Last year I worked with a client called Jim (not his real name—“Jim” gave me permission to write about him but I have changed his name and the details of his story to protect his anonymity). Jim worried that he was incapable of lasting love. “I just can’t trust it or commit to one person,” he said. “I am a commitment-phobe.”
A few months earlier he had ended a four-year relationship. It was fine, he said, but he knew in his heart she was not “the one.” Instead of feeling free, however, he was miserable. “It’s as if I fired the gun,” he said, “but it backfired and blew up in my face.”
The ex—who he described as “the nicest woman in the world”—was moving on with her life; Jim meanwhile couldn’t stop crying. He had to keep taking bathroom breaks at work so he could sob.
In one session, Jim was really struggling. He had just met his ex at the flat they’d shared to sort out the remaining stuff and hand over the keys to the landlord. At the exact moment they said goodbye, Jim realized how much he loved her—the exact opposite scenario to getting cold feet when walking down the aisle. But it was too late.
Jim was inconsolably sad. Here was a smart, successful and worldly man who felt an utter failure. He was worthless, he said.
We explored Jim’s story. When he was very young, Jim’s parents split up—his dad had met someone else. More than three decades later, this event was still casting a long shadow. Young Jim had gone to live with his mum—a terrible Oedipal “victory”—and quickly learned to adapt to the new configuration. Children are so very good at adapting.
In therapy, Jim reflected on what might have been going on for his young self at the time. Young Jim, he felt, came to three conclusions, perhaps largely unconsciously:
• The divorce was all his fault; if he could be really a perfect little boy perhaps he could be forgiven—and even bring his parents back together;
• He had to spare his distraught, bereft mum from any further pain by being good—the perfect son, student, happy, successful;
• Being left was really painful—much better to dump someone than be dumped by them.
These “rules for living” allowed Jim to navigate his childhood. He did a near-perfect job of being near-perfect. He was the consummate little diplomat in all dealings with his parents. He worked exceptionally hard and truly excelled at school. But inside he was consumed by feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
As an adult, Jim had extremely high standards, both for himself and others. He was by his own admission “an asshole boss.” Romantically, too, everything had to be perfect. Instead of being himself, Jim felt under enormous pressure to be a kind of idealized storybook partner—charming, thoughtful and magical. Jim’s “false self” brought great rewards, but he felt it all to be a grand illusion. Sooner usually rather than later, Jim or his girlfriend would fail to be utterly unimpeachable and the relationship would completely unravel.
The therapy began with an exploration and identification of these patterns, followed by an acceptance of them. The “false self” was a very necessary part of Jim. It allowed him to survive as a child and thrive as an adult. But there was so much more to him. In therapy, Jim felt his way to connect more with the parts of himself that are “a bit rubbish” and this freed him up to connect more with others; to stop being a chameleon and start listening to his own emotions and desires.
When a new relationship started, Jim tried a new approach: honesty. He allowed himself to express his feelings and be vulnerable. He gave up some control, including in the bedroom. With an enormous sense of relief, Jim discovered he could be himself.
Jim was not a commitment-phobe. What he was not prepared to commit to any longer was the demand that he be perfect.
Perfect Jim? He got dumped by the much more likeable Imperfect Jim.
Perfection is not love. It is the imperfections that make a person lovable.
Happy Valentine’s Day!