How do you balance romance with realism?

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How do you balance the romance/emotional side of a relationship with being realistic and practical?

“Falling head over heels.” “Struck by the thunderbolt.” Call it what you will: one of the images we have of romantic love is of something that comes like a fit of madness, perhaps the only kind of madness that is widely idolized. And it’s not just a plot device for romantic fiction and film. It happens. Real people who are otherwise quite calm and rational fall in love and do silly, impetuous things.

Nothing wrong with that. Unless you feel compelled to bungee jump over Niagara Falls to prove your love.

The question is to what extent we expect stereotypical romantic experiences to be at the core of a long-term relationship. If the people we date aren’t as romantic as we’d like, do we automatically take that as a shortcoming or failure? If we marry, and the initial romantic giddiness fades as we wear ourselves out changing diapers and paying mortgages, does that mean the marriage is somehow in trouble?

To the extent that we think of romance and realism as ingredients in a relationship recipe, balance might be an appropriate goal. But at root, I think we’re talking about alternative stories, different sets of expectations as to how our intimate relationships are supposed to play out. “I hope to date or marry such and such a person” meets the reality of who you actually date and marry. And when you encounter a mismatch between the two — the dream and the reality — which one needs to change?

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoying or appreciating our various cultural symbols for romance: candlelit dinners, flowers, and so on. And knowing that our partners enjoy such things provides ample opportunities for thoughtfulness, for tokens and gestures of affection that say, “I know what you like, and I love to see you smile.”

Some couples can keep that up for a lifetime. Many don’t, or more importantly, learn to express their care in ways that wouldn’t be considered “romantic” per se. And each partner may have romantic expectations that wax and wane and different times throughout the relationship.

The challenge comes, in various forms, when your partner isn’t fulfilling your expectations, and you begin to see him or her as keeping you from living the dream. You want the two of you to be living the same love story, but he or she doesn’t seem to be cooperating. You feel confused, frustrated, even betrayed.

What then?

Ask yourself first if the other person is actually being unjust or abusive. If you’re not sure, talk it over honestly with a wise person who cares about you. Abuse is a bigger issue than romantic expectation, and should be dealt with accordingly.

But if a bit of honest reflection leads you to conclude that you’re frustrated because the other person isn’t, well, following the romantic script, then ask yourself this: In my frustration, am I being fair? Am I treating him/her as a person with his/her own hopes and dreams, or as someone whose purpose is to serve my hopes and dreams?

When it comes down to it, I’m not sure how we would ever achieve a “balance” between romance and realism. What we need is the ability to be honest with ourselves and with each other about our expectations, and the determination not to treat one another as means to our ideal ends.