The Worst Relationship is the One You Can't Let Go of

Feb 19, 2021

"So why don't you tell him that you want to break up with him?" I asked Monica about her boyfriend, Brian. "You keep telling me over and over about this issue that just doesn't go away."

"Because he has so many wonderful qualities," she said. "There are so many things I love about him."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Well, like his sense of humor, and his charm. I still get excited whenever he is around. I am so drawn to him," she said.

"Yeah, I know." I empathized. "And then when you get together, what happens?"

"We have a great time," she said. "That is why it is so hard."

"You have a great time for how long?" I pushed.

"Well, when he is there. And then when we get together again," she said.

"And... when is that?" I asked.

"Too long..." she said, reflecting the truth that Brian would dip into her life with fly-by romance and investment and then be totally unavailable in any kind of way that would build a true relationship.

"And then what happens?" I asked further, knowing the answer.

"I told you. I call him and tell him how I am feeling ignored, and he gets mad and defensive and says that I am smothering him and being needy," she said.

"And," I reminded her, "He has the same reaction any other time you want to discuss an issue also. He gets defensive if you call him on anything."

"Yeah, I know," she nodded.

"So the reality is that all of these wonderful qualities that you will miss are just one part of him. They coexist with a lot of other qualities that make it impossible to have a relationship with him. You realize that, over and over, get depressed about it, and then know that you cannot continue that way. So you decide to end it. And then, you play a trick," I explained.

"What trick?" she asked.

"It is called the 'I will only think of the good parts of him' trick, so you don't have to do the breakup. Every time you think about breaking up, you begin to miss someone that does not exist, the Brian with only those good parts. If that were who he really was, you wouldn't be so dissatisfied.

"But the one you are missing, the one with only the wonderful qualities, doesn't exist in real life. The real Brian, the one with all of those good qualities, is the same one who continually frustrates you with his lack of commitment and other problems and qualities. He has other qualities besides the ones you like. That is the whole person, the whole picture that you must agree to like or not. But you keep focusing on only the good parts," I said. "You have selective memory when you think of breaking up with him. Then you miss someone who doesn't exist, and you think, I can't break up with him. He is so wonderful. But, the wonder is not the whole picture."

This is a well-known psychological defense that happens when people can't let go of a person or thing they are invested in. They idealize the lost or soon-to-be lost love object, instead of seeing it as a whole. They focus on the part that they like and fail to take into account the negatives that make the good parts unusable. So they are never able to let go, because they feel that all they are letting go of is something wonderful. "He is so wonderful," should really be stated as, "He is so wonderful, but he is also unfaithful and a crook. I can't live with all of that."

Businesses do this sometimes with employees and with business units. They just look at the potential or the great aspects that they love and are excited about, and they find a way to negate the reality of all the downsides, especially the costs. The closer they get to making the decision, they more the focus on the good side of the ledger, and forget the whole picture. And resistance merges as they go through lots of internal negotiations, trying to find a way to make it work so they don't lose all of what they love. They are bargaining with themselves to avoid the loss.

The truth may be that you have already negotiated those realities a thousand times and if you could have fixed it by now, it would be fixed. To get over the resistance, you have to continually keep the whole picture right in front of your eyes. Stay focused on the entirety. "Yes, he is talented or funny or exciting, and to have his talent, wit or spontaneity we have to also have an awful culture, relationship or friendship. Do I want both of those? Questions:

• As you get closer to the decision, do you find yourself focusing on the positives and already anticipating missing those aspects?
• So you forget or lose sight of all the negatives?
• So you minimize the negatives?

If this mechanism is where your resiBriance is coming from, get back into a mindset of seeing the whole picture. Focus on all of the person or business or the situation. Keep the negatives front and center; do not let them disappear, and you will retain your urgency and move more quickly. 

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