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Looking for a 'happily ever after' may be bad for your mental health

14 February

With Valentine’s Day approaching, a clinical psychologist is warning that searching for an unrealistic ‘happily ever after’ romance could affect your mental wellbeing.

The search for unattainable love is causing untold stress, according to the University of Hull, the impact of which on our immune system, heart and mental health is well documented by a number of leading experts including the American Psychological Association.

“Representations of ‘idealised’ love in popular romance films, books and music do not convey realistic relationships,” says Dr Susanne Vosmer, a clinical lecturer at The University of Hull. ”At the end of a story, the characters kiss and live ‘happily ever after’, but in real life, this is where the relationship starts.

“Romance stories fail to provide the formula for dealing with the mundane aspects of relationships, and if we’re given unrealistic expectations, we can only be disappointed. If we break the myth of romantic love, then we can start having more realistic expectations of relationships and in turn lead happier and healthier lives. Happily ever after is a work of fiction, just like most of the books it appears in.”

Dr Vosmer adds: “For young people, who are exploring love relationships for the first time in their lives, this can be a particularly unsettling and disappointing experience. In turn, it affects their self-esteem, self-confidence, as well as their psychological and mental wellbeing. There are so many cultural pressures, telling us how to ‘do love’ and what the ‘perfect’ or ‘right’ relationship should look like, that it’s time we became more honest about our feelings and accepted that it’s possible to be happy without finding that ‘perfect’ love, or indeed being happily single.”

With so many people trying to live up to unrealistic representation of love, what are possible consequences for mental health? Dr Vosmer suggests five areas:

1. The expectations of love

We do know that socially constructed notions of romantic love, and of marriage, constitute ourselves. They start in early childhood and continue throughout adolescence and adulthood. Google “romantic love” and see what comes up. We develop expectations, consciously and unconsciously, about our love relationships and attempt to realise these. When these notions are unattainable, stress is inevitable. And the impact of stress on our immune system, heart and mental health is well documented.

2. The virtual and imaginary world of desire

Online dating, flirtatious messaging and “sexting” are often used as an antidote to loneliness, lack of intimacy and the painful experience of loss. This gives us pleasure, but it seduces and lures us into the imaginary, where desires we didn’t even know we had are immediately satisfied in the virtual world.

3. The real emotions of the virtual world

It’s easy to become addicted to the virtual world because real-life love can’t compete with it. For some, a return to reality is difficult, or even impossible, as rising internet addictions and online infidelity show. This can result in various emotional (stress, hopelessness, anger, pain) and behavioural reactions (fights, revenge porn, divorce, substance abuse, binge eating or not eating).

4. Broken hearts and long-term effects

Recent research suggests that the way that social environment is accepted by our minds, means that psychiatric disorders and love sickness (broken hearts) result in sleeplessness, low mood, loss of appetite and suicidal thoughts in some people.

5. The health risks of a broken heart

The link between stress, a broken heart (love sickness), mental health (depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, insomnia) and physical health (exhaustion) is well documented.
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