It is now possible to buy T-shirts with the words "still lonely and single – I blame Disney!" printed on the front. Of course, for Disney you could substitute "Hollywood movies", "trashy romantic novels", or anything else that encourages unrealistic fantasies of perfection. The brutal fact is that no relationship is perfect because no individual is perfect.
Naturally, expectations vary from person to person. Most people, however, have an ideal type. For one woman, the ideal man may be strong and silent, while her best friend is attracted to loveable rogues. Some are drawn to fragility and vulnerability, others to strength and self-reliance. Not only do people dream of the ideal partner, they also dream of the ideal relationship. First, they assume that it will somehow complete them, second that it will make them happy. They also tend to expect the initial excitement to last forever – to feel the same joy when their partner walks into the room 10, 20, or 30 years down the line. Never again, they assume, will they feel lonely or afraid, not now they have found 'the one'. Many even begin their relationship with the thought "ah, safe at last." Men often assume they have found a second mother, someone who will be proud of them, fuss them, praise them, and take care of life's mundane chores. Women, on the other hand, often expect a second father, someone who will treat them as a princess and indulge their every whim.
The fundamental problem is simple: your partner is a separate individual whose needs, desires, and interests will often be different to your own. People assume that their partner will know when they wish to be left alone, or when they need to talk. They may also assume that their partner will want to have children at the same time, live in the same kind of house, even go on the same kind of vacation. Then of course there is the matter of sex. If they are deeply in love and enjoying the best sex of their life, they assume that, though the quantity may decline as the years pass, the sex will remain great and they will never be tempted by anyone else.
Finally, people assume that their partner will understand them at some deep, intuitive level. Others hope this understanding will be so absolute that they will be able to submerge their frightened little ego in a stronger, greater whole. Poets throughout the ages have written of a yearning to somehow enter into or blend with their lover. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell captures this perfectly in his autobiography where he writes, "I have sought love...because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss."
There is a tendency among those bored or disillusioned by marriage to inform the young (often with some pleasure) that they have no idea what they are letting themselves in for. On Christmas Day 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he went to observe a wedding in London where "the young people were so merry with one another; and strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition." Of course, though most relationships have their bad patches, many people can and do bring one another enormous happiness. The real problem is that people simply demand too much. And they also tend to demand contradictory things. For example, a woman who marries a sexy, exciting, dangerous man may be disappointed when he proves not to be dependable, patient and loyal as well. Or a man may be frustrated because his sweet, gentle girlfriend is not an exciting, passionate lover. Almost no one will fulfil you in every way. They may be sensitive and understanding but boring company, or perhaps they will prove intellectually stimulating but fail to comfort you when you are sad or frightened. Rather than seeking perfection, you need to work out which quality or trait you prize most highly. For example, perhaps you want love, intimacy and companionship. If that is what you want most of all, you may have to compromise on looks or personality. If you begin a relationship with a popular extrovert, however, don't complain when she grows bored of staying in each evening watching DVD boxsets.
The most obvious danger for those seeking perfection is simple disappointment. And this sense of disappointment can ruin what might have been a perfectly happy and fulfilling relationship. For too many people it is all or nothing. They have an ideal fixed in their mind, both of their partner and of the life they will enjoy together. When they meet someone, they then project onto them the dreams they have harboured for so long. After a few months, the illusion is shattered and they grow bitter. Had they been realistic from the start, however, the relationship may have been a rewarding and enriching one. Unfortunately, people tend to blame their partner for this shattered dream and to feel they have been somehow cheated or tricked. Many lurch from one relationship to the next, forever allowing themselves to become trapped in the same vicious circle: they set an impossible standard, meet with inevitable disappointment, feel that their lover has cheated or failed them, become furious, begin to detach, meet someone new, convince themselves that this time it will be different, and then begin the same process over again.
Then of course there are those few individuals who seek perfection and find it. Yet even this has its dangers. As the playwright Bernard Shaw famously put it, there are two tragedies in life: first, to fail in your heart's desire and, second, to succeed. Those who believe their long search is at an end and that they have found the one person ideal for them must now cope with fear and jealousy. Imagine a woman in her late twenties. Ever since childhood she has had an ideal man in mind. Though she meets several good, loving men, none are quite right. She tries internet dating and meets one man after another, but each time she leaves the date disappointed. Then she meets someone who ticks every box. It has taken her so long to find him that she now lives in terror that he will leave. "I will never find anyone like this again," she thinks, so she texts him constantly, interrogates him when he is late, checks his phone, and flies into a rage if she sees him looking at another woman. He begins to feel suffocated and resentful and, to her shock, announces that he is leaving.
Living with another person isn't easy. Human beings are fragile, flawed, and complicated, and expecting a complete stranger to fulfil you in every way is madness. No one is going to be the perfect lover, friend, buddy, carer, parent and so on all at the same time. Quite simply, the more realistic you are the greater your chances of happiness.