One day I was lunching with my friend Robert Epstein, a behavioral psychologist and former editor in chief at Psychology Today, when he asked me how things were going with my new love.
Me: "There's a lot of good stuff, but he's driving me crazy."
Robert: "Oh, those mixed cases are the tough ones. What's driving you crazy?"
So I gave him the details, feeling sad and hopeless. My lover's failing was part of his nature, not something I could ask or expect him to change, and I didn't know if I could tolerate it. But I also didn't want to let him go.
Epstein doesn't believe in soulmates; nor do I. We both believe that with the right tools, people can flourish in a broad range of relationships.
Robert: "Don't try to ignore it."
Me: "Really? You mean I have to break up?" I felt like crying right in the restaurant.
Robert: "Ignoring it just doesn't work. What you can do is think of a reason why this trait is terrific, absolutely what you would have chosen in the best of all possible worlds."
Me: "But it's not!"
Robert: "Take it in steps. You're smart enough to do this. Can you think of what's good about it, and then what's terrific about it?"
This isn't so bizarre when we think about other people's lives. Let's say my problem with my lover was that he worked very late hours and I didn't get to see him as much as I'd like. Instead of feeling neglected, or theorizing that he's a workaholic and needed to change, I could concentrate on my admiration for his ambition,conscientiousness, or love of his work. I could think about the time I'd have for myself and make good use of it. Whenever he was working late, I could think, Oh Ed (not a real name) is such a good example. I'm going to work harder on my....(fill in blank here).
Generally, strong traits have both a good and bad side. He's intellectual--he always has interesting things to say. He's intellectual--and gets bored at movies you like. Whenever he says he doesn't want to go to a particular silly movie, you can think, "Isn't it great that he's got such high standards!"
Or let's say when you ask her what she'd like, she says, "Whatever you want." That could seem like she's a nonentity, or you could revel in the opportunity to do: whatever you want, with company.
All that is easy to follow. When you're in the hot seat, though, lots of assumptions get in the way. We think that we should spontaneously only react positively to the core traits in a beloved. We think the initial negative reaction is how we feel, and any other interpretation is a ploy that won't work--not deep down or in the long run. We think that we aren't being honest unless we continue to have a negative reaction.
My experience was just the opposite. I was able to come up with the reason why his trait was ideal for me. And once I had that realization, I stopped being irritated. I didn't have to keep reminding myself. I wasn't being dishonest.
It's true that you're better off not getting entangled in relationships that will only leave you dissatisfied.
But the exercise of imaginging how the trait is ideal--not just acceptable--addresses that concern. Your partner is the best, precisely in the way that irritates you now!
Some people know how to do this instinctively. They're the ones who say how lucky they are to have found someone so compatible--and when the relationship ends, for any number of reasons, fairly quickly they're with someone else who is also perfectly compatible.
Lots of people can be just perfect for you.
So, what was my partner really doing that was bugging me? (It wasn't long hours at the office).
Here's the punchline. The conversation occurred about five years ago. And now I can't even recall the negative trait that seemed so decisive at the time.
I just remember Robert's advice. Thank you, Robert!