A mini-rant about idealism

This post is for the August Carnival of Aros on the topic of “Relationships.” Content warning for mentions of abusive relationships.


One of the prompts for this month asks, “What does an ideal relationship look like to you?” and I feel annoyed by the question. Maybe a reasonable response to that would be to ignore it and leave it unanswered. Perhaps I should do that. But… I am of the opinion that probing this sort of emotional response can be productive and lead to interesting directions of conversation, so I am not going to do that.

I dislike the assumption that there is such a thing as an “ideal relationship” in the first place.

I mean, I think I understand what this question is getting at, and I understand that this was probably just unintended clumsiness in the wording that perhaps could have been ironed out with some editing, but it really feels overly narrow to me. I feel like, in the context of an aromantic setting especially, asking us to think about only one kind of ideal relationship is… odd?

My ideal relationship with my mother is going to be different from my ideal relationship with my partner, which is going to be different from my ideal relationship with a friend, which is going to be different from my ideal relationship with my sister, and so on. Even within a single category—let’s say partners, since this is the closest to a conventional interpretation for this kind of question—my ideal relationship with one partner is not going to be the same as my ideal relationship with another one. People are not interchangeable. Each relationship is different. What I get out of it and where I want it to go will vary, and what’s more, it will also change over time. What I wanted ten years ago is not necessarily the same as what I want today.

All that aside, I also have another problem with this kind of question. The entire idea of dreaming up an “ideal relationship” doesn’t make sense to me. I find it entirely unproductive to dwell on ideals, because they are inherently unattainable. Real people and real relationships will never match up with an idealized fantasy scenario, because people and situations are complex, and never perfect.

That doesn’t mean that I think it’s never helpful to fantasize about what could be different. In a relatively positive relationship, when there is a problem that comes up, it can be very helpful to imagine what you would have ideally preferred to happen differently, so that you can communicate that to the other person and hopefully work on changing it (although it may not be easy). And in an abusive relationship, the ability to imagine a completely different set of behaviors—positive, nurturing, caring behaviors—can be even more crucial, because losing the ability to imagine something better can keep people trapped in these situations for a long time.

But too much idealism can be dangerous, because ideals are what manipulative people prey upon. They are good at figuring out what people idolize and making themselves appear to embody those traits. Otherwise, the manipulation usually fails.

I also feel that having one very specific, detailed, ideal fantasy relationship in mind can keep people from appreciating the relationships that they already have, and lead to feelings of resentment and frustration as people fail to live up to that ideal.

So for all those reasons, I feel that it’s inadvisable to imagine what an “ideal relationship” is in sufficient detail to be able to answer the question, “What does an ideal relationship look like to you?” I am uninterested in people’s answers to that kind of question, unless they too are questioning the entire framing of it. I would rather hear about how people’s relationships work out in practice, rather than their hypothetical unfulfilled ideals.

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