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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

Those Who Cannot Feel Love Until It Is Over

There is a kind of lover who is never more skilled and determined than when they have just been rejected. Their partner may – after a lengthy period of grumpy or peculiar or difficult behaviour – have finally had enough and called time on the relationship. One might at this point expect the lover to kick up an ill-tempered fuss (after all, there has been plenty of grumpiness from them until this point) – and to indirectly remind their partner through their behaviour of why the union should now rightly be ended. 

Lucien Freud, Girl With a Kitten, 1947

But nothing of the sort. A new mood descends. The rejected lover finds reserves of extraordinary eloquence, tenderness and maturity just as it seemed as if all was lost for them. They don’t get defensive, they don’t grow proud. They become humble, immensely focused, serious and entirely modest. They listen very carefully, they apologise with unparalleled sincerity. Their innocent eyes look scared, hurt and full of yearning. They know it’s over, they say, and they know they have been an idiot. They didn’t mean what happened that terrible weekend or with those friends or that time they were pretty mean; they appreciate they’ve been self-centred or somewhere else. They won’t try to persuade the partner otherwise. They just want a chance to say sorry. And they could get some food for the partner for dinner if they wanted it, though they won’t be staying, they know it’s better for them not to be here. All of which acts like magic on their rejecting partner. After all, they never wanted to reject them really; they just wanted to be loved. 

The troublesome person’s scratchiness in the relationship is matched only by their genius for apology at its threshold. Their skills at repair are entirely commensurate with their talent for rupture. And so their partner may find themselves repeatedly fed up with them – and then equally frequently ignoring the counsel of friends and taking them back in.

It could sound manipulative and at points it surely is, but let’s imagine that, in certain cases, we aren’t dealing with anything devious – a thought which is morally more complicated than many people (especially ones under thirty) might like. The behaviour may be complicated but it isn’t consciously designed to harm or wrestle an advantage. We have to accept that there may just be people who cannot properly experience themselves as in love – and cannot properly do the work of love – until and unless their partner has grown decisively frustrated with them and declared the relationship over. So long as love is securely theirs, the situation feels both unfamiliar and nothing short of frightening. Nothing this nice is envisaged by their psyche. This person would (we can guess) have grown up always feeling that they had to persuade a reluctant adult to love them – a distracted father, a demanding mother, a depressed caregiver. As a result, they now associate the core of relationships with a desperate effort to win back the love of someone they appear to have annoyed; a pattern which they play out again and again even when they find themselves with a kindly figure who (for a very long time) has been entirely happy to be devoted and intimate with them. Hence the spectacle of a partner who had only recently been discussing marriage having to withdraw love from a person who had handled it with close to ingratitude, only to find them putting up a display of devotion and emotional intelligence with the strength to melt the sternest heart. It can go on for years.

No sooner is the union secure than the lover terrified of love starts to undermine it in tiny, near invisible but still decisive ways. They unconsciously zero in on their partner’s sensitivities: perhaps they don’t quite explain where they are going, or they arrive a little late, or they seem off-hand and elsewhere. It may – to repeat – sound like an evil strategy but it is something far more poignant: an automatic, unknown repetition of a childhood dynamic by someone who is terrified of a reciprocity they never enjoyed. 

There is probably a limit to the number of times that the yoyo can be pulled in and let loose again. Eventually, even the most patient and masochistic of partners will tire of the process and (probably under the guidance of friends or a therapist) will be advised to deposit their hopes somewhere else. Amidst the genuine sadness of the now definitively rejected lover, there is an opportunity to recognise that they have not been found wanting randomly. The truth is both sadder and more hopeful. They have carefully engineered a situation of rejection – because mutuality represented too great a threat. It looks like they have been thrown out for no reason; in reality, they are finally paying the price for having undermined a love they couldn’t bear. They really did adore the partner who rejected them; but not more than they in the end adored being alone and unhappy. The hope is that once this tragic pattern is properly known and mourned, the next time reciprocity is on the cards, fear will not inevitably be allowed to destroy love.

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