In this series, we'll dig into the universe of complicated, ambiguous, and stress-inducing relationship statuses — and what they actually mean.
In a perfect world — the kind I want to live in — relationships aren't like the ones available today, where the word "commitment" is anathema, or where true love can dissolve over a single text message (sent or unsent), 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 so long ago that I'm able to completely move past it, I was involved in one of these complicated situations with a man with whom I was head over heels infatuated. We never discussed our relationship status, 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 of me. 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 except the terrible shock of being blindsided (and Sandra Bullock was not there to pick up the pieces).
What also 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 other's lives ... I promise I'm not interested in anyone else ..." With each of these textbook "let's be friends" declarations, which in reality conveyed nothing other than the fact that he had memorized the scripts of bad romantic comedies, my brain heard, "I still love you ... I'm crazy about you ... 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..."
In comforting myself with these flattering-but-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 would reassure myself, "See, he does want to be with me, after all..." And afterward, I would simply ignore the hurt I felt when he left without making plans to see me again. To 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 this was true. Why was it so easy to deceive myself?
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 our brains are not wired to handle conflict, we try to find unique ways to mitigate or resolve this 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 a legitimate excuse to stop working several times throughout the day. On the other hand, they know that it causes cancer and a host of other health risks. How do they resolve these conflicting beliefs? One way is by calling all the medical studies and health warnings #fakenews. Another might be to point out that at least they're not doing something worse, like heroin. (And of course, there are those who will actually quit.)
Watch the video below for an excellent primer on cognitive dissonance:
My own cognitive dissonance was apparent in how I treated this breakup, even though I didn't recognize it at the time. (This will always be the challenge of psychology — understanding yourself and your ridiculous behavior only after it's too late.)
We had broken up (cognition #1), but my mind was still fixated on being in the relationship (cognition #2). I couldn't accept that it was over — especially without a clear and tangible reason why. So, to resolve my own dissonance, I told myself that we were in a gray area, and would eventually get back together. Our post-breakup rendezvous continued for a while, but always ended the same way, with 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 came to terms with the extent of my delusions: 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, and that she believed in her heart that he really did care for her: Otherwise, why would he have slept with her?
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 love does not mean they love 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 — and 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 prime this behavior. What I believe she wanted — and what I desperately wanted years ago — was a simple explanation. Why did things end when they did? What happened? What changed? Without a clear, comprehensible reason, is it any surprise that our imaginations attempt to fill in the blanks?
Unfortunately, these explanations rarely come — not because our former partners are cruel or sadistic, but because they likely don't know the answer either. Years later, when I saw that ex again, a palpable chemistry still simmering between us, I finally gathered the courage to ask him the question that I had not been able to all those years before. Why did things end the way they did? To which he simply responded, I don't know.
This was not the answer I wanted, but finally I was able to see that it was a clear answer nonetheless.