Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What Did I See in You?

This subject is on my mind lately because my daughter is getting over a longstanding love affair. But what woman over the age of fourteen hasn’t gone through it? One day you’re dreaming of spending your life with the guy, the next he’s suddenly out of the picture. It’s a big mental adjustment that can sometimes take even years to accomplish.

But heartache aside, sometimes this “change of heart” can be remarkably enlightening, especially if circumstances cause it to take place quickly. As your head clears, you may find yourself (metaphorically at least) gaping open-mouthed at this guy you recently adored, baffled as to what you could have possibly seen in him.

On Monday his reticence was alluring--it gave him a sexy air of mystery; on Friday you realize he is just aloof and afraid to open up. On Monday his moods made him interesting; on Friday, just annoying. On Monday his strong opinions made him seem manly; on Friday, stubborn and intractable.

You know what I mean. On Friday, having fallen out of love, you see it all plainly. And you can’t for the life of you fathom what you were thinking before. How could you possibly have seen so much worth in this guy, so many qualities you adored, so much you couldn’t live without in your life?

My dear mentor, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, has an answer, and I think he’s right on. When another person offers enough emotional coinage to convince you “he’s the one”--someone you could love--then romantic love kicks in. You start looking for, and invariably finding, the qualities you most urgently need.

You’re not exactly lying to yourself, you’re just embellishing the truth. Problem is, the embellishments sometimes get a little too thick. While it’s only natural, and even healthy, to look for the best in your loved ones and overlook their flaws, sometimes the psyche puts too much stock in the perceived assets of the beloved. When that happens you can find yourself crushingly dependent on someone who doesn’t actually exist.

Case in point: well, let’s use me, that’s always fun! I once was infatuated with a guy and got myself caught in a terrible trap. It started because I’ve always had a need to please authority figures, and the bigger the challenge, the better. (It’s no fun pleasing someone who’s easy!) This fellow started the ball rolling by being attracted to me and showing it: he was attentive, excited to be with me, flattering, all that. I was surprised by this, because this guy was not one to act that way toward women. It made me feel special, like teacher’s pet. Our friendship became more and more intimate, which was also awesome to me because he was a very private person.

I won’t go into all the detail, but there were other ways in which this man tickled my fancy. But at the same time, he was a real pain in the arse. He was passive/aggressive, afraid of risk, incommunicative, moody, bad tempered. And yet, his standoffishness only increased the challenge, making my rare breakthroughs absolutely thrilling. The high I got from these occasional successes was enough to keep me addicted.

My pattern of fierce need and periodic exhilarating fulfillment made me feel desperately in love with this guy. He seemed like the center of the universe, the most attractive man in the world, the arbiter of my happiness. Even though I recognized the relationship was putting me through hell, I couldn’t see my way clear no matter what I did. He was--in my eyes--just too sexy, too powerful, too wonderful.

Well, for all that, I knew I needed to get over the guy, and eventually I did, thank God. At that point I no longer needed him to make me feel important and magically able to charm even the uncharmable. Once I didn’t need him for that fix, I no longer had to maintain the delusion of his wonderfulness and importance. I could finally look at him and see what he really was, just an ordinary guy with a few personality problems and a small neurosis or two.

I feel a little sad typing that, even today. On one level I still wish he was all I believed him to be, so that someone that wonderful might truly exist. But you see, no real person will ever be as wonderful as the psyche paints him. The unconscious mind projects a version based on need and desire, and no human could live up to that image.

It truly can be laughable, once the veil is lifted, to see what the object of one’s past affection really is like. “What did I see in him?” we ask, incredulous.

The answer is, your heart’s desire, glancing brightly off an ordinary human being.

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