Last updated 11 April, 2023

The instant gratification trap: consumer culture’s impact on relationships

In today’s world, we’re surrounded by a culture of instant gratification, endless options, and the pursuit of perfection. While these traits may have some benefits, today’s consumer culture can also negatively impact our relationships. Whether you’re aware of it or not, your relationships may be impacted by these unrealistic expectations. Here we provide strategies for building more resilient relationships and undoing the negative impacts of a ‘swipe left’ approach to dealing with life’s challenges.

The instant gratification trap

Thanks to technology, we live in a world where we can get almost anything we want at the touch of a button. We can easily stream a TV show on demand, have food delivered to our door in 30 minutes, and get instant updates on friends and family by scrolling through our social media feeds. While this can be convenient, it can also create a culture of instant gratification that spills over into our relationships. We expect everything to be perfect and immediate, and can struggle to work through challenges or demonstrate resilience when things don’t go as planned. People, like products, become disposable.

This ‘immediate gratification’ mindset can lead to numerous negative consequences for our mental health, relationships and overall wellbeing. Studies have shown that the ability to delay gratification has a significant impact on lifestyle choices, which can greatly improve physical and mental health.

And in follow-up research to the famous ‘Marshmallow Study’, where children were offered one marshmallow now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes before eating, results show that the children who could delay their reward grew up to exhibit a higher proportion of positive outcomes later in life. Among them, they showed a better capacity for dealing with stress, higher test scores, lower rates of obesity and substance abuse, and better social skills.

In addition, one study also showed that children were willing to delay gratification for cooperative goals better than they could with individual goals. This finding gives hope that we each have the potential for practising delayed gratification beyond our natural tendencies, especially when we understand the positive impacts it could have on our relationships.

While the urge for instant gratification is one side-effect of consumer culture that can negatively affect us and our relationships, it’s not the only one…

The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice, as coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz, refers to the idea that having too many choices can lead to anxiety, indecision, and ultimately dissatisfaction with our decisions. In a consumer-driven society, this phenomenon can be observed in various aspects of life, from choosing what to wear or eat, to deciding on a career path or finding the ‘perfect’ life partner.

With the rise of e-commerce, we now have access to an endless array of products at our fingertips. While this can be convenient, it can also be overwhelming. When faced with so many choices, we may spend hours browsing, comparing, and analysing each option, only to end up feeling unsatisfied with our purchase or regretting our decision.

In the context of relationships, the Paradox of Choice can manifest in several ways. For instance, the prevalence of dating apps and social media has made it easier to connect with potential partners, but it has also created a culture of constant comparison and FOMO (fear of missing out). This can make it difficult to commit to one person or to work through the inevitable challenges that arise in any relationship.

Additionally, when we have so many options, we may set unrealistic standards for our partners or become overly critical of their flaws. This can create a self-defeating cycle where we’re always searching for something better, rather than investing in and growing with our current partner.

The pressure to be perfect

Social media and advertising have created a culture that glorifies perfection, which can make it difficult to work through challenges in our relationships. We may struggle to cope when things aren’t going as expected, or feel pressure to constantly project an image of our ideal self to the outside world.

The pressure to be perfect can impact all kinds of relationships, including those with our parents, romantic partners, family members, friends, and work colleagues.

  • In parenting, there can be a lot of pressure to be the ‘perfect’ parent who always knows what to do and never makes mistakes. This can create unrealistic expectations and put a lot of stress on parents, leading to feelings of guilt, anxiety, and inadequacy. It can also impact the relationship between parents and their children, as children may feel like they can never live up to their parents’ high expectations.

  • In romantic relationships, the pressure to be perfect can make it difficult to work through challenges and disagreements. We may become overly critical of our partners or feel like we can’t be vulnerable and show our imperfections. This can lead to a lack of intimacy and connection.

  • In family relationships, there can be pressure to live up to the expectations of our parents or siblings. This can create tension and conflict, as we may feel like we can’t be ourselves or make choices that go against what our family expects of us.

  • In friendships, the pressure to be perfect can lead to feelings of competition and jealousy. We may compare ourselves to our friends and feel like we’re not good enough, leading to insecurity and a lack of trust.

  • In the workplace, there can be pressure to always be productive and successful, which can lead to burnout and feelings of inadequacy. This can impact our relationships with our colleagues and bosses, as we may feel like we can’t ask for help or admit when we’re struggling.

Recognising the impact of consumer culture on your relationships

To combat the negative impacts of consumer culture on your relationships, it’s important to first recognise when it’s happening. Common signs may include:

1. Difficulty committing

If you find yourself constantly looking for the ‘perfect’ partner or having a hard time committing to a long-term relationship, consumer culture may be contributing to these feelings. The idea of having endless options can make it difficult to settle down and invest in one person.

2. Comparison to others

Social media can make it easy to compare your relationships to others, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy or pressure to live up to a certain standard. You may notice frequent feelings of jealousy, resentment, or inadequacy.

3. Trouble communicating

If you find yourself struggling to express your thoughts and feelings with your partner or loved ones, this might be due to a fear of being vulnerable or appearing imperfect – both of which can be reinforced by societal pressure to project a flawless image.

4. Materialism

Finally, if you find yourself placing a high value on material possessions or experiences over your relationships, it could be a sign that consumer culture is negatively impacting your priorities. Are you genuinely enjoying the present moment or just focused on making the moment look good in pictures?

Once you’ve identified these patterns, you can take steps to address them and build deeper, more resilient relationships.

Undoing the negative impacts of consumer culture on your relationships

1. Set boundaries with social media

Limit your time on social media, and be mindful of how you use it. Try to avoid comparing your relationships to others, and focus instead on the positives in your own relationships.

2. Practice gratitude

Make a conscious effort to focus on the things you’re grateful for in your relationships. This can help shift your mindset away from perfection and towards appreciation for what you have.

3. Seek support

Whether it’s through talking to friends or having a coaching session, seeking support can help you identify and overcome patterns of thinking and behaviour that may be negatively impacting your relationships.

4. Practice mindfulness

Be present in the moment, and focus on what’s happening right now. Try to avoid getting caught up in worries about the future or regrets about the past.

5. Embrace imperfection

Recognise that no one is perfect, and that challenges and disagreements are a natural part of any relationship. Embracing imperfections, both your own and others’, can increase your willingness to work through challenges.

6. Build resilience

A coach can help you build resilience in your relationships by helping you to improve communication, practise empathy, and make compromises you are comfortable with. Nobody is perfect, but everyone is capable of self-discovery and growth. Before quickly discarding a relationship that is experiencing challenges, try working these challenges with professional support – you may find that you emerge stronger on the other side.

Get support

Consumer culture can have a powerful impact on our relationships, creating a culture of instant gratification, endless options, and pressure to be perfect. However, by recognising the negative impacts it can have on your relationships, and by taking actionable steps to build resilience, you can overcome these challenges and build stronger, more fulfilling connections.

Whether you’re struggling with communication, feeling overwhelmed by social media, or simply want to improve your relationship skills, our coaches can help.
Click here to match with a coach and start building stronger, more resilient relationships today.

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