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


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.



When Romance Goes Wrong and Prince Charming Becomes a Frog

Why do you pursue the wrong partner? Why does Mr. Right turn into Mr. Wrong? Why do your fairy tale romances miss the happy endings?

“Proper” mates do come along. Yet they lack the allure — the moth to the flame attraction — of the person everyone but you knows will break your heart.

Often the reason can be found in a history of early rejection, most often by parents. Being a social outcast in school creates a similar hurt. Or, perhaps your first love permanently diverted Cupid’s arrow. I’ll focus on your folks, mention social marginalization as you grew, and segue to the first love who reworked your erotic steering wheel to take you over a cliff in search of his or her duplicate. In each case, the only love worth having became the one out of reach.

On the surface little connection is obvious between inadequate child rearing and a misdirected amorous future. Allow me to reveal what is below the surface.

Was your parent too distant, unreliable, or punitive? Did your guardian work too much or travel too often? Was sibling competition insurmountable?

No matter what you achieved, was a parent oblivious?

Was mom too preoccupied with her own life, too involved with friends or work? Did your guardian not guard — not protect you from abuse? Did you (and do you) keep trying to win your dad’s appreciation?

Children can transfer their search for love from an unsatisfying parent to an unsatisfying romantic partner. Some are mysteriously drawn to the person who treats them poorly. In other words, they are repeating a pattern of striving for what is just out of reach — a tendency developed with a parent who didn’t offer reliable interest and attention.

Kids without proper guidance and approval at home risk uncertainty in early social challenges at school. Lacking confidence, they are easily targeted by mean-spirited peers who resemble their parents to the extent that they seem stronger and more authoritative, as well as rejecting. A cycle of repeatedly wishing for acceptance and approval from those least likely to provide it will sometimes be established. Meanwhile, self-esteem is diminished.

Why would anyone choose to replay the futility of this pursuit? Why not select someone more available and nicer, less critical or disappointing?

Not all loves are identical. Our youthful need is not to achieve the love of any adult, but our specific mom and dad. They own our affection. We are captured by them and are drawn to them, wanting their devotion, even if a neighbor, relative, or teacher is more available and more giving.

Like geese who follow the first moving object they see within hours of hatching, the maltreated child might, over a longer period, imprint on a rejecting parent. Once grown, the offspring seeks someone temperamentally similar when he looks for romance. The unconscious “pull” offers a mirage-like second chance to win a game impossible to replay.

By this, I don’t mean the new love bears a physical resemblance to mom or dad, or even to the idealized first love of years past. Rather, he displays something similar to the distant, punitive, or inconsistent quality of the one whose love you could not win or hold.

Romance is now equated with human qualities present in a person who is not as good as he first seems. No inadequate parent is ever seen realistically from the start. A first love, too, is born on a pedestal. Once the original lover departs, only others like him feel right.

New romance is dazzling with “bad boy” Mr. Wrong. The love-thirsty desert traveler sees an overflowing well at the center of a human oasis. In time, the first refreshing sips become less frequent and satisfying. The hours available to drink from the pool are restricted. His greater focus on friends, work, alcohol or drug use — any of these parch the wayfarer’s throat and her need to be quenched by the lover’s affection.

Soon, Mr. Wrong’s criticism becomes personal, the distance increases, and you find yourself in a version of the futile, striving, reaching desperation of trying to capture the love you always wanted. Your chance of gripping the slippery ledge of a tall building is greater.

You might try to change him. Maybe you do everything you can to please him, but that never seems to be enough. Or perhaps you criticize him in turn, and now he blames you and your jealousy. Once again, you are back to being rejected and told if only you were different the relationship would work. Worst of all, having heard it from a parent, early peers, and perhaps other partners, it sounds familiar. Your insecure grasping for a hold on the slippery ledge of romance demonstrates his point.


Groucho Marx, the mid-twentieth century movie and TV star, used to say: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” His quip mimics your disinterest in the people who show a healthy desire for you. Those people, of course, don’t resemble your parents or the one who first put a stake in your heart. Their affection doesn’t appeal.

Like vanilla ice cream when you yearn for a hot fudge sundae, he doesn’t satisfy. The hotter the topping, to the point of pain, (when paired with the ice cream) achieves just the combination of danger and reward you have known with mom or dad. Indeed, the kind or faithful person seems a bore. He lacks an edge — doesn’t create the familiar challenge and internal tension you know so well from an earlier time — doesn’t fulfill the unconscious longing to capture the love of someone elusive, a man who embodies both hazard and hope.

The good and decent partner, the man who would be Mr. Right, offers no “chemistry” of this kind. Meanwhile, your internal earthquake detector is deadly still when Mr. Wrong is nearby. Disaster is not signaled. You move toward the fault line.

Like Charlie Brown in the Peanuts comic strip, you are fooled repeatedly. Charlie Brown wished to place-kick a football held by his sister Lucy. Hapless Charlie kept trying, even though, time after time, Lucy pulled the ball away and he landed on his rear end.

Perhaps you are asking, “How do I avoid becoming bewitched, bothered, and bamboozled?”

First you must recognize the pattern, the automatic plan you didn’t plan on. You must acknowledge your poor choices of people you believed wonderful, but who turned out like all the others.

Therapy can take you from there.

You will likely explore old experiences you dismissed. If you think you have “gotten over” the past, you might discover only your head has “moved on,” leaving your heart behind. It was imprinted with the image of an impossible love and vainly searches to find it.

This problem withstands purely intellectual solution. As Blaise Pascal wrote: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

Therapy involves grieving the failure to win over the unavailable parent or early romance(s). Time is required to open up to yourself and your therapist — strip away all the protective shielding over your heart that, however formidable, has not shielded you.

Treatment leads to tears and to anger. The process is never easy and never as fast as you would like.

If you stay the course, you may discover that Mr. Wrong’s spell — and all the Mr. Wrongs out there (too many ever to run short of new ones) — is broken. Their lost appeal permits you to identify those partners who might be (no guarantees here) Mr. Right.

Prince Charming may still be waiting, if only you can recognize him.

The top image is of Trapeze Artists in a Circus, an 1890 lithograph by Calvert Litho. Co. available from the Library of Congress, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second image is a caricature of Groucho Marx by Greg Williams, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final illustration is Charlie Brown trying to kick the football held by his sister Lucy.