Understanding Rebound Romance (and the Rest of Life)

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A heart in pain is like a falling star, fascinating until you realize it might become a meteorite about to burn and crash. Will the object splatter? Will the rock survive? Will it bounce in the wrong direction? Such is the life of romance on the rebound.

Unrequited love offers a chance to understand life’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” not only those puncturing the bubble of romance.

What causes us to make a rapid jump back into the dating pool after the ex has left the water? The easiest band-aid for rejection is to blame the former love and pick yourself up quickly, as if to say “I’ll show him!” Or perhaps solitary time frightens you, having never learned to be independent. A long stretch being without a sweetheart to lean on is unimaginable for the insecure.

Fair enough, but this is a reminder to become self-sufficient, not to substitute a fresh body. Moreover, we must learn about our part in love’s failure — one’s own fingerprints on the broken pieces of the loving cup. Was he the wrong mate, yet the type we routinely pick? What motivates our repeated errant choices? Which of our personal characteristics require change — the ones that fray a relationship’s fabric?

Just as essential is the need to grieve the loss. Without doing so, plotting a course forward has but a blind man’s chance of success. We run backward into unfamiliar arms because of the preoccupation with those that previously encircled us. Too late do we turn to look closely at the one now holding us, so great is our desperation to flee the pain of dismissal. Accidents are expected if you don’t see the Mack Truck coming your way. Might the unknown man be just a distraction? Might he remind you of the bygone boyfriend? Do you want to make the ex jealous by displaying an updated, successful, stud puppet? Or is the replacement beau a bodily application, flesh against flesh — a kind of salve — not to heal soreness but to sooth the soul?

Perhaps the fresh darling represents a flight from pain and loneliness, as drugs, alcohol, and overwork often do. The world is now too much. Deadening and distraction can take a human form in the new beloved. You feel powerless over memories and the emotions attached. These unwanted intruders inflict anguish to head and heart. The awfulness seems eternal, as if each second of woe is like a person in a line stretching over the horizon, where the queue’s length (to the point past suffering) signals a journey without end. So you interrupt the grieving you need and escape to someone untried.

Sometimes you are so foolish as to persuade yourself that you won’t permit strong emotions about the new person. I cannot tell you how many patients told me this only shortly before they were again “in love,” again with a bad match.

A rush to get past sadness — as if sorrow can be outrun — often leaves you unstrung. Your head swivels: first looking back, then looking away, finally looking without seeing.

We need to abide with the pain, learn what it can tell us.  Affliction is endurable, albeit one second at a time. Blinder yourself (if you can) against the imagined endless emptiness. After all, perpetual sadness is a possibility, not a guarantee. The catastrophized future leads to desperation, despondency, and poor decisions. Hearts heal, but only if we attend to their needs.

Just as you would not dismiss your grief after the death of a parent, so must you not race past it when love vanishes. The disappearance of affection, no matter the kind or cause, is a stern taskmaster. Pay now or pay later, but you will pay.

We need human attachment to mend the broken heart strings. Before you flee to a passionate embrace, however, are there those who would embrace you in sympathy? Friends, family, or (figuratively speaking) a therapist? They can be enough.

Life asks us weighty questions. How much of the human experience will we let in? How much of living and sensation do we wall off in order to survive? The round world has sharp edges. Walls must be built. We all do it and, to some extent, we have to. How high, how completely, and in what manner are the only relevant considerations. And what do we give up to make life manageable, prevent feeling overwhelmed?

In pondering our psychological defenses and their cost, whether we have love in our life or not, we are all summoned to the same solemn self-interrogation.

How will you answer?

The top photo, Angel with a Broken Heart (Tomba Famiglia Ribaudo) is the work of Jeff Kerwin, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Slippery Slope: How “Mr. Right Now” Becomes “Mr. Permanent”

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The brain and the heart converse, but don’t always listen. They are like the angel and the devil (or vice versa) each whispering into a different ear. This is a problem when it comes to romance — especially on the lonely rebound — especially for women.

The stereotype tells us women are less able to separate sex and love. Enter the interim boyfriend — the one you are intuitively drawn to despite his deficits: “Mr. Right Now.” Intuition, loneliness, or boredom start the process and reasons are created to justify the inclination. So instructed, the head says some version of the following:

Well, he’s not perfect, but he is a good companion for the time being. I know he does (or doesn’t do)  ____________ (fill in the blank with whatever disqualifies him from becoming a first class companion). I know he’s got some defects. I’ll keep myself in check. I’ll be in control. I’ll be safe. He’ll fill the gap until “Mr. Right” turns up. I won’t be so lonely in the meantime, because “Mr. Right Now” will be fun.

The heart is still. Unengaged. Untroubled. Quiet. Deaf. The intuition-led brain is in charge and says all the right things. The man’s deficits — perhaps overuse of alcohol or free spending or immaturity or selfishness — are noticed but not troublesome. He is, after all, temporary. The couple talk about the “no strings” nature of their interaction, their “sexpectations.” There is a promise not to get too involved. They might describe their connection as “friends with benefits,” as if words collar feelings — leash the heart against leaping.

As the old saying goes, if you want to hear laughter, tell God your plans!

Time passes. Familiarity brings comfort. Sex adds excitement and closeness.

The heart begins to flutter. That is why the heart exists. The brain had been in charge and made promises the unhearing heart did not keep. Love conquers. The head still recognizes all the defects of “Mr. Right Now” — the things that disqualified him from the lead role. He auditioned for the understudy position, the guy who fills in when Mr. Right isn’t available.

The heart is now in charge. The shortcomings of the short-term fellow no longer matter. He is the leading man. The brain, if it ever was in charge, is either silenced or ignored.

The heart has the whip hand. Reasons are manufactured to justify feelings:

Well, he’s not perfect, but who is? I’ll talk to him about the things he needs to change, what I need from him. He’ll listen. He’ll change. Besides, he has so many good qualities. He’s a wonderful person, he just needs to (pick one or more):

  1. grow up a little
  2. be honest
  3. spend less time with his friends
  4. put me ahead of his family
  5. be more (or less) concerned with money
  6. be more ambitious
  7. be more (or less) preoccupied with work
  8. become more sensitive, especially to me
  9. listen better
  10. be neater
  11. drink (or use drugs) less
  12. _________________ (Fill in the blank)

Unfortunately, before long you are a prisoner in a trap you set yourself. You recognize the impossibility of your magical plans for the lover’s transformation, but you are hip deep in love. The chains of affection are heavy and take you under. You are straightjacketed like Houdini, but don’t have his gift for escape. Too late, you realize you fooled yourself. You are sinking. You mistook the straightjacket for a life jacket.

The inoculation against the love bug failed. Your heart is now infected. The new BF (boyfriend), lover, companion, stud puppet (whatever you want to call him) is in your blood.

Like any infection, some time is needed to recover. The task is easier if no children are involved, no marriages planned, and you have the courage to look hard at reality. Sooner is better than later. “The heart is a lonely hunter”* and, once that vital organ snuggles up to someone, detachment isn’t easy.

At best, you learned some painful lessons:

  • First, all important lessons are painful.
  • Second, you aren’t as smart as you thought.
  • Third, there are worse things than loneliness.
  • Fourth, temptation is easier to avoid than resist.
  • Fifth, your reasons followed your intuition, your biology, your neediness, or all three. You wanted to go out with someone who wasn’t right. No wonder your reasons weren’t reasonable or ultimately effective in protecting you.

Most people, including more men than will admit it, make some version of the same mistake. You are human, so you make mistakes.

You might know someone about to step on the slippery slope I’ve described. You are welcome to share my post, but don’t bet big money on persuading your friend of the dangers. Spilled milk, spilled tears — without them we learn very little. “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” as Alexander Pope wrote three centuries ago. There are times when we are all fools. Get the tissues ready.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a 1940 novel by Carson McCullers, adapted into a 1968 movie of the same name and a 2005 play.

 

 

“Hurt-People” Hurt People*

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People who are in pain, can cause others to have pain.

They don’t wish to; it is not intentional.

Rather, it’s sometimes hard for them to do otherwise.

This will sound insensitive, I know, but beware of starting a new serious relationship with someone who is hurting.

Bear with me here, and perhaps you will think better of me and this advice once you read on.

Let us start with the image of a drowning man. If you swim out to save him, you are likely to find that, in his flailing, panicked, and desperate attempt to stay above water, he grabs on to you and pulls you under.

Life guards know this. Since it is their job to save the drowning, they approach them with caution. They have been well-trained to constrain the movements of the struggling swimmer so that he can be saved and his threat to the rescuer is minimized.

Moving back to dry land in our discussion, how might someone who is hurting do harm to a new best friend or lover?

For one thing, the neediness of the suffering individual can establish an unhealthy basis for the relationship from the start. In effect, the unwritten “contract” between the two parties will require that one does the helping and the other receives the comfort, with little reciprocal responsibility. This inequity risks eventual “burn out” in the caretaker and possible frustration that the damaged friend is not improving fast enough.

Some who are in the role of a “friend/helper” find that their own needs are perpetually postponed and that their efforts to provide solace will be seen as an entitlement and therefore unappreciated. Indeed, even if the altruistic partner receives gratitude early in the relationship, such appreciation often fades.

Sometimes, in fact, the connection between the two people morphs into a “hostile dependency,” where the person receiving the assistance resents the fact that he cannot function without his comrade.

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Once the injured person recovers, the helper might also discover that he is no longer needed. Healed from his injury, the formerly damaged partner now might be less interested in spending time together. Just as a bird with an injured wing will fly away when he becomes healthy, so too might your friend take off to do other things with other people. Rebound romances are notorious for this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, the caretaker group of this world is overpopulated with people who believe that they have substantial personal inadequacies: that they aren’t bright enough, handsome enough, interesting enough, confident enough, pretty enough, or successful enough to win the interest of another person who is emotionally stable and successful.

Insecure people tend to believe that no psychologically healthy human would want to go near them. They seek those damaged and hurting souls who might, they reason, find someone with limitations tolerable simply because of the quasi-therapeutic assistance he provides.

To the dismay of the self-doubting persons I’ve just described, I’m here to report that this “solution” to reducing the chance of rejection is potentially disastrous.

Choosing a partner who is damaged because you believe that he will display perpetual gratitude is a recipe for being used and disappointed. Indeed, the accumulation of rejections from those to whom one shows devotion only reduces one’s sense of self and cements the tendency to choose others who are damaged, in the belief that one cannot successfully appeal to anybody else.

Better to “get better” and become more confident, than to select a lover or a group of friends in various stages of dysfunction because you think no one else will have you. Just because someone you know is unhappy or needy, however genuine his need is, doesn’t necessarily make him a good person or someone who is right for you.

In considering whether what I’ve written has any application to your own life, you might ask yourself whether you know very many relatively well-adjusted folks and whether your relationships commonly involve large amounts of hand-holding and quasi-therapeutic devotion. If most of your close social contacts take a good deal more than they give, you just might be choosing the wrong close friends and lovers.

Are you able to predict who will be a reciprocal friend, returning to you close to as much as you give to him? Don’t assume that everyone in the world is badly damaged in psychological terms. It may simply be that everyone you know is functioning with difficulty and that you are forever putting yourself out for the wrong people, effacing your own needs.

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Yes, there will be many times in a relationship when generosity and a helping hand are healthy, considerate, and essential. Indeed, that kind of concern and responsiveness to our fellow-man is part of what is best in the human species and is valued by almost every professional therapist at a personal level.

Charity is a good thing, but surrounding yourself with friends who regularly require your charity is a different thing.

Most relationships should not demand perpetual self-sacrifice, especially at the beginning. Remember that therapists are paid for their services even if this is not the only or most important reason that they choose a helping profession.

Even counselors recognize that they cannot assist everyone and that they have emotional limitations to their capacity to provide help to others.

At night, after the work day is done, the therapist goes home (we hope) to family and friends who do not consistently suck the life out of him. Nor does he allow his patients to do this because, if he does, he will not be able to do good work or do it for very long.

Bottom line: leave therapy to the professionals.

If your social life is social work, you have a problem.

Hurt-people, hurt people.

One of the latter could be you.*

*For those who find this essay too harsh, please read the first comment below and my response to it.

The top image above is Oakie Family by Dorothea Lange.

The second image is described as Mediterranean Sea (Sept. 14, 2010): “Lt. j.g. Daniel Cooper and search and rescue (SAR) swimmer Seaman Apprentice Ryan Owens take turns rescuing an injured swimmer during SAR training aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15)… (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller/Released).” The picture was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The final image, Migrant Mother, (also by Dorothea Lange) is of Florence Thompson with some of her children. The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”

The Wikimedia website states that “in the 1930s, the FSA employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy of distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country…”

Lost and Forgotten Loves

Do you remember, perhaps wistfully, someone who has long been out of your life? The person might be a first love or a romantic interest who came along at a vulnerable moment. That individual provided something timely and touching, perhaps a feeling that you thought you would never have. Usually it was the possibility of love — the possibility of being loved and feeling loveable — something that hadn’t been experienced recently if at all; something that seemed hopelessly out of reach. And so, this person who opened the door to embracing that feeling — to a sense of being worthwhile and valuable — acquired a special value herself. She brought the “music” into your life and might continue to hold a special place in your heart.

Perhaps you felt that the lost love was too good for you — at least so you thought. The interest she had in you seemed a bit astonishing to you. And you were enormously grateful for her interest and the pleasure that she seemed to take in your company. If you were lucky, the relationship lasted long enough to change you for the better. And even though it ended with your heart breaking, you still carry inside of you a sense of gratitude and an enduring soft-spot for this person who you’ve likely not seen for many years.

There are ironies here, at least two I can think of. First, that your gratitude just might be a bit misplaced. You probably thought too little of yourself and too much of the object of your affection. Perhaps you placed her on a pedestal. You might have dismissed what you brought to the relationship: your good nature, your wit, your humor or kindness, or  your own physical attractiveness. And so, whatever affection or interest you experienced that felt to be more than you deserved, might in fact have been just what you were entitled to: you were better than you thought.

Another irony is that, as much as you might still think of this individual from time to time, it is entirely possible that she almost never thinks of you. You did not change her life, even if she changed yours. Your role was more peripheral, less important. To her, you are another relationship in a history of such contacts, not the one that made an enormous difference in her life, as she did in yours. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Yet that is the way life works.

But I think that the ultimate irony in these unequal pairings is that there is probably someone out there whose life you did alter, to whom you meant everything, and who you now hardly ever think about. In other words, the roles described at the start of this essay are reversed. And you may not even know (or remember) just how profound your impact was on that lover of the moment. For him or for her, that time together with you was much more special, decisive, and profound than it was for you.

It helps to see both sides of this. Both the over-valuing of another and the impact we make on people without really trying — just by showing up in their lives at the right moment and being ourselves. The most dramatic impact outside of a romantic relationship (and indeed one that has more influence) is surely that between a parent and a child, but bosses and friends can sometimes approach the importance of a romantic partner.

Therapists and teachers need to be mindful of this too, in their relationships with patients and students, respectively. Whether you help or you hurt another can be of enormous importance. And, if you’ve done your job especially well or especially poorly, you will probably be recalled long after the relationship has ended.

My high school friends and I take part in something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, about which a search of this blog’s archives will reveal more. One of the things we have done in addition to giving scholarships at our alma mater is to honor our old Mather High School teachers. We let them know how much they meant to us, at least those who made an important difference in our lives and are still living. Even decades later and long since they might have recalled any of our names, we remember them and their influence.

I suppose that the most appropriate metaphor for the way in which we unknowingly impact others negatively (and this can apply to teachers who were particularly poor or nasty) is one of walking down the street, being unaware and unconcerned (as we all are) of the very little creatures (bugs) that we might be treading upon. I know that this is an exaggerated comparison to the way that we are affected by others. But the point is that we are all pretty fragile, easily hurt by those who care less about us than we do about them.

Just something to be mindful of in any relationship, whichever end of it you are on. Like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples can go on for a very long time.

Be nice.

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A cropped version of the painting at the top of this page: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt