dried rose and heart-shaped toast that is broken

How I Wish They Hadn’t Said That!

I was once in communication with a friend who was (and still is!) an expert on love. He told me a story that stuck with me.

He had been married for many years to the same woman.  They had a good and in some ways what he thought was a great relationship.

Then one night they were talking and his partner said something to him that the partner obviously thought was no big deal.

But to him, it was the biggest possible deal.  (He never told me what it was the partner said, and I never asked.)  After that night, the relationship rapidly fell apart.  Not so long after, they split up.

What struck me as odd at the time and still does, and what struck him as odd too, was that one off-the-cuff comment caused him to reperceive the entire relationship.

The comment was the beginning of the end, even though it was never intended to be anything like that.

The comment that causes everything to fall apart

I might have dismissed the story as a one-off if I had not heard the same story, in only slightly different form, again.  It was not an isolated incident.  It happens, perhaps not all so infrequently.

What would be an example of an offhanded comment that would lead one entirely to reperceive a relationship?

It usually is something about the person that one just never could have imagined was true of that person—that the person is having an affair, or had affairs, or spent money recklessly, or has an addiction they have kept hidden, or something that is interpreted as showing lack of love or utter disregard.

It’s different things for different couples.

We all would like to think that this could never happen to us.

The problem is that if we think that, we are wrong. It happened to him, and he was a love expert.

It can happen to anyone.  How does it happen?

There are actually several ways this can happen.

1. Confirmation bias.

We all are familiar with confirmation bias.  We hear what we want to hear; we see what we want to see.  As a result, the truth can be staring us in the face and we just don’t want to see it.  Many people get into relationships that all their friends warn them against, only to discover that their friends were right—they failed to see what they didn’t want to see, but that the friends saw right away.

2. Deliberate hiding.

It may be that a partner has been hiding something and inadvertently reveals it in a conversation.  Or maybe someone else reveals it. Or maybe one just discovers it on one’s own.

3. Inadvertent nondisclosure.

One partner fails to disclose something because they think it’s not relevant to the other.  But the other, upon learning it, not only thinks it’s relevant, but also fatal to the relationship. Perhaps it is some past act, or perhaps something going on in the present that one just cannot live with.

4. Story bias.

As I have written before, we perceive love only through our stories.  As Immanuel Kant stated, we never can know a thing (or a person) in itself.  The result is that we are constantly filtering what we see and hear to correspond to the story we have created or want to create about someone.  It may be that we think a certain story applies—we really want that story to apply--and then the knowledge comes crashing down on us that the story doesn’t apply at all, and that a much less desirable story applies instead.

5. Triangle bias.

One really wants to believe that the other feels a certain way, because one’s ideal triangle for the other is that way.  For example, one really wants to believe that one can trust the other person (high intimacy) or that one is the other’s exclusive partner (high passion) or that the other person is fully committed to oneself (high commitment). It then turns out not to be true.

There are no doubt other factors that can lead to the feeling that one has been living the “grand illusion,” but these are some of the common ones.

What to do when your world's been shattered

What can you do when you are confronted with the feeling that you’ve been all wrong all the time?

1. Talk it out.

Maybe you’re wrong.  Maybe you’re misinterpreting what was said.  Maybe you’re taking a remark out of context.  Maybe what you're hearing is playing into some kind of paranoid fantasy you have. You have to try to talk it out.

2. Seek couple’s therapy.

See if a licensed therapist or counselor can help you. Or go to talk to your pastor together if your pastor is trained in working with couples.  Don’t have friends mediate.  They most likely won’t be competent to serve in that role and they may not stay friends!

3. Take it on the chin.

Can you maybe live with what you heard, after all?  No one is perfect, not your partner, not you.  Are you sure that what you heard is all so destructive as you thought it was?

4. Shape the person.

If you heard something you don’t like about the person, can they change? Do they want to change?  Will they meet you halfway, if that would work for you?  Can you make things work, regardless? 

5. Shape the relationship.

If they can’t change, can you restructure the relationship?  For example, can you switch from an intimate relationship to a friendship?  Can you find some way of being on good terms, even though things are not as you thought?

6. Leave.

If none of the above solutions work, you may have to do what my friend did—leave. Many problems can be worked out but not all.  If the problem is insurmountable, you just may have to move on in your life.

Some problems are truly insurmountable. But before labeling a problem as such, try the other solutions first.  You may just find a way to salvage the relationship, or at best, learn from what happened and make your relationship grow to become even better!

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