Dreaming is good.
In America, “dream big” is often the mantra of success. It’s not uncommon to hear actors, entrepreneurs, politicians, musicians, and athletes attribute their accomplishments to an undying commitment to never abandoning their dreams, no matter how bleak the path ahead may have appeared. In the words of Jim Carrey, “It is better to risk starving to death than surrender. If you give up on your dreams, what’s left?”
It is indeed inspiring to hear tales of perseverance: stories about people who held onto optimism and the hope that somehow, someday, the life they were living would match the life they could only imagine. That the wait would be over, and the finish line would make the whole journey—all the pain, the disappointment, the rejection—finally worth it.
But does dreaming big work well for your love life?
From the evolution of young girls enamored by princesses and happy endings to adult women on the endless quest for Mr. Right, dreaming big in anticipation of finding Prince Charming—also known as Dream Guy—is an endeavor that is often validated and encouraged by peers, magazines, and a plethora of movies spanning the decades. You may not remember when you first developed a personal Dream Guy, but it’s your devotion to him, and at what cost, that are important to consider when examining your relationship hopes for today.
Dream Guy tends to have a long, long list of qualities, some of which may even contradict each other, but the pursuit of him is one to never give up on, because “you never know.” Ironically, as the years go by and the flickers of hope become fewer, sometimes your investment into waiting for Dream Guy only intensifies because after all, you waited this long and you “owe it to yourself.” Whether you realize it or not, you may be looking for signs of his existence in the real men you encounter and feeling disappointed when these men fall short—very short—of Dream Guy.
There is a fine line between waiting for a healthy relationship and waiting for Dream Guy to sweep you off your feet, and many women hope their guy will meet both of those criteria. Interestingly, I often hear women talk about how the men they ended up partnered with were not the ones who swept them off their feet; they didn’t have the kind of relationship where your personality feels hijacked and you can’t eat or sleep. On the contrary, the right relationship can feel extraordinarily anticlimactic, with a calm, cruising feeling as opposed to a racing, out-of-control, out-of-body experience, saturated with excitement and unease. In other words, even if they did meet Dream Guy, he wasn’t Right Guy, and when they did meet Right Guy, he was far from the Dream Guy that they had imagined for themselves.
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Many women are not consciously aware of how Dream Guy gets in the way of their ability to develop a satisfying relationship with Right Guy. The way it plays out can be subtle and easy to miss, often manifesting as the usual explanations of “not seeing it, “so not my type,” and “I should be feeling more than this.”
That’s not to say that you can’t have a hunch that a prospective partner isn’t your speed; rather, the question is what else may be secretly motivating you, and are you willing to explore where your fantasy may be holding you back from a healthy reality.
Dream Guy is often an aggregate of everything you want in a partner. Figuring out the difference between what you want in a partner and what you need in a partner can be a transformative experience in terms of gaining better clarity about the type of relationship you should pursue. You can start by making a list of the things you want in a partner and a list of the things you need in a partner. You can also make a list of what you believe you offer in a relationship; being honest not only about what you expect but also about what you can give can be instrumental in improving your relationship success. Then take an inventory of your relationship history; include your serious relationships, your casual ones, the ones you thought were relationships until you got the memo otherwise, etc. You can also include the people you’ve been really interested in—it’s always fascinating to see patterns in crushes, too.
Once you have your information in front of you, take some time to examine the patterns, the cycles, the gap between what you’ve been looking for and the men you’ve been investing in. Look particularly at your wants vs. your needs when it comes to a partner. Sometimes the traits that make someone an intriguing date may not translate into the traits that result in an appealing relationship long term. Sure, Mr. Spontaneous who moved to twelve different countries over the last five years—for pleasure, not business—may have been a super interesting date, but as things progressed, how did he respond to the idea of settling down into a routine? (Want: excitement/spontaneity. Need: stability, predictability.) Or the guy who was gorgeous and reveled in the attention he got; sure, he was dreamy at first, but how did it translate into later arguments about his suspicious chumminess with female coworkers? (Want: extremely good-looking. Need: healthy boundaries, respect for partner’s feelings.)
Engaging in this type of reflection may not feel great during the process, but the reward at the other end is increased self-awareness and a shift into a new, more reality-based way of conceptualizing what you need in a partner. Sometimes going through this type of soul-searching can be helpful with the assistance of a therapist, as a competent therapist can help you not only identify your patterns, but support you in developing new ways of relating to yourself and others, which can feel odd after years of operating with different default settings.
Letting go of Dream Guy and the hold he may have on you can be a liberating experience, and can allow you to get to know people as regular, imperfect human beings with strengths and weaknesses just like you. Making your wants less of a priority is not giving up on yourself or your dream of finding love; on the contrary, it’s about loving and accepting yourself for who you are, honoring what you need in a relationship, and fostering an openness that can allow for a healthy, genuine, and sustainable connection to happen.
Rachel Hercman, LCSW is an individual/couple psychotherapist, writer, and lecturer specializing in relationship issues, sexual functioning, and women’s wellness. She is based in New York City and is on staff at the Medical Center for Female Sexuality.