Maladaptive Daydreaming and Relationships: Their Potential Linkage

Since yesterday was Valentine’s Day – a day that can cause quite a bit of reflection and lachrymose for many – it seems apt to take a moment to talk about the linkage between romantic relationships and maladaptive daydreaming.

There are many ways that maladaptive daydreaming can originate, but the pathway is almost always the same: you have a certain kind of daydream that is harmless and not overly time intensive, but then slowly over time it becomes more abstract, engrossing, and time intensive.

Then one day you realize that your daydreams aren’t quite normal, and it’ll be at this point that you may take a maladaptive daydreaming test and realize that your daydreams aren’t really adaptive anymore.

For many young people, their daydreams that eventually turn maladaptive revolve around idealized romantic relationships.

These romantic daydreams will often start in a relatively benign way (i.e., just daydreaming about a potential partner). This is perfectly adaptive, since it’s entirely sensical to envision oneself in a relationship and to try to work through what attributes in a partner best align with oneself. In fact, not thinking seriously about what would make someone compatible with oneself is a surefire way to end up in regrettable relationships.

But then (gradually) something begins to shift with these otherwise adaptive daydreams. Traditionally, the idealized relationships in one’s daydreams begin to become more concrete, and an individual envisions themselves almost in a relationship with another individual – not someone they know in the real world, but rather someone who is a composite of all the qualities they wish to have in a partner. Or, in other words, they start to daydream not just about having a partner but having a perfect partner.

This isn’t to say that the maladaptive daydreamer really thinks they’re in any kind of relationship. It’s not a delusion. Rather, these maladaptive daydreams about an idyllic romantic relationship operate almost as a comfort device: a way to soothe the soul by having an idealized partner that someday the individual may find in the real world.

Ultimately, there’s nothing intrinsically bad about any of this. But the issue that can arise is that those who have these kinds of maladaptive daydreams spend many hours a day engaged in them, and their romantic daydreams are so idyllic that no one in the real world could possibly live up to these daydreams (since these daydreams are of one’s own creation, and perfectly suited to what one thinks they desires).

The natural consequence of this is that these maladaptive daydreams can replace the desire for real-world romantic relationships and may preclude an individual from ever entering into one.

Another natural consequence of these maladaptive daydreams is that if a romantic relationship is entered into, there can be such high expectations – whether conscious or unconscious – that the real-world relationship never quite lives up to one’s ideal.

For those that don’t recognize what’s going on (i.e., don’t recognize they’ve been having maladaptive daydreams) this can lead them to think that their romantic partner is perhaps just not right for them. But this could be entirely without merit and purely a reflection of unrealistically high standards.

There is no getting around the fact that real-world relationships – whether romantic or otherwise – are going to be messy, and the tragedy of maladaptive daydreams is often that they’re easier and more enjoyable, in the short term, to retreat into.

However, there invariably comes a time for everyone that they recognize that their daydreams are a poor substitute for real-world relationships. But the longer that one remains trapped in their own mind, the harder it can be to get back into forming real-world relationships and dealing with the natural ebbs and flows that come along with them.

It’s my strong impression that the pandemic – with the forced distancing, metaphorically and literally – caused an acceleration of this kind of maladaptive daydreaming. Put another way, out of necessity many began developing these kinds of daydreams during the pandemic and then their daydreams enlarged themselves to the point of being maladaptive.

Something that I’ve said many times before is that one of the most interesting, along with the most pernicious, aspects of maladaptive daydreaming is that you don’t really know you’re engaging in it until you already have been for quite some time.

This leads to many unconsciously spurring relationships, withdrawing into their own minds, and getting trapped in a comfort cycle whereby they never put themselves out there for fear that what they’ll find doesn’t live up to their expectations.

There is good news though: it can be reasonably easy to snap yourself out of maladaptive daydreaming about romantic relationships just by being brutally honest with yourself.

For example, take out a piece of paper and ask yourself some of the following:

  • Have I let real-world relationships, even if they weren’t perfect, wither on the vine because I’ve been daydreaming more?
  • Have I developed an aversion to forming real-world romantic relationships because of the lofty expectations, that I know will never be met, in my daydreams?
  • Have I failed to put myself out there, and instead withdrawn into myself, because of my daydreams?

And the biggest question you should be asking yourself – the answer to which you should think about long and hard before answering – is whether looking back five or ten years from now you’ll be happy to have spent so much time maladaptive daydreaming about relationships instead of pursuing them in the real-world.

You shouldn’t be so quick to think there are right or wrong answers to any of these, and you shouldn’t unduly judge yourself (because having maladaptive daydreams revolving around romantic relationships is incredibly common).

Instead, you should deeply consider whether or not your current maladaptive daydreams (which are no doubt enjoyable and comforting, that’s why you’re engaged in them!) are in your long-term best interests.

Breaking the cycle of romantic maladaptive daydreams is often relatively straight-forward, as many find that just recognizing that their romantic daydreams are maladaptive is enough to shake them out of it (at least temporarily).

While it’s impossible to say why this is the case, my assumption would be that speaking hard truths to yourself about why you’re doing what you’re doing breaks the comforting aspect of your daydreams. Instead, you see them as what they are: an impediment to your real life and your future real-world romantic relationships.

Of course, if you’re looking for other tips and tricks on breaking maladaptive daydreams, whether they’re romantic in nature or not, there’s my little book on the subject that many have loved and found helpful.

But, in the end, the root of getting out of your maladaptive daydreams, especially if they’re romantic or idealistic in nature, is being honest with yourself and recognizing why you’re doing it and calculating what it’s costing you. The funny thing about maladaptive daydreaming is that despite all the hours one spends in their daydreams, it never occurs to anyone to think about why you’re engaged in them and what it’s costing you (this was certainly true in my case).

Wishing you all the best of this Valentine’s Day, and I hope you have many happy ones in the future.

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