When she first arrived to compete on the “reality show” The Bachelor, JoJo Fletcher was wearing a clingy red dress—and a unicorn head. That’s what you’d wear for a first date, right? No?
We’re bombarded with these warped, sped-up and unrealistic images of dating and romance daily—the average American tunes in to 2.6 hours of television per day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s hard not to peer over at your spouse and think, “How come you never whisk me to Tahiti in a helicopter? Where’s my Neil Lane bling, buddy?” Later, Jon Snow is trotting by on Game of Thrones, and upstairs, you have a juicy romance tale waiting on the Kindle. Now it becomes all too easy to wish our sweetie was a handsome, dashing ... someone else. Yet comparing our relationship to the idealized versions in the media can erode the very fabric of our partnership.
“No one wants to tune to watch me load the dishwasher, so on TV you tend to have either unrealistic romance, like on The Bachelor, or police procedurals, where every relationship is an impossible, tortured thing,” says Jeremy Osborn, Ph.D., an associate professor of Communication at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich., who has studied the subject of television’s effect on relationships. “You start to think one of two things: My relationship is doomed to failure, or, it’s never going to measure up. Either way, neither of those is about being present. You’re not paying attention to what is in front of you.”
Well, what about losing yourself in a steamy romance tale, instead of flipping on the TV? “A healthy dose of imagination, idealism, nonrealism and sheer fluff is absolutely fine; I’m a fan,” says Susan Quilliam, a Cambridge, England-based psychologist who specializes in relationship and intimacy issues. Quilliam is the author of 22 books, including How to Choose a Partner, and an update of the classic The Joy of Sex. “But it’s undeniable that if we yearn for what any brand of the media offers—and often it offers myths, half-truths, non-realistic scenarios or harmful ideas that are presented as ‘the norm’—we need to be careful not to be influenced to our detriment.”
The harm, says Osborn, is that “it messes up your expectations. I might start to expect more than is reasonable, which has a negative effect on my satisfaction on that relationship.” Watching too much TV, especially shows with lots of attractive people, Osborn has found, leads people to believe that there are more partners available than there really are. People start to think they can just jump ship. “Now I’m not communicating with you the same way; at the first sign of trouble, I’m not going to bother working out conflicts with you,” he says. Real relationships take work.
Quilliam also cautions that if what we fantasize about is more compelling than our in-the-flesh relationships, over time, we are less able to respond to our real-life partner.
So what to do? If you’re enjoying media, try to do so together, rather than staring at your phones, texting, and only being half present in the room. (Don’t get me started on meal times.) Consider limiting screen time for the adults in the house, the same way you might do with your children. And lastly, suggests Osborn, “Have self awareness. Know what your expectations are for your partner, and think about where they come from. Truly look at what we expect from our spouses and ourselves, and consider, ‘What’s my role in making things work?’”