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Fantasy Relationships: Exploring the Dangers of Excessive Sentimentality

Women are in love with love.  Particularly around Valentine’s Day and further into the spring, many women find themselves dreaming of a romance that will solve all of life’s ills and provide their heart’s desire.

It doesn’t stop with Valentine’s Day.  Women are by far the largest consumers of chick-flicks and romance novels.  The love stories depicted on the big screen and in literature are rife with plots, language, and behaviors that are all designed to stir up a fantasy of emotions.  Women find themselves longing for these idealized romances and begin to model their own behavior and relationships after these fictional scripts.

Women have a unique ability to identify and draw out the good in another person, thereby contributing to others’ personal growth.  Furthermore, desire for love is in itself natural, good, and even noble. Women court danger, however, when they fill their minds with unbridled sentimentality that ignores the truth about their relationships.

Why would sentimentality or a romanticized vision of love be such a bad thing?  Consider a necessary distinction between romantic sentiment and sentimentality. Sentimentality can easily be detached from reality, thereby threatening healthy relationships, as it is primarily a disproportionate emotional response to sexual attraction.  Emotional sentiments may spontaneously happen to a person and provide a distraction from developing authentic interpersonal interaction, which is rooted in choice, healthy decisions and habits.[1] The role of romantic sentiment, on the other hand, can be a positive one.  Romantic sentiment, if properly integrated into a relationship that also includes mutual knowledge, healthy trust and commitment levels, and true friendship grounded in virtue, comprises one of the key ingredients in authentic love and indeed can be the seed from which authentic love blossoms.[2] If left unchecked, however, sentimentality becomes divorced from reality and this departure from truth about the situation can be harmful.

Many women have had the experience where they’ve built castles in the air after only a brief or unsubstantial meeting with a man they find attractive.  Dr. Pia de Solenni, ethicist and lecturer at our most recent national conference, has stated:  ”Packaging matters.  It gives an indication of what to expect on the inside.”   Without meaning to “judge the book by its cover”, in reality, this is often what happens.  As Dr. Jason Carroll explained, men and women are hard-wired to connect.[3] In this frantic and busy world, many women are longing to be relational, but not willing to commit to the time and effort that is necessary for building a healthy relationship of authentic love.  Instead, a woman may expect love and the feelings of love to happen to her, as if she found love by stumbling into it, rather than deliberately making choices to create and nurture it.  By summarizing a few snapshots of time, brief conversations, and connecting the dots together, a woman may find herself creating a depiction of the man in question that is often skewed, one-dimensional, or even, completely disconnected from reality. She may live with these imaginations for any length of time, waiting for a date that may never come, refusing dates from other men, or at worst, becoming emotionally “married” to the idea of a relationship with the man who exists primarily in her head. While her emotions and feelings for him may be very real, unfortunately, the man with whom she believes to share a “connection” doesn’t exist.  She idealizes the idea of romance with him to the detriment of her well-being.

A healthy relationship must be rooted in reality and truth.   Relationships built on fantasy have an unstable foundation that can only spell disaster.  Moreover, it is unfair to men.  When a woman idealizes a man, she does him a disservice, because she creates premature expectations that are nearly impossible to fulfill.  Excessive consumption of romance novels and chick-flicks fuels this idolization through sentimentality.  A woman may idolize her man, and in so doing, use him for the emotional gratification she gets from her idea of romance.  In this distracted state, she only frustrates her ability to relate to him as he truly is and to begin building an authentic interpersonal friendship with him.

Emotional gratification is not unlike pornography consumption in a few key ways:  Men who view pornography similarly develop an idealized relationship with a woman that departs from reality.   Studies show that a man who views pornography bonds with that fantasy woman.[4] Pornography also triggers the release of dopamine into the brain; a hormone which influences the pleasure sensors in the brain.[5] Over time, these dopamine sensors become dull by excessive production.[6] Gradually, men require increased stimulus to achieve the same effect.[7] Men who continuously view pornography exhibit a decreased ability to develop deep interpersonal connections with the women in their lives.[8] By patterning behavior between sexes after a fantasy, they destroy the reality.[9] While, emotional gratification is not as severe as pornography usage, there are similarities and dangers that may result that are worth noting.

It is well-known that men are visual and women are emotional.  While we at the Love and Fidelity Network talk a lot about the benefits of practicing sexual integrity, both prior to marriage through abstinence and within marriage through fidelity to one’s spouse, the benefits of sexual integrity extend into the emotional realm as well.  When the practice of chastity is lived rightly, it is an ethic that spans throughout life and permeates one’s entire disposition towards others.   Living a life of sexual integrity involves self-discipline, which enables one to relate to others with respect for their entire person, not reducing them only to their sexual value.   Emotional chastity, similarly, involves self-discipline over one’s imagination.  As a man may visually “consume” pornography, objectifying the person, a woman may emotionally “consume” a man, objectifying him through idealization and using him for the emotional benefits she may receive through her desire for the perceived fantasy relationship.

While there are limited studies proving that women similarly release chemicals into their brains by fantasizing, there is an endless trail of hearts that have been disappointed by unmet expectations; expectations resulting from too much time spent idealizing.   Therefore, while we hesitate to make a statement about romance novels or chick-flicks in general, it would be helpful to use prudence and be mindful of the effect that excessive fantasy can have on interpersonal relationships.

Therefore, instead of reading into a man’s comments and manufacturing an imitation relationship based on groundless sentimentality, women would be wise to ask themselves whether those qualities which so attract them actually exist or could potentially exist in the man in whom they are interested.  By fostering healthy habits of friendship, self-discipline, and integrity, women will lay the groundwork for a healthy authentic relationship in which romantic sentiment will be a happy component, not the foundation.


[1] “Sentimentality can become part of what leads to authentic love. But if we are not careful, we can easily become enslaved to our emotions in ways that prevent us from truly being able to love other persons.” Dr. Ed Sri “Sense and Sentimentality,” Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love (2007)

[2] “Feelings can and should be incorporated into a more fully developed love” Dr. Ed Sri “Sense and Sentimentality,” Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love (2007)

[3] Dr. Jason Carroll True Love Waits, or Maybe It’s the Other Way Around

[4] Dr. Douglass Weiss “Steps to Sexual HealthThe Sexual Integrity Program, (OH, Heartbeat International, 2002): DVD I

[5] Dr. Norman Doidge “Acquiring Tastes and Loves,” The Social Costs of Pornography (Princeton, NJ, The Witherspoon Institute, 2010):33 – 35

[6] Dr. Norman Doidge “Acquiring Tastes and Loves,” The Social Costs of Pornography (Princeton, NJ, The Witherspoon Institute, 2010):34 – 36

[7] Dr. Norman Doidge “Acquiring Tastes and Loves,” The Social Costs of Pornography (Princeton, NJ, The Witherspoon Institute, 2010): 32 – 33

[8] Dr. Norman Doidge “Acquiring Tastes and Loves,” The Social Costs of Pornography (Princeton, NJ, The Witherspoon Institute, 2010):31

[9] Dr. Ana Bridges, “Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships,” The Social Costs of Pornography (Princeton, NJ, The Witherspoon Institute, 2010): 108 -109

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3 Responses to Fantasy Relationships: Exploring the Dangers of Excessive Sentimentality

  1. Lisa says:

    Ashley,

    This is fabulous! I have been speaking on this topic for over 2 years at college campuses and conferences (mostly because my husband is a FOCUS missionary… focusonline.org), but have struggled to find well-written materials on it. You are dead on! My senior seminar was on Love and Responsibility, with Dr. Sri, who you quoted, so that’s where my passion for the topic started from. I just developed a talk on this for married women a few weeks ago and posted it on our family mission blog here: http://withhopeinthedivinewill.blogspot.com/2011/03/emotionally-faithful-wife-audio-talk.html.

    I’m a mother of two, so I’m not trying to make a career out of this or get you to post it on your site, I’m just simply thrilled to read something and think “did I write that? I don’t even know this person!”

    Again, so excited to have this to pass on, thank you!

    Lisa

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