In the classic musical Cover Girl (1944), starring the beautiful and talented Rita Hayworth, the incomparable Gene Kelly, and the master comic Phil Silvers, Hayworth's character, a dancer, gets the chance to star on Broadway but can't decide if she wants to leave her boyfriend Kelly's small-time show in Brooklyn (and probably lose Kelly as well). After Kelly talks with one of the wealthy men trying to lure her away, as well as with his own conscience (in an amazing dance number with himself), he decides to lie to Hayworth, rejecting her to push her away for her own good, because he convinced himself that she would be happier with success and wealth than she would be with him.
Far be it for me to compare myself to Gene Kelly (or even one of his movie characters), but I had a similar pattern in my relationships. Inevitably, at some point in the beginning of the relationship, I would experience a wave of intense guilt and self-conscious hubris: how dare I think that I'm good enough for this amazing person? She deserves so much better a man than I, and every second that she spends with me means a missed opportunity to meet a truly wonderful man who would make her happier than I could ever hope to do.
(In keeping with the classic movie theme, I would be remiss if I failed to menton Groucho Marx's classic quip that he would never belong to a club that would have him as a member, famously retold by Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall. Also see philosopher Jon Elster's masterpiece Ulysses and the Sirens, pp. 165-172, for a scholarly consideration of this theme, which he considers a central paradox of love: "The lover strives to be recognized by a person whose recognition has worth only when withheld.")
Was this simply negative thinking on my part (as the cognitive psychologists would put it)? Perhaps, but it is hard to know when negative self-assessments are false or realistic, and sometimes they will be realistic. Kelly's character certainly had some reason to think so, given the wealth and fame a Broadway career could offer Hayworth that he couldn't, though what she really wanted was his love. (And seriously, what man would honestly feel he was good enough for Rita Hayworth?)
The issue I want to explore in this blog post is: if a person truly believes that he is not good enough for someone, what should he do? Is he justified in manipulating the other person, such as Kelly's character in Cover Girl did? Should he just "recuse" himself from the relationship (such as I tried to do, albeit unsuccessfully)? Or should he leave the decision up to the other person (while still remaining an active participant in the relationship)?
This raises questions of care and respect, two clearly admirable concerns that often work together, but nonetheless can sometimes conflict, often causing tragic problems when they do. Take, for instance, the case of manipulation, in which you lie to the other person, telling her that you don't want to see her anymore, to make her leave. (This "worked" for Gene Kelly, at least initially.) Assuming that you're sincere, you're doing this out of concern for the other person's well-being, but you're going about it in a way that fails to respect her capacity to make her own choices. You're treating her like a child who has to be "led" (that is, manipulated) into doing what's good for her, and that is not how you treat an adult (which is not to say it's necessarily appropriate for a child either).
However, if you do nothing, and she chooses to stay with you, then you're respecting her freedom to make her own choices, but you're failing to care about her interests, because in your opinion she's made the wrong choice (you). (You may even try to tell her this, but she may find it endearingly modest of you—go figure!) This might seem to be in your best interest, since you're with a fabulous woman, but if the feelings of inadequacy are strong enough, you won't enjoy it. (More about this later.)
What about simply refusing to see her anymore? This does not manipulate her choice at all, because it involves exercising your own choice in the situation. Absent a commitment, you have no "duty" to see her, and she has no "right" to your company, so maybe this is the best way out. But one thing may still trouble you: are you doing this to make yourself feel better, or for her own good? The first motivation seems selfish, and the second seems paternalistic (since you're still effectively making her decision for her, even though you have every right to do so).
I don't think there is a good answer in such a situation; even the last option, "recusing" yourself for the relationship, seems unsatisfactory for some reason, even though it expresses care and respect (and strikes me as rather noble).
So how do we solve this peculiar tragic dilemma? Perhaps we should go back to the source: the negative self-assessment itself. Whether it results from irrational negative thoughts or honest reflection, a negative view of yourself can often be difficult to maintain when someone that you admire admires you back (Elster's observation quoted above notwithstanding). When someone else refuses to give up on you, even if you seem ready to give up on yourself, the other person's affirmation can renew you, make you reassess what you think about yourself, and lead you to see yourself more as the other person sees you.
(This is not to deny that what you think about yourself is more important than what others think about you—but if you're having trouble with the first, the second can give it a boost. The danger, of course, is relying on that other person's assessment of you too much; she can help you dug out of that hole, but if you don't keep out of it yourself after that, right back you go when her affirmation disappears.)
So, as you probably guessed, Gene Kelly's bright idea wasn't so bright (and ended up making both him and Rita Hayworth miserable until she got wise to his ruse). Should he have just backed out and let the chips fall where they may, or continue the relationship and hope that he would feel better about it (and himself)? I don't think there's an easy answer, but that's what makes it a dilemma—and a great movie.