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Under the Spell of a False Love

Some relationships make us forget who we are.

Key points

  • People may get involved with someone who is not a good match for them, because they forget who they really are and what they need in a partner.
  • We may call forgetting who one is "identity amnesia." Identity amnesia can last for a long time if people cut ties with those who know them well.
  • Sometimes, we induce identity amnesia in others by pressuring them to bend to our liking without doing any bending in turn.

We sometimes make a commitment to a person who is not a good match for us. This can happen for various reasons. We may, for instance, hope that the other will change and come to embrace our interests and lifestyle or develop character dispositions that match our emotional needs.

Such hopes are generally unfair to the other, except, perhaps, where they involve attempts to reform objectively bad tendencies—murderous impulses, say. We cannot reasonably expect others to transform themselves into the people we need to be happy.

No less importantly, we are likely to be ultimately disappointed. Personality does evolve with time, but slowly and in unpredictable directions. It is not probable that another’s character will alter so as to satisfy us.

In other cases, we make a bad match, because either infatuation or the hope for love present to us an image of the other created by our own imagination. We become enamored with an illusion. George Eliot’s heroine Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch, for instance, falls in love with a man, many years her senior, whom she fancies a great scholar only to discover that he is a petty human being, utterly lacking in talent and moreover, one who has no concern for her happiness.

In still other cases, we see clearly the other is not a soulmate, but we desire the relationship for other reasons. There are many examples of failed relationships of this kind in literature. Flaubert’s Emma Bovary from Madame Bovary, for example, marries a country doctor, because she thinks she is at an age when she ought to marry. Emma’s husband is in love with her, but she is bored with him. Dreaming of a better life, she makes a series of unfortunate choices, accumulates debt she cannot repay, and commits suicide.

Not all matches that start out bad remain so. Somerset Maugham, in The Painted Veil, describes a case of a highly intelligent man, Walter, a bacteriologist who falls in love with and marries a beautiful but very superficial woman, Kitty. For a while, Walter pretends that he shares his wife's unrefined taste. He does everything he can to please her. After he catches her cheating on him, he makes an unexpected decision: to go to China in the midst of a cholera outbreak and to take his wife with him. Kitty objects at first but in the end, agrees to go with him. In China, Walter treats sick people. While there, Kitty gradually undergoes a profound transformation. She falls in love with Walter and his character and comes to appreciate how much better he is compared to her former lover. (As chance would have it, the mutual love is short-lived as Walter dies of cholera.)

There are also cases in which an inexperienced person makes a serious mistake due to not knowing what a good relationship looks like. Much as one might not quite realize one’s parents had been abusive until much later, because one has not observed other families and other parents, so also one might, due to the absence of a suitable reference point, fail to see that one’s romantic relationship is subpar or even terrible.

Masha Raymers/Pexels
Woman with a broken mirror
Source: Masha Raymers/Pexels

There are cases, however, in which we get involved with someone who is not a good match neither because we have a mistaken idea of who the other is, nor because we hope the other will change, nor, finally, because we think the union is a good idea for some reason other than the promise of love: rather, we do it because we somehow forget who we are, what lifestyle we prefer, what is likely to make us happy.

This is arguably what happens to Isabel Archer from Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady. Isabel is a very strong and intelligent woman who marries a conventional misogynist, because for a while, she becomes convinced she would be happy as an obedient wife, with no preferences of her own.

People in such cases may act as if in a state of trance. The body moves, and the voice can be heard, but the actions appear to have their source in something other than the person. When the relationship ends, the person may wonder, "What was I thinking?" What happens?

Part of the explanation, I think, has to do with a certain elusiveness to identity. We cannot look directly at our identities and examine them as we would an object. We can reflect on our past behavior and detect a discrepancy between that and the choice we are making now, but how are we to tell what the discrepancy means? It is, after all, always possible that it is our past choices that were inauthentic, not the current one.

There is something else: a certain multiplicity to identity. It may well be that a part of who we are is pleased by the unfortunate choice we are making. A small part of Isabel, for instance, may want to be an obedient wife (or an itinerant musician, or a socialite, or whatever the other wants us to be). Our mistake is to fail to appreciate how peripheral such a part may be, how far from what we might call our core self. There are many lifestyles that we can enjoy once in a year, or once in five. Committing ourselves to one of those lifestyles for the sake of a relationship is unlikely to lead to happiness.

This type of forgetting—identity amnesia, if I may call it so—may last for a long time when people who experience it cut ties with those who know them well and can remind them of who they are. If you have a sibling in this situation, you may find that your brother or sister stops talking to you. You hope that this is because your sibling is so perfectly happy with the person they are involved with, they don’t need anyone else; yet though they do not complain, they don’t seem happy.

The illusion can dissipate if we are pushed so far from our core self that the discrepancy between our behavior and identity becomes painfully obvious to us. (The other may, thus, unintentionally do us a favor in such cases by pushing us too far.)

Is there a way to ensure we never forget who we are and undertake to live a sham life?

I doubt it. But it may help to keep in mind that if the other encourages us to sever ties with those who know us well, that’s a warning sign; as are feelings of shame and anxiety associated with the thought of sharing details about our relationship with other people. If you’ve persuaded yourself you are with a very special person but you think also that no one else who loves you will agree, so you opt not to reveal anything about what transpires between you and your romantic interest, there may be a problem.

There is a final point I wish to note here. We must bear in mind that it is sometimes we who are putting another in the state I here labeled “identity amnesia.” We do this if we successfully pressure the other to bend to our liking without doing any bending in turn. We are sometimes victims and at other times—victimizers. It may be we, that is, who cast on another the spell of a false love.

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