Texas Tech University Professor Explains 'Romantic Disillusionment' In Young Adult Relationships

Researcher Sylvia Niehuis explains how young couples' romantic disillusionment and unrealistic relationship expectations can be a result of indulgent parenting.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 13, 2024

A new study published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy found a correlation between parental upbringing and individuals' self-perception, which in turn influences their experiences in romantic relationships. Moreover, it revealed that excessive parental indulgence may hinder individuals from developing a sense of autonomy, resulting in detrimental beliefs and expectations within relationships.

I recently spoke to lead author Anne Prouty of Department of Marriage and Family Therapy, Seattle Pacific University—and co-authors Sylvia Niehuis, Alan Reifman, and Emma Willis-Grossmann—of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences of Texas Tech University to discuss romantic disillusionment, its origin, and how it affects young adults’ relationships. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Can you define romantic disillusionment and explain how it presents itself in a relationship?

In our research, we define relationship disillusionment as a feeling of extreme disappointment and the perception that one's relationship has fallen far short of one's expectations—which may have been excessively idealistic in the first place.

Disillusionment captures individuals' perception that their relationship has changed for the worse and is accompanied by regret, hopelessness, and an inability to see how the relationship can be repaired.

Unlike dissatisfaction, which captures how someone perceives the relationship with their partner at a given time, disillusionment entails the perception that a change from better to worse has occurred.

What were your major findings regarding indulgent parenting, early maladaptive schemas, and romantic disillusionment?

Participants who reported experiencing more indulgent parenting when they were younger also exhibited greater maladaptive schemas in their relationships. Maladaptive schemas, in turn, were positively associated with perceiving one's romantic partner as entitled and controlling. Finally, perceiving one's partner as entitled and controlling was associated with greater relationship disillusionment.

Because our data was collected at only one point in time rather than at several points in time, we cannot confirm that participants went through the exact sequence of indulgent parenting to maladaptive schemas to perceived partner entitlement to disillusionment in that exact order.

However, the results were stronger in support of indulgent parenting being linked to disillusionment via maladaptive schemas and perceived partner entitlement than for indulgent parenting having a direct link to disillusionment.

What are some direct ways individuals can enhance their interpersonal relationships and romantic dynamics?

Our results suggest that when people develop in a family that promotes both a solid sense of self—the ability to trust in one's own thoughts and feelings—and the capacity to be in close relationships, then people are also more likely to develop realistic emotional schemas that respect, respond to, and balance the needs of everyone. Couples might look at their relationship and ask:

  • Do we agree on and practice our values and preferences around asking for our own needs and attending to each other's needs?
  • When we feel disconnected, rejected, ignored, or like our partner is asking too much, do we honor each other's perspective and work together to rebalance and reconnect?
  • As we have moved beyond the early stages of our relationship, have we continued to develop realistic expectations and learned to live with inevitable differences and changes?

What is your advice on best parenting practices and family therapy interventions for healthier relationships?

Our results reinforce that there is value in children learning to sustain relational connection while feeling disappointed and frustrated with a loved one rather than being over-indulged or shielded from uncomfortable situations.

Parents are in the very best position to discern opportune moments to guide each unique child to develop tolerance for disappointment, delay gratification, and learn accountability within the loving, attentive, and safe parent-child relationship.

Helping our children to sit with and understand the emotions that arise when the people they love disappoint them will likely benefit them in their adult relationships later in life. Parents are also the first to teach their children how to talk to each other when upset and maintain relationships.

This is how families can teach their children to honor their own experiences and the needs and experiences of others, how to expect to be cared for, and how to balance this with caring for others. Families can help their children to develop healthy, balanced emotional schemas.

What are the implications for individuals recognizing early maladaptive schemas in their romantic relationships, and how can they address them?

Realizing that we are repeatedly ending up in relationships in which we are excessively partner-directed or repeatedly feel rejected, disconnected, or disillusioned is an essential first step.

Some people find talking to friends and family helpful in getting a bigger picture. Some people find therapy or counseling a safe place to realign habits and create new ways of thinking, feeling, and responding. Some people prefer to focus on understanding themselves, whereas others would like to understand their families as a way to understand themselves better.

Any route can help people examine their expectations and needs within intimate relationships to forge more satisfying and realistic ways of being in their relationships.

If therapy or counseling is the option, look for a licensed professional and interview a few to find one that fits you. Many therapy and counseling professionals are trained to work with individuals, couples, and families.

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