Most of us have probably already come to terms with the fact that the Disney princess version of everlasting love – the 'happily ever after' — is a myth. Ditto the existence of soulmates: the idea that a single person on a planet of billions will, at some unspecified point in time, magically appear in our life and right all our wrongs.
However, many of us still struggle with the concept that real love — true connection and companionship — is only achieved through practical means. Romantic realism isn’t a sexy term but it isn’t a contradiction in terms either. The fact is, embracing pragmatism in your personal life is far more likely than any other method to lead to lasting satisfaction.
Romantic realism isn't a sexy term but it isn't a contradiction in terms either.
Lemarc Thomas, founder and CEO of Lemarc Thomas Matchmaking, honed his expertise as a relationship guru over almost a decade via his studies in psychology. Rather than waiting to stumble upon that elusive perfect person, his approach follows a holistic, scientific method.
"I think that people are experiencing a lot of unnecessary pain and discomfort in dating that could be alleviated by dating more consciously," he tells Refinery29.
"If you date consciously, be aware of what your fundamental, non-negotiable requirements are in a relationship. These are value, belief or goal-based factors without which there is no relationship. This is your gateway criteria. If they don’t have this, don’t go there — even if the chemistry is crazy.
"Then work out what your emotional and practical needs are and how you can get these fulfilled, so that you are aware whether a potential partner can meet you in these needs.
"What is painful and frustrating is investing emotional energy in places where you should not. Doing the practical bits first helps you see where to put your energy and what you need for connection."
Sam, 34, is hoping 2022 will be the year she steps away from what she thinks she wants and employs romantic realism to find a partner who will give her what she needs.
"Before, when I was on dating apps, I was being really descriptive about the sort of guys I wanted to meet. I wanted someone outdoorsy, with similar-looking friends to mine.
"I realised it had become a bit much when I borrowed my brother’s rucksack to make me look more outdoorsy in my profile pictures in order to attract the right person. I even had a photoshoot with my sister’s dog. I embellished my profile, but by putting more effort into the idea of what successful dating looks like, I was closing myself off."
I realised it had become a bit much when I borrowed my brother's rucksack to make me look more outdoorsy in my profile pictures in order to attract the right person.
Sam recently bumped into someone she went to school with at a Christmas drinks party. She had assumed he wasn’t her type but was surprised to discover they had mutual interests. They sought each other out on Tinder shortly afterwards and, after messaging for some weeks, have started dating.
"What I’ve learned, and what I’ll carry on doing regardless of what happens with this new guy, is that the things I was being prescriptive about aren’t as important as having a connection with someone and genuine interests in common."
Dr Becky Spelman is a psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic. She agrees with Sam’s conclusion that while couples don’t have to agree on everything, sharing similar outlooks on fundamental issues such as politics and lifestyle is crucial to maintaining a relationship in the longer term.
"No matter how much passion there is at the outset, if a couple really has nothing in common at all, once the initial excitement fades, there’s very little there to base a relationship on — and plenty of potential for arguments, disagreements and hurt feelings," she tells Refinery29.
Sam isn’t the only one adopting a philosophy of romantic realism this year. Beatrice, 28, took a break from dating for two years following a painful break-up from her girlfriend and what she describes as a "toxic experience" on the London app circuit.
"I get quite attached to people and give them a lot of attention, and I found it destructive," she tells Refinery29.
She has been trying to retrain herself to approach dating in a more practical and less reactive way. In order to do so, she’s ditched dating apps.
"I can stop and notice what is happening to me rather than being on a wheel that never ends, which is what app dating feels like to me.
"I’ve done a lot of introspective work for around a year, and I completely stopped dating for that time. Unless you stop and get off that wheel, you can’t do it.
"As well as meditation and using mantras, I like to use body scan techniques to help me recognise whether I’m anxious and it’s a good thing or not, and determine how I’m really feeling."
Paul Dolan is a professor of behavioural sciences at the London School of Economics. In his new book Happy Ever After, he uses scientific evidence to highlight the common traps many of us fall into when trying to achieve what we perceive to be 'happiness' — including in relationships. He says that it's important to take steps like Beatrice has to remove herself from constant emotional upheaval.
"We talk about dating online, and how we are now overwhelmed by choice," he tells Refinery29. "Having too many opportunities makes settling much harder, and has led to a culture by which many of us are looking for a hit of passion rather than companionship. We need to consider stepping out of that cycle to form more meaningful bonds."
Learning not just what we feel but why we feel it, he says, is key to successful dating. "When you are in a state of arousal when [your date] doesn’t contact you, does that mean you really like them, or does it just mean that not knowing what is going on is anxiety-inducing? It's important to be able to distinguish that."
Beatrice’s plan involves a number of the techniques that Thomas employs in his practice, although he adds a few words of caution for the over-pragmatic. "Being more realistic does not mean avoiding pain – if you want to be open to love, you have to be open to pain," he says.
"I had a client who decided to get practical and play the numbers game. She arranged 20-minute lunch dates to screen men but of course no one got to the second stage because there was no space for emotional connection."
And when you do meet someone you’re compatible with? There’s another harsh lesson we have to learn and accept, says Dolan. "Anyone who wants to be in a long-term relationship will have to accept that the passionate love will die."
One of the biggest problems many of us face, he explains, is being unable to recognise the difference between what he calls passionate love and companionable love.
Passionate love — that initial head-spinning, addictive period of a relationship — only lasts for one or two years. After that a stronger bond is formed: companionable love, a more comfortable way of being that allows us to get on with life without the psychological disruption that passionate love can cause.
"If you’re still feeling [passionate love] after five years, your relationship is fucked," Dolan continues.
"'Oh, the passion’s died,' we hear couples say. Well, yeah, I should bloody hope so! If you are someone who needs to keep taking that drug of passionate love, you either want to do those things inside a relationship by perhaps opening up and seeing other people, or you split up and only see people for a short time and move on."
If you’ve been in a relationship for a couple of years and accepted the death of those butterflies in your stomach, you must also come to terms with the fact that continued communication about your wants and needs is crucial if you hope to sustain the relationship.
"Ideally, I would like to see most couples attending couples' counselling, perhaps pencilling in a session once or twice a year even when there are no apparent problems in the relationship at all," Dr Spelman says.
"It is helpful to see couples' counselling as akin to getting your car serviced. Any mechanic will advise you that it is better to get your car serviced periodically than to wait for it to break down."
And if it does all go wrong? Don’t panic, Dolan says. You’re almost inevitably set to meet someone better than your partner — and sooner than you think.
"If in doubt, just get out," Dolan recommends. "Do it quickly. I don’t want to suggest that everyone breaks up but if they do, they rarely say, 'I wish I’d left that later.'
"We have a psychological immune system that helps us cope and change. The next one is almost certainly going to be better than the last one.
"Five in six relationships break up before three years. And I guarantee if yours is one of them, in six months you will be absolutely fine."