The following is an excerpt from the book How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk
by John Van Epp, Ph.D.
Published by McGraw-Hill; September 2006;$22.95US/$26.95CAN; 0-07-147265-7
Copyright © 2006 John Van Epp, Ph.D.
Idealization: See No Evil
Unhealthy emotional needs lead people to develop one of three relationship patterns that attempt to interpersonally resolve what can only be fixed intrapersonally. In other words, when you do not deal directly with your issues, they often become embedded in your relationships. At that point, you may no longer recognize them as your own issues, because they have become clouded by the dynamics of the relationship. You plunge forward to fix the relationship, all the while needing really to fix yourself. Regrettably, it does not work and your relationship continues to suffer. This will repeat until you identify your own problems and make the necessary changes within yourself.
The first pattern, idealization, occurs when you avoid feeling disappointment and pain by always looking through rose-colored glasses. A perfect example of this was a young woman, Ellie, who had grown up in a home where her mother died and her father subsequently remarried. During her adolescence, her father was tragically killed. His second wife favored her own children, leaving Ellie starved for love and attention. It was not surprising that Ellie soon met and married a man whom she had known only a short time. During their brief courtship, he lavished her with praise and adoration, calling himself Prince Charming.
No doubt you know this age-old story of Ellie (her good friends knew her as Cinder Ellie, although most refer to her as Cinderella). She idealized everything! It was her way of surviving the atrocities of her family life. The beloved Disney version began with Cinderella waking up to the singing of the bluebirds and joining in with her own song, "No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true."
I do not mean to tarnish the ending of this fairy tale, but seriously, don't you wonder whether Ellie looked at her prince through the lenses of overidealism? She wore clothes made from bluebirds, rescued trapped mice and dressed them in cute clothing, and never seemed to complain, even when she had to work all day and night! Maybe she was so determined to live her dream that she overlooked certain warning signals in order to fulfill her idealistic wishes. Idealism always becomes dangerous when it blinds you to reality.
Her prince was a wealthy, royal only child who was looking for the perfect woman. Men with the prince's profile usually turn out to be controlling, narcissistic, and emotionally abusive. They often have an extreme swing from infatuation to detachment as soon as some imperfection blemishes their ideal love. Ellie's idealism ultimately was leading her into the exact same family dynamic she experienced within her family of origin.
Your unhealthy need for idealistic love can be broken only by your individual efforts to face your pain and those who afflicted you, and to deal directly with the loss of having never been shown the love you needed, wanted, and deserved. Many times such efforts require courage to feel the loss as well as to face those who hurt you. A better blend of reality with idealism and the caution to test the one you trust over time will help distinguish an illusion from a genuine dream.
Rebounds and Crash Landings
Are you too trusting, always seeing the good and jumping to positive conclusions too quickly? Do you get into a relationship and immediately become swept away by the furious waves of attention and love? Do you find yourself enamored with this prince or princess, spending every free moment with that person, constantly conversing by phone or computer, or just talking to him or her in your head? If so, then you need to step back and look at your track record. If you have a history of these dreamy love attacks that end up spiraling into nightmares, then you may be avoiding some of your past pain by projecting your ideals onto a prince or princess who is nothing more than an ordinary frog.
Tonya had just ended a five-year relationship when she had her Cinderella nightmare. It began when she was approached by Will in a local club that she frequented. Will worked there and had talked briefly with Tonya in the past, but he had never engaged in any in-depth conversation with her. That night, however, Tonya started to tell Will, who listened intently, the tale of her long and rocky relationship. After an hour or so, Tonya remarked how understanding and attentive Will was and what a contrast this experience was from what she was used to. They went out that night and continued to talk until sunrise.
This began a romantic whirlwind that, after just thirty days, led Will to ask Tonya to marry him. She responded with an enthusiastic yes, having come out of a relationship with a commitment-phobe, and they made plans to move in together and save money for the wedding. Tonya confided in me that although Will had a long history of failed relationships, he had never truly been in love and no woman had ever made him feel so good. When I asked how many skeletons were actually in his closet, she blushed and disclosed that he had been with more than a hundred women. I warned her about the ways history repeats itself, but she acted hurt that I was not happier for her.
The day he moved in with her was both his first and his last. He brought a chair that Tonya did not think fit the decor of her home. When she tried to talk with him about this, Will snapped that it was his chair. Tonya retorted that it was her home. At this point, Will realized that she thought of the house as hers and not theirs.
Nothing was unusual about this kind of an argument. In fact, you would expect it to occur under the circumstances. But as a result, Will lost all feelings for Tonya and decided to move out the same day he moved in. Tonya was crushed (although I thought she was really spared). She couldn't understand how someone could feel so strongly in love one moment and then be so ice-cold the next.
Tonya encountered the unhealthy effects of idealization. How did this happen? It began when she was reeling from the rebound effect of her previous relationship and in her pain had concluded that no good men were out there, at least, none were available. You might think that this mentality would have made Tonya apprehensive about the sincerity of a man approaching her, but instead, it only ratcheted up her hopes for a perfect love. When Will treated her in ideal ways, she projected onto him all of her dreams of true love, and like a tightly wound spring, burst forward in her dependency and commitment to a man she really didn't know.
Will also suffered from idealization. He had a chronic and long-standing narcissistic condition, much like his father did. As the youngest, though, he did not overtly display his father's temper. Instead, he was a charmer. Narcissists do not appear self-centered at the beginning of a relationship. Will, for instance, craved ideal love, and his ego was inflated when Tonya looked at him as "the perfect lover who could meet her needs better than any other." This made Will feel like a god in Tonya's life during the first stages of their relationship.
Only after some time do narcissists reveal their extreme demands, a kind of "buy now, pay later" arrangement. Once one disappointment blemishes the relationship, the narcissist can never retrieve that fantasy feeling of true love. The benevolent god becomes depraved and angry, exacting obedient love while never feeling satisfied or fulfilled. This is why Will was so amazing in the beginning of a relationship but so quick to quit whenever something went wrong. Narcissism lacks resiliency; so when the first flaw appears, love begins to die.
Copyright © 2006 John Van Epp, Ph.D.
John Van Epp, Ph.D., conducts seminars and workshops worldwide on marriage and relationships. His popular video program, How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk, is being taught by certified instructors internationally in thousands of churches, singles organizations, educational and agency settings, and throughout the military. He has been happily married for more than twenty-five years. Visit his website at www.johnvanepp.com.