It can be a burden when everyone thinks you’re the ‘perfect’ couple, but in reality, it’s all falling apart under the surface. We’ve explored how you can navigate things if you’re starting to feel like your relationship looks better in public than it feels in private.
Lately, whenever a company or person makes a public statement or announcement, you can almost guarantee there will be commentary and critique about it.
Take students attending a climate change rally – intent on making a difference or using it as an excuse to miss school? When a company posts about NAIDOC Week or Mardi Gras, are they jumping on all the “right” bandwagons, or really making a sincere social commitment to change practices for the better?
Performing these ways in public might have once been unquestioned and taken at face value. But in today’s world, where virtue signalling is as easy as a re-share on social media, this is no longer how society works.
It’s a similar situation in our relationships. When we post or share publicly how much we love our friend, or our partner, what’s really going on under the surface?
Relationships as performances
Declarations of love and passion in the public realm can be addictive in a society that values pairing up with someone else as an important sign of success.
Speculation on the authenticity and believability of high-profile relationships is what gets in hordes of viewers to shows like Married at First Sight, The Bachelor and Farmer Wants a Wife.
Romantic novels are also the highest sellers of all genres as we voraciously pursue the happy ending. We get so swept up at times in who seems to have achieved it – probably to garner hope for ourselves – that the disappointment when the relationships fail feels almost personal. Take for example the generations of people consumed with why Charles and Diana’s relationship didn’t work… as if it ever really stood a chance.
Indeed, many celebrities and influencers will often deliberately use their relationships as performance. Declarations of love, the narrative of how they met, the commitments made and the life dream to be pursued, are posted on their carefully curated social feeds, and avidly followed by their fans.
If the couple later (sometimes not much later…) splits, then the public declarations and the private reality have clearly been very discrepant. Did they get so caught in relationship performativity that they forgot to pay attention to the actual relationship? Did the construction of their public-facing romance become so convincing, that the public didn’t notice that the reality was far from rosy?
In many cases, the story we see on social media becomes the preferred reality, both for the couple themselves, and those around them. But that only works for so long if the work required day-to-day to keep the relationship strong isn’t happening.
Even us “ordinary” folk perform some aspects of our relationships
In our regular, non-celebrity relationships, performance is part of what we do. When we fall in love or are just starting a new relationship, we convey a certain picture of the relationship to friends and family. We focus on our partners’ positives and tell the best stories to make the relationship work.
Then, if we decide down the track to have a wedding or commitment ceremony, this is a very high investment performance in itself. Couples may spend a year or more planning a “fairy tale” event; more time than they might spend talking about the 60+ years to come.
Families and friends can be invested in the couples’ success, and couples commonly feel obliged to keep smiling and keep aspects that aren’t going so well to themselves.
Privacy can be part of that lovely cocoon of intimacy that you enjoy when you first get together. But it can also become problematic over time if it feels impossible to discuss concerns outside of the relationship with trusted advisors – people who could actually help with tips and ideas when things become challenging.
When relationships flounder, many people worry most about how others will take the news. The friends who will feel let down; the in-laws who welcomed you in and made you part of the family.
It may be that your community and social standing drops too. Together, you might have been a power couple, or joint business owners, or your profile showcased your collective efforts. This can make the reality of your situation even more stressful. The temptation to hold onto those valuable things, your public persona and common achievements, can get in the way of dealing with any cracks in the picture.
Performance isn’t sustenance
You might be starting to feel like the narrative of your relationship, and the investment in how it looks and sounds, is no longer what you live in daily life. Others might say things like “you must be so happy…” and you smile, while on the inside you’re starting to feel more and more fraudulent.
Sometimes the dissonance between the public and the private becomes so discrepant that it can feel unbearable. You might question yourself – am I reading this wrong?
This can lead couples to invest in even more performances of their happy relationship, like extravagant dates, or a great holidays posted all over social media. “Look at us, being loving and romantic!”
Friends will comment: “you look so happy” and this might keep you going for a short while. However, there could finally come a time when grand gestures are just not sustaining, or sustainable. The couple that lives on them, and constantly posts a record of them, might be missing some things that are far more important.
How to really invest in your relationship
Prioritise real communication about the two of you
If you find yourselves talking more about the next time you are going to appear in public, whether that be family gatherings or work functions, than how you are going together alone, it’s worth checking in.
Problem solve as you go
Even if you are caught up in putting on a good show, agree between yourselves to talk regularly about any issues arising, and wrestle them round to a good conclusion.
Private versus public
Agree together on what your public persona as a couple will be. Sometimes one half of the couple races off with publicly profiling it, which makes the other uncomfortable. Usually, agreeing together on what to post – and how often – can be useful. Think about when some genuine private time might be good for your relationship too. Not everything has to be on show.
Make your relationship real
Notice when others might be carried away about you as a couple, and keep yourself, and them, grounded. That doesn’t have to be regular airing of any troubles, but an overly fanciful view of your relationship could be stressful and a burden, as much as it might feel nice to be on a pedestal sometimes.
Have friends you can turn to
Even if you live your relationship in public, having some close friends, as individuals and as a couple, with whom you can be yourselves, is important. Not being able to reality check about the ordinary things couples face could really restrict your progress together.
Dr Simon Longstaff, Executive Director at The Ethics Centre, often says that the key risks to ethical decision making are hypocrisy and unreflected practice. This speaks to couple relationships as well.
If your public performance as a couple is out of alignment with your day-to-day behaviour and experiences, then you might be caught in a hypocrisy which is stressful, and which could bring the relationship undone. If you don’t stop and reflect – to catch up with yourselves – then you might miss important opportunities to learn and grow together.
Making sure our relationship values and commitments are aligned with our personal performance in the relationship will stand us in greater stead than whether we look great on social media and in the public gaze.
If you need to learn new skills to communicate better with your partner about what’s happening in your relationship, there are plenty of resources available to help you. Relationships Australia NSW offers Couples Communications group programs online throughout the year to help you learn the skills to talk through issues with your partner more effectively. Find out more about upcoming courses here. A version of this article originally appeared on Body + Soul, and has been republished here with permission.