequate in some way. We live in a “never enough” culture – not beautiful, rich, social, smart, well-dressed, successful enough – and when you expose yourself to the media it’s very difficult for this part not to be activated. .
This is true in all areas of our life, but most especially around love and attraction. If you want to rewire the media-induced fantasies and develop a healthier mindset about your relationship – facilitating the process of rewiring the habit of comparison that places not only yourself but also your partner and your relationship under a microscope – I invite you to take a media fast. And I don’t only mean social media; I mean all media, from television to films to magazines. Change requires action, and there are few more powerful actions when it comes to love than safeguarding your psyche by filtering the images and messages that enter your psyche. If you take this fast, let me know how it goes!