In this series, we’ll dig into the stressful of complicated, ambiguous and shady relationship statuses – and what they actually mean.
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In a perfect world – the kind of world we want to live in – relationships aren’t like the ones available today, where the word “commitment” is an anathema. Or where true love can dissolve over a single text message (or one not sent). Or where the label, “it’s complicated”, deceives a generation of hopelessly devoted romantics into thinking an ill-fated relationship will last.
A long time ago, but not that long ago where I’m able to completely move past it, I was involved in one of these complicated situations with a man who I was head over heels infatuated with. We never discussed relationship statues, except to confirm that neither one of us was interested in seeing anyone else. I hung out with his friends, who confided in me that they had never before witnessed him so happy or in love. My friends said the same. And then… all of a sudden, just a few months into our burgeoning coupling, he abruptly ended things by telling me that he didn’t think it was going to work out between us after all. There was no explanation, no warning signs (that I was aware of), nothing at all – except the terrible shock of being blindsided, except Sandra Bullock was not there to pick up my broken pieces.
What muddled this conversation was a series of polite breakup aphorisms, which at the time I construed as mixed messages. “I really want us to continue to hang out … I still care about you so much…. I can’t bear for us not to be in each others’ lives… I promise I’m not interested in anyone else…” In each of these textbook, “let’s be friends” declarations, which in reality conveyed nothing other the fact that he had memorized the scripts of awful romantic comedies, my brain heard, “I still love you… I’m crazy about you…I’m stupid and you’re wonderful, and I’m too stupid to know it right now, but I will soon… There’s no one else for me, except you.”
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By comforting myself with these flattering, yet false sentiments, I could justify our eventual post-breakup hook-ups – the majority of which were instigated by me. While our lips were locked, I could reassure myself, “See, he does want to be with me, after all…” And afterwards, I would simply ignore the hurt I felt when he left without making plans to see me again. To both myself and my friends, I would explain that our relationship was complicated, that we were on a break, that we were taking things slowly, even though none of these things were true. Why was it so easy to deceive myself and others?
I’ve talked about cognitive dissonance before as justification for ghosting behavior. But only recently did I realize that it applied to many other relationship behaviors. First coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, cognitive dissonance occurs when different cognitions (thoughts, ideas or beliefs) come into conflict with one another. Because are brains are not wired to handle conflict, we try to find unique ways to mitigate or resolve any dissonance.
One of the most popular examples of cognitive dissonance is experienced by smokers. On one hand, smokers love to smoke. It feels good; they look cool; it gives them an excuse to leave work throughout the day. On the other hand, they know that it can cause all types of scary cancer and a host of other health risks. So how do they resolve these conflicting beliefs? One way they might do it is by calling all these medical studies and health advice #fakenews. Another way might be to point out that at least they’re not doing heroin or something way worse. And of course, there are those rare few who will actually quit smoking, too.
(Watch the video below for an excellent primer on cognitive dissonance.)
My own cognitive dissonance was apparent in how I was treating this breakup, even though I couldn’t recognize it at the time. (This will always be the challenge of psychology – understanding yourself and your ridiculous behavior after it’s too late).
We had broken up (cognition #1), but my mind was fixated on still being in this relationship (cognition #2). I couldn’t accept it was over – especially without a clear and tangible reason why. So in order to resolve my own dissonance, I told myself that we were in a relationship gray area and that we would eventually get back together. Our post-breakup rendezvous continued for a while, but always ended the same way: me feeling disappointed. He had not changed his mind about me. He did not tell me he wanted us to get back together. Instead, he casually said to me on what would be our last night together, “Maybe we shouldn’t see each other again until one of us is married.”
It was at that moment that I finally snapped out of my cognitive dissonance and could come to terms with the extent of my denial. We were not ambiguous. Nothing was complicated. We did not have a future.
Recently, a friend of mine found herself in a similar situation. A guy she had been dating suddenly told her that while he “loved her as a friend”, he didn’t see a romantic future with her. Later, in a moment of weakness, she reached out to him and they ended up spending the night together. The next morning, nothing had changed but she called me to tell me that she had decided to wait for him to come around. That she believed in her heart that he really did care for her. Otherwise, why would he sleep with her?
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It was like talking to a mirror. I couldn’t tell her that it really was over. Or the fact that sleeping with someone you loved did not mean they loved you (despite Hollywood’s insistence otherwise). This is the other problem with cognitive dissonance – you only believe what you want to believe. And in that moment of vulnerability and sadness, she desperately wanted – she needed – to believe something else. Even if I had said something to the contrary, she wouldn’t have believed me.
Of course, no one wants to delude themselves. But there are certain circumstances which can prime this behavior, including being left in dark about why things turn out the way they do. What I believe she wanted – and what I desperately wanted all those years ago – was a simple explanation why. Why did things end when they did? What happened? What changed? Without a clear, comprehensible conclusion, is it any surprise that our imaginations attempt to fill in the blanks instead?
Unfortunately, these explanations, which we should all be entitled to as a basic human kindness, are rarely given. Not because our former partners are cruel or sadistic people, but because they rarely know the answer themselves. Years later, when I saw my ex again, a palpable chemistry still simmering between us, I finally gathered enough courage to ask him the question that I had not been able to all those years before. Why? To which he simply responded, I don’t know.
This was, of course, not the answer I wanted. But finally, I was able to see that it was a clear answer nonetheless.
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