And Why Are We So Sad When We Break Up With Them?
I was inspired to ask my self this question after reading the short fiction piece in this week’s New Yorker, Cat Person, by Kristen Roupenian.
In this insightful and compelling story, Ms. Roupenian explores the way a young woman “fills in the blanks” about a man she has just met. And there are a lot of blanks! This doesn’t stop our protagonist, Margot, from building a story in her mind all about this man’s history, character, and motivations.
This story illustrates one of the main answers to the question, “Why do we date the wrong person?” We date the wrong person because either:
1. We have unresolved issues from our past that influence how we think, feel and behave, and these issues then lead us into relationships that are part of this dysfunctional narrative, or, as in the case of Margo,
2. We make up favorable stories in our head before we actually know a person, and then we cling to these stories despite all evidence to the contrary.
The first of these reasons is actually quite common, and is best addressed by therapy, which can help people break free from these dysfunctional patterns and create healthy and supportive relationships. (Okay, I’m a therapist, what did you think I was going to say?)
The second reason, however, is simply something our brains are programmed to do: fill in the information we don’t yet have, in order to create a full picture of someone or something. We imagine. We build a coherent and likely story about what we presume the reality to be.
This ability of our brain to fill in the blanks is how we move forward in the world. It is an essential skill for the quotidian demands of life as a human being.
Nevertheless, when we are just beginning to get to know someone, this system can easily lead us astray.
Back in the “good old days”, before online dating, people usually dated someone from their community that they already knew. Maybe they were even friends before beginning to date. If they dated someone from out of town, this person was usually recommended by a friend or family member. Either way, we had a lot of fairly reliable personal information about someone before we began to date them.
Now with the advent of online dating (and, dare I mention, online relationships) we often date someone about whom we have very little information. This is the new norm.
In Cat Person, Margot meets Robert IRL, but in the context of a world where online dating is the norm, she doesn’t find it odd that they would go out without really knowing each other at all first. In fact, most of their brief “courtship” takes place by text.
So we meet an interesting person online, and we go out on a date when we actually know very little about them. What little we do know is typically not verified by anyone we know or trust. We just go by what we read on a profile, or what they told us themselves.
Now, our brain does exactly what it is trained to do. It fills in the blanks.
The thing is, when we fill in the blanks about someone we just met, the story we concoct is generally positive, and often wonderful. We grow to love this story. So, naturally, we are reluctant to give it up for something as mundane as, say, actual reality–which is usually somewhat less than wonderful.
We weigh the information we receive about this new person unevenly. We magnify the things we learn that match our story, and often ignore the red flags.
We get deeper and deeper into relationships that don’t match our personality or values, because all we see is our “story”. Don’t forget, our brain was trained to do this, and it does a magnificent job. Our story seems credible, and feels like just what we were looking for.
How are we able to ignore new information that contradicts the story in our head?
One common way we do this is by blaming ourselves for any behavior that doesn’t match our preconceived idea.
Margot does this repeatedly with Robert. At one point, for example, she explains away his bad attitude as being a result of her choice of outfit, even though his attitude made her “wildly uncomfortable", and she even worried briefly about her safety.
Certainly there is merit in questioning our own behavior on a date, but not at the expense of paying attention to important clues about the character of the other person.
So what happens next in our relationship?
At some point we discover the man, or woman, behind the curtain.
We think–This isn’t who we got into a relationship with! Where is the person we met online? The one who was so amazing in that profile? We get angry. We feel betrayed.
Chances are, they did the same thing with us.
Here are some ways you can avoid getting in the wrong relationship:
1. Just being aware that your brain builds a story about someone before you can possibly know the whole picture is a huge first step in being able to find someone who is a good match for you. Stay open and adjust your story as new information becomes available.
2. When you are dating someone new, it helps to talk to a friend who is not afraid to be honest with you. Have them help you watch for red flags, or give you feedback when you tell them how wonderful you think this new person is.
3. The most important thing is not to rush it. Before you make any sort of commitment, make sure you know the real person, and not just the version in your head.
Why are we so sad when we leave a bad relationship?
The realization that the person you fell in love with isn’t actually the person with whom you are in a relationship is a tough one. Often people stay together and cling to this idea that “she will go back to being the person I first met”, or “He’s just going through a stressful time right now”, or “He’s just not being himself right now, like he was at the beginning.”
This is why some people are devastated after a breakup from a bad relationship.
They are mourning the loss of their dream, though they believe they are mourning the loss of the other person.
If you are devastated after a breakup, but your friends are mystified, because they say your relationship sucked in the first place, then you probably need to be especially careful the next time you are dating. Get some feedback on your next potential partner from these very same friends, the ones who know your soft spots.
It’s wonderful to fall in love, even if it’s with an imaginary version of the object of your affection. It still feels like love, and love feels good!! Just remember that the strength of our emotions does not indicate the truth of our assessment.
That is to say, just because we are madly in love with someone, that doesn’t mean that they must be a good partner for us. Your heart and mind can conspire to fool you.
So feel free to fall madly in love, but make sure a trusted friend (or therapist!) has your back!
Have more questions? Need some more help?
If you would like some help figuring out if you are in the right relationship, or learning ways you can make your relationship better, please feel free to call me at 323-999-1537, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation. You can also go directly to my online calendar to schedule your free consultation right now. You can work on your relationship in therapy as a couple, or as an individual–just give me a ring and we can chat about exactly how therapy can help you!