Shopping for a car

            During my time as a therapist, I have helped a lot of people deal with the pain they feel that comes from the ending of a serious relationship. Quite a few of my clients have gone through a breakup with their significant other not long after starting therapy. Needless to say, this is usually a very painful time. For some, the pain seems almost unendurable. It is not unusual for the person in this situation to say something like, “I would do anything for this relationship not to end.”

            Very often, the person is feeling two different types of pain, both of which are combining to form a spectacular ball of misery. The first type of pain is plain old sadness. When put into words, it goes something like, “Well, the relationship is over, and I’m really sad. I thought the two of us might be together forever, but it didn’t turn out that way, and now I’m missing my ex and feeling lonely and blue.”

            The second type of sadness comes from self-blame. It is expressed with statements like, “Well, we broke up, and it’s all my fault. I wasn’t good enough, and what’s more, I never will be good enough, because there’s something wrong with me. I’m doomed to be rejected for the rest of my life, because once someone gets to know me, they will realize how screwed up I am, and they will leave, unless they are even more screwed up than me.”

            Not everyone has those kinds of thoughts, but a lot of us do. It’s that kind of mind-set that turns a breakup into a living hell. As I have said in a previous article, a simple recipe for depression is sadness plus self-blame, which is what I’m describing above. Sound familiar? If it does, you’re certainly not alone, and you also don’t have to feel that way for the rest of your life.

            A lot of the time, when someone goes through a breakup, they are too overwhelmed with their own pain to realize that the split might have been the best thing that could happen to them. It is only with the passage of time and the receding of pain that one is able to look back and say, “Well, it was probably for the best, because honestly, there were a lot of problems with the relationship.” It is also easier with time to realize that the problems weren’t all your fault, or all their fault. In fact, some of the problems might be nobody’s fault.

            One of the biggest problems two people in a relationship face might be called fundamental incompatibility. Incompatibility is no one’s fault. If two people’s core values are not in alignment, it doesn’t automatically mean that anyone is doing anything wrong. This happens a lot with couples. Here’s an example: Rob and Terry seem to be a very compatible couple. They share a lot of the same tastes in music and movies and such. They both have a similar sense of humor. So on the surface, the two of them seem quite compatible. But look a little deeper, and problems become apparent. Rob puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of pursuing a career, while Terry doesn’t make work a high priority. Terry believes that when the two of them disagree, it is important to not intentionally hurt the other, but Rob thinks that hurling insults during an argument is okay. They have different beliefs about things like monogamy, and the best way to parent a child, and how to manage money. In other words, many of their core values are at odds.

            Of course, all couples are going to have disagreements, and part of being with someone is learning to successfully navigate those disagreements. (Someone once said, “If two people are in total agreement about everything, then only one of them is doing the thinking.” Probably true.) But some disagreements can be deal-breakers, and some disagreements probably should be deal-breakers. For instance, if you and your partner have radically different ideas about child-rearing or monogamy or equality of peoples, then you’re going to have serious problems. Again – it doesn’t necessarily mean someone is at fault. It means the two of you probably aren’t going to be very compatible.

            Here’s a confession – I really don’t like doing couples’ therapy. I much prefer working with individuals. Some people love doing couples work, and thank goodness for them, because they can do a lot of good. I have referred a number of clients to a couples therapist, and most of them were quite pleased with the outcome. I wouldn’t mind doing couples work, if every couple I saw was in a reasonably healthy relationship that was experiencing some solvable problems. But the reality is, there are a lot of people who are in relationships that are unhealthy, and the problems aren’t likely to be solved in couples’ therapy. In this case, two people are coming to a professional with the goal of saving a relationship that they would both be better off without, even if ending it is extremely painful. I’ve been asked by couples to help them save their relationship when I believed they would both be better off if they split up. That’s one of the reasons I prefer not to do couples counseling.

            So what does any of this have to do with car shopping? Well, let’s look at the process of finding a mate and compare it to shopping for a new car. We’ll start with Susan, who is in the market for a new car. Susan is desperate for a car. She needs one right away – the sooner, the better. Susan believes that she isn’t complete without a car, but once she gets one, she’ll be happy. Because she is desperate, she’s probably not going to get a good deal, or the right car for her. In fact, she might believe she doesn’t really deserve a quality vehicle. She’s going to purchase the first one she looks at, regardless of how suited it is to her or what kind of dependability record it has. And in a few months, she’s going to realize she’s got a lemon on her hands.

            On the other hand is Steve, who is also in the market for a new car. Unlike Susan, Steve isn’t desperate. He would like a car, but he doesn’t need one. He knows he can afford to take his time. He’s going to test drive as many models as he likes, and he’s not going to settle on something he doesn’t like. He’s going to do his research, and he’s not going to be swindled by some smooth-talking salesperson. When he finally chooses a car, he’s going to be as reasonably certain as he can that this is the right car for him. Above all, he’s going to get a good car because he believes that is what he deserves.

            Of course, life partners aren’t cars, they are living human beings, but you get the analogy. Many of us have become involved with partners who weren’t good for us, who had glaring warning signs, because we were desperate. We rationalize our behavior by telling ourselves statements like Id better latch on to this person because no one else would have me and Im not getting any younger and If he really loves me hell change and this person is even more screwed up than I am so Im okay by comparison and so on. We settle because we don’t believe we deserve better, or couldn’t do any better if we wanted to, or both. The belief that one doesn’t deserve anyone better is the core problem. It’s also completely wrong.

            Consider this statement: You deserve a partner who will treat you with kindness and respect, who is healthy and good for you, and who you can trust. Do you believe that? Some people don’t believe it. They might believe it for everyone else, but not themselves. But you do deserve those things, and I’ll tell you why you deserve them: because EVERYONE DESERVES THEM and you are not so special as to be the only exception to the rule.

            For years, I operated under the erroneous belief that I would be happy if I could just find the right person to love me. After a couple of decades of broken relationships and basic unhappiness, I finally faced the truth: happiness wasn’t going to come to me in the form of another person. The problem wasn’t being lonely or single. The real problem was that, deep down, I didn’t like myself very much. This was not a happy discovery to make. It came with the realization that I was going to have to do some real work, instead of finding the right person to make it all better.

            Like a lot of people, I had been overlooking fairly obvious warning signs in my romantic relationships, because being in a bad relationship was preferable to being alone. If I were in a relationship, then I could at least believe that I was good enough for somebody, even if that person had a lot of serious issues of their own, which they often did.

            People tell me from time to time, “I probably shouldn’t be in a relationship right now,” and sometimes they’re right. This is the point where people are starting to realize there are much worse things than being alone, and they might have some work to do before they are capable of maintaining a healthy relationship. They might face the task of learning how to be happy regardless of their relationship status, rather than becoming dependent on another for their sense of well-being. This is what a lot of therapy is about – learning how to be a reasonably happy person. And a big piece of that is about being okay with who you are. Easier said than done, but so is everything (except talking).

            Let’s go back to that car-as-relationship analogy for a minute. For a long time, I was turned on by cars that seemed exotic and slightly dangerous. They were fun and exciting. But after having several such vehicles, I realized that they were also pretty unreliable. They seemed to break down a lot, and required a lot of maintenance, and were generally untrustworthy. So, like a lot of people, I decided to stop going after the Ferraris and Lamborghinis and the like, and start looking for a more reliable model, like a Camry or an Accord. My priorities changed from wanting the exotic to wanting a solid, trustworthy vehicle. And I realized that even though it was normal to want a car, the car wasn’t going to cure my unhappiness – or anyone else’s.

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