The Psychological Effect That Can Sabotage Even A Great Relationship

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The theory of Mimetic Desire states that desire is fundamentally social: We want what other people want.

According to the theory, most people view themselves as autonomous, making unique decisions based on their individual needs.

However, this is not always true. Many people base their needs and desires on the desires, possessions and goals of others — relegating their own desires to secondary status.

Delving deeper into this theory, it suggests people do not really know what to desire. We look to others to determine what we should desire because we are unable to make up our minds on our own.

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What is the Mimetic Theory — and how does it affect relationships?

The Mimetic Theory of Desire was first proposed by René Girard. Reflecting on the theory, we imitate the desires of others — particularly if they are someone we admire, envy or someone that holds a “higher or more respectable position" than our own.

Mimetic desire can exist in every area of our lives, from wanting the same job, same car, same house, same riches, same admiration, and even the romantic partner of someone we envy. Unfortunately, these desires can appear organic to the people who experience them.

But often, these desires are simply mimicked because we covet what someone else has. If you only want what others have because they have it, are you being true to yourself?

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Bigger than FOMO or envy

Mimetic desire is bigger than envy, jealousy, or wanting something because someone else has it. It's about associating a high value with something because someone else values it.

Rather than placing proper value on something because you like it, you like it because someone else values it. 

For example, many of us are guilty at one time or another of yearning for the type of relationship that we think someone else has.

From the outside, the couple we envy appears to represent “relationship goals.”

In our eyes, the couple seems to have it all, love, happiness, home, family, etc., while these things we hold dear seem elusive to us. From the outside looking in, another couple's relationship can appear perfect.

However, as someone from the outside, we can’t possibly know what goes on in another couple's relationship behind closed doors. 

From the outside, a relationship can admirable and desirable, but be dysfunctional.

The relationship that we envy can be plagued with infidelity, manipulation, emotional or verbal abuse, gaslighting, physical threats or violence, or other deep conflicts.

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Be mindful of what makes you happy (not others)

Notably, just because something makes one couple happy does not mean it will make another couple happy. One couple may thrive in shared environments, while other couples may experience conflict if they have too much shared time and environment.

The envied couple may engage in “acting” when they are around others, being overly affectionate in public but cold in private.

The couple may also argue a lot, engaging in name-calling and other abuse. Sexual needs, urges, compatibility, and desirability may be an issue in the relationship.

Perhaps the couple is struggling financially and debating about the future of their relationship.

There may also be trust issues in the relationship that others are not aware of.

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Don't overlook your own needs and wants

It is best to identify what you want in a relationship and what works best for you.

Interestingly, you may find the things you thought you wanted in a relationship may not actually be what you want or need in a relationship.

Some couples may not be as happy as they seem. They may be trying to live up to the expectations of others that view their relationship as “relationship goals.”

Mimetic desire typically evolves and escalates from looking outside of our own lives and what we have, rather than looking within our own lives and what we do have.

Sometimes, reflecting on what we already have can make a difference in how we perceive and value what we have.

So, evaluate your own needs before wishing you had what someone else has. You might just find that have what you wanted right in front of you all along.

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Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford is a psychologist who has engaged in extensive work and research on familial relationships, family trauma, and dysfunctions.