Where Logic Meets Love

Don't Pop the Bubble: A Poor Model of Relationships

Sunday, May 22, 2011

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Don't Pop the Bubble: A Poor Model of Relationships | Faith Permeating Life
There's something that bothers me about how many movies, TV shows, and books portray romantic relationships, and I've come up with a phrase to describe it: Bubble relationships.

The main character will go to great lengths to craft a particular image for themselves, and then when this image successfully attracts a significant other they go to even greater lengths to avoid letting the other person see any kind of flaw or stumble upon their "real self." It's as if the relationship is a fragile, free-floating soap bubble and all it will take is one tiny slip-up and *pop* -- the relationship will immediately fall apart.

My few, short-lived relationships in middle school and high school were this way. I was constantly terrified I was going to do something wrong that would make my boyfriend immediately break up with me.

One moment stands out in my mind: Freshman year of high school, I was standing around with my friends before school started and holding hands, possibly for the first time, with my new boyfriend. My purse slipped off my shoulder and landed on my wrist, weighting our hands down. My other hand was occupied for some reason, so the logical thing to do would have been to let go of his hand, pull the purse back up or set it on the ground, then resume holding hands.

But I didn't. Neither of us moved, and we stayed like that, uncomfortably, until it was time to go to class. I think we were both afraid to "break" the moment and let go for even a second.

This memory has stayed with me because I remember the feeling of that moment whenever I see these kind of bubble relationships show up in plots. I would even say that this is the model our culture holds up for how a relationship works -- pre-marriage, that is. Marriage is portrayed as the time when reality comes crashing in and you discover all of the ugliness that you were both hiding during the entire courtship.

Think about it: The standard recommended procedure for a woman to find a significant other is some version of "Get dressed up, wear makeup, go to a bar/club, flirt." You're supposed to adopt this particular persona, and then there's no clear timeline for when you get to drop this role and just do whatever comes naturally. Our culture doesn't really have a script for creating authentic relationships, something like "just be yourself, involve yourself in things that interest you, make friends, and you'll find a mate."

The fact that there are so many magazines trying to tell women how to attract men implies, by itself, that you don't have the natural instincts to be attractive. You have to follow specific directions to attract someone, and then once you've got him, you can't do anything that might disrupt this careful setup you've created. If it takes this much effort to attract a guy in the first place, then clearly any wrong move could destroy the whole thing. Pop the bubble.

This is a terrible model.

One, it puts undue stress on both people in the relationship not to screw things up. Let's face it: everyone has flaws, and that's OK. The notion that you have to be perfect, or at least be a certain way, in order to be attractive is incredibly stressful. Plus, it's hard to make a distinction between "these are my flaws I should really be working on changing" and "these are my flaws that are not harmful and are just part of me" when you're trying to keep up some kind of perfect image.

Two, it's going to take everyone a lot longer to find the right partner if no one really gets a clear picture of the person they're dating until much later.

I'm not saying everyone should be laying out everything about themselves to everyone they meet, but I don't think you can really have an honest, trusting relationship with someone if you're actively trying to hide things about yourself or living in fear that they'll break up with you if they discover your "true self."

I'm incredibly grateful for the fact that Mike and I were friends before we dated, and even grateful that I spent a good month trying to dissuade him when he was courting me. By the time we started dating, I wasn't afraid I was going to accidentally do something that would make him fall instantly out of love with me. I knew that he'd already seen me for who I was, 100%, and loved that, so I could continue to be myself and it would be OK.

Of course, we discovered annoying quirks about one another as time went on, but I knew that he loved who I was at the core, so I could direct my energy at true self-improvement (like learning to express my feelings and not bottle up anger) rather than trying to manage my image and which "parts" of me I would let him see.

What do you think? Is this phenomenon of "bubble relationships" confined to the media and high school relationships, or have you seen this happen with other people?


  1. I always thought that "friends first" was the best way to go. Don't put on airs, be yourself, and see who happens to be attracted to it. Do you really want a relationship with someone who is attracted to a persona that is not you?

  2. Hi Jessica. I really like your blog but I love this post especially. And I completely agree about the benefits of developing a friendship before a romantic relationship. Worked for us too. ;)

  3. @Macha
    That's what I never understood! Why would you want someone to be attracted to a version of you that wasn't really you? I guess it comes from a lack of self-esteem--the idea that no one would love you for your real self, which is sad.

  4. @Caiti

    I think college makes it easier to be friends first, because it seemed like we were always all hanging out together, girls and guys, on our floor. And it's hard to put up an image when guys are seeing you at all hours of the day :)

  5. I know just what you mean! I was astonished when I went to my 10th high school reunion and found that about 10% of my class was divorced already at age 28, and 3 people had been divorced twice! Each time I was talking at any length with someone who had divorced, I said in a concerned way, "Oh gosh, I'm sorry, what happened?" and every one of them looked surprised and said, "Well, it's not so bad; it just didn't work out." They seemed to think it was no different from going out and breaking up in high school; it's just that when you are a grownup, marriage is supposed to happen after a certain time going out, and breaking up is called divorce. The minute something burst their bubble, the marriage was over.

    My partner has strong feelings about make-up, "foundation garments", and other fakery. He says women should look real: Dating someone you think is beautiful, finally getting her naked, and realizing that her figure was half foam rubber is far more upsetting than just dating someone who has small breasts! :-) I think his ranting on the subject is funny, but I do see the point.

    I've never been a fan of "romance" involving buying stuff and setting up big dramatic moments. My M.O. was always to have some male friends and sometimes have sex with some of them. It's worked out very happily for me, but to many women (and a few men) it's scandalously wrong to break the rules about having the right number of dates and the right things purchased and the proper artifices established.

  6. The first time i ever had a big fight with my husband when we were going out and I wasn't scared that we were going to break up over it was when I knew this was the real thing. i don;'t like fighting and we do it rarely but we can do it and be honest and know the pother person still loves us and know they are not leaving over it. Plus, some of my husband's flaws and quirks are things that made me love him more.

  7. Exactly! They were just always around! ;)

  8. @'Becca
    That's a really interesting corollary I hadn't thought of: Even if you're terrified of doing something to make the bubble "pop," once you believe it's popped, then you would see nothing left to salvage and no reason not to just move on. Wow.

    Mike also has a big thing against makeup, which makes me glad I didn't succumb to pressure to wear it. He kind of freaked out when I said I was going to wear it for our wedding because he didn't want me to look fake. I told him it was just so I didn't look washed out in the pictures, and I did my makeup myself to make sure nobody else made me look inauthentic in any way.

    I never understood the appeal of "fake parts" or bra-stuffing either--why use something fake to attract a mate if the eventual goal is to get them in a position (no pun intended, haha) where they're going to find out it's fake?

  9. @Becca
    That's another good point, that healthy relationships can survive conflict. I think a lot of people have the mistaken notion that if you fight, it means there's something wrong with your relationship. We don't see a lot of couple fights in the media that end with talking things through and coming to a deeper understanding--it's usually used as a plot point for someone to storm out of the room or to cause a serious rift in a relationship.

  10. Great post!...I have daughters so I try to constantly impart this message to them. They constantly make fun of me for going out to the city with my husband in sweats and sneakers. I tell them that if I put on heels and a dress, I am uncomfortable the whole night and can't walk anywhere. In fact, my husband was the one that insists that I only go out in sneakers. We have a much better time because I can dance all night long in sneakers.
    Being comfortable with another makes life way more enjoyable!

  11. @Shayna Abrams
    Yup, I almost never wear heels. I don't think I mentioned it in this post, but I wore sneaker sandals under my wedding dress. It was floor-length, so it didn't matter what was on my feet, and I was completely comfortable the whole day.

    Also, as I said in this post, maybe acting/dressing a certain way won't get you *all* the guys, but once you find the one person who loves you exactly the way you are and whom you love in return, then what does it matter how many other people have ever been attracted to you?


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