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Unlocking Relationship Potential: Understanding the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary

In the world of relationships, we often seek clear and concrete guidelines. We’re drawn to the promise of “five steps to a healthier relationship” or “three secrets to lasting love.” While such pointers have their place, the reality of human emotions and connections is frustratingly more complex.

These paradoxical signifiers in the realm of Eros are captured well by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who famously wrote: “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” Love involves offering emotional investment and affection, even when we might feel inadequate or empty ourselves, to someone who may not necessarily desire or understand what we are trying to offer them in the same way. Perhaps this is because what we are offering another is not necessarily a tangible ‘something’, but an illusion of completeness, because we ourselves are always subjects-in-process, never fully complete or fully known. Thus, love becomes an attempt to give from our own perceived inadequacy or ‘lack’, symbolizing a desire for connection and understanding, but often with unarticulated (perhaps even unarticulatable) elements that create some of the argy-bargy we refer to as coupledom.

One approach to navigating the complex whirlpool of feelings, perceptions, and imagination in relationships may be to consider them as unfolding across three distinct yet interconnected realms of existence, or ‘orders,’ as defined by the often-confounding Lacan (confounding expressions for confounding Eros?).

Have a think about your relationships (both romantic and otherwise) through the following three lenses:

The Real refers to those aspects of your relationship that resist symbolization – the raw, ineffable, and sometimes unsettling experiences that cannot be fully encapsulated by language. In a romantic relationship, this might be best captured by the scent of your partner’s skin, the warmth of their touch, as well as the inexplicable discomfort during a seemingly benign conversation, or the stubborn patterns of interaction that repeat despite your best efforts. The Real reminds us that some aspects of our relationship exists beyond our conscious control and understanding, in a realm where words fail. And even The One Who Is Supposed to Know (the relationship counsellor or therapist in this case) knows nothing about the Real of your relationship. Which is frustrating as at some level, everything you consciously think, feel or imagine about your relationship stems from this realm. One might see it as the underlying layer of our subjective reality and our perceptions of our partner within that “reality”. All the subconscious patterns of interaction that we engage in with our partners – often unbeknownst to us – are manifestations of the Real. These patterns invariably shape how we consciously perceive our relationship and how we consciously interact with our partner, and yet cannot be fully accessed. They are inaccessible to language in the way that the pain of stubbing your toe is inaccessible to language. Ouch, you say, or something more sweary. But can any of those words capture the real of that pain?

The Symbolic can be known and described. This is because the Symbolic is language itself, involving the structures, societal norms, and the vocabulary which gives meaning to our relationships. It’s the bedrock of that which defines ‘coupledom’, we might say, covering everything from the legal contract of a marriage to the unspoken rules of a casual fling. It includes our understanding of roles (e.g., husband, wife, partner), norms (e.g., monogamy or polyamory, commitment or denial), and expectations about relationship stages and events (e.g., dating, moving in together, having children).

The Imaginary, which is perhaps where we spend the most time, both in our own individual consciousness, as well as our thoughts about our relationship, encompasses our mental images, dreams, and narratives about “us”. It houses our fantasies of our ideal and non-ideal partner, our narrative of the perfect love story (for us), and our projections of future bliss. The Imaginary is thus also most closely tied to our Egoic dimension or person-ality. The Imaginary order often traps us in the realm of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’, ensnaring us in a cycle of unrealized expectations and resulting disappointments.


Simply put, they are fundamental aspects of our relationships, offering us new ways of understanding our feelings, actions, and interactions. By recognizing and examining these orders, we can hopefully deepen our understanding of ourselves and our partners, navigating our relationships with greater awareness and authenticity.

For example, when couples grapple with recurring arguments that never seem to resolve, they might be brushing against elements of the Real. Understanding this can help them accept that some parts of their relationship will always remain elusive and may not be ‘resolved’ (or even resolvable) in the conventional sense. However, there is always the option to learn to sit with these discomforts and find ways to manage recurring patterns more effectively.

In contrast, the Symbolic offers a tool for couples to understand how societal expectations and norms influence their relationship. Couples can gain insight into whether they’re following certain ‘rules’ because they genuinely align with them or because they’re conforming to societal pressure. This understanding allows couples to challenge and renegotiate the ‘terms’ of their relationship, fostering a connection that truly reflects their individual and shared values.

Finally, the Imaginary encourages couples to explore their fantasies and expectations. This exploration can reveal where they may be holding onto unrealistic images of their partner or their relationship. With this insight, couples can work towards accepting their partners as they are, and not as they ‘should’ be, cultivating a more genuine and satisfying connection.

With this in mind, perhaps you might want to sit down with your partner and have a chat about some of the exploratory questions below. Another great way of exploring this, is for each of you to journal separately each day on one or two of these questions, and then share some of this writing with your partner in the spirit of openness, curiosity, and mutual understanding. Engaging in such reflection and dialogue can (ideally) foster a deeper connection, revealing the subtle undercurrents of your relationship that often remain unspoken, yet profoundly influence your shared experiences.


The Real:

1. What are some of the raw emotions you feel in your relationship?
2. What is the undeniable reality of your relationship that is hard to put into words?
3. How do you feel physically when you are around your partner?
4. What kind of unfiltered experiences do you have with your partner that you can’t articulate?
5. What aspects of your relationship do you find most difficult to talk about or express?
6. Are there patterns of behaviour in your relationship that you find hard to understand or explain?
7. What emotions do you experience in your relationship that surprise you?
8. Do you ever feel a sense of discomfort or even trauma in your relationship that you can’t put your finger on?
9. Are there certain feelings or reactions that you can’t control when you’re with your partner?
10. What are some physical sensations you experience when you are with your partner?
11. How does the presence of your partner affect you in unspoken ways?
12. Are there aspects of your relationship that you find incomprehensible or confusing?
13. What aspects of your partner do you find unpredictable or surprising?
14. Do you ever find yourself reacting to your partner in ways you don’t fully understand?
15. How do you cope with the uncertainties and ambiguities in your relationship?
16. What unspoken tensions exist in your relationship?
17. Are there any fears or anxieties you have in the relationship that you find hard to articulate?
18. What elements of your relationship feel beyond your control?
19. Are there any unspeakable aspects in your relationship?
20. How do you experience the physical intimacy in your relationship?

The Symbolic:

1. How do societal expectations about relationships influence your relationship?
2. What role do language and communication play in your relationship?
3. What rules or norms do you follow in your relationship?
4. How do you define roles in your relationship?
5. What expectations do you have about your partner’s behavior and how do they align with societal norms?
6. How do you negotiate the balance of power and decision-making in your relationship?
7. How do your cultural or familial traditions impact your relationship?
8. How do legal or institutional aspects of being a couple affect your relationship (e.g., marriage, cohabitation)?
9. How do societal norms about gender roles affect your relationship?
10. How does the way you talk about your relationship affect your relationship?
11. What societal or cultural challenges do you face in your relationship?
12. How do you address disagreements or conflicts in your relationship?
13. What are your expectations about commitment in the relationship and how do they align with societal standards?
14. How does the label of “being in a relationship” affect your dynamic?
15. Are there societal pressures that influence your relationship?
16. How do you navigate societal expectations versus your individual desires in your relationship?
17. How does your relationship compare to societal models or examples of relationships (e.g., in media, in your social circles)?
18. How do societal rules about fidelity and monogamy play out in your relationship?
19. How do you express affection and intimacy in ways that are influenced by societal norms?
20. How does your relationship fit into or diverge from societal narratives about love and partnership?

The Imaginary:

1. What fantasies or expectations do you have about your relationship?
2. How do you perceive your partner in your mind’s eye?
3. Do you have an ideal image of your partner? If so, how does it match with the reality?
4. What expectations do you have of your partner that they are not meeting?
5. Do you have fantasies about your future together?
6. How does your partner differ from your “ideal” partner?
7. How do you imagine a perfect day with your partner?
8. Are there narratives about your relationship that you play out in your head?
9. How do your desires and dreams about your relationship affect your interactions with your partner?
10. Are there things about your partner that disappoint you because they don’t meet your expectations?
11. What were your initial expectations about your relationship, and how have they changed?
12. How do your fantasies about love and relationships influence your actual relationship?
13. What illusions do you hold about your relationship?
14. How do you idealize or romanticize your relationship?
15. What roles do you imagine for yourself and your partner in your relationship?
16. How do you visualize your relationship evolving in the future?
17. Are there films, books, or other media that influence your perceptions of your relationship?
18. How do you imagine your partner sees you?
19. How do you think your relationship should be versus how it actually is?
20. Are there any unfulfilled dreams or fantasies you have in your relationship?