Do you have to make someone a villain to spend less time with them or to break up?
This was a recent topic of conversation with a young adult woman, and is a great question. She is pulling away from some friends she had in high school, and realized that in order to do so, she had focused on the qualities she didn’t like and made them all-bad in her mind.
The reality is that they are people she has warm feelings for, but she and they have grown apart and don’t really see the world and friendship alike enough to be able to have a satisfying ongoing friendship.
She realized that she had vilified them in her mind to make pulling away less painful. She actually still likes certain qualities about them and doesn’t have to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater to justify no longer having a close friendship with them.
Relationship villain—or just a bad fit?
When people who have been in a long-term serious relationship or marriage decide to separate, the same things can go on, with partners turning each other into villains to try to lessen the pain of the break up.
Reality is more complex: the partners have grown apart and no longer see things alike enough for the relationship to be satisfying. Just because there are absolutely valid reasons to no longer make a life together doesn’t mean that the other partner is all-bad.
One person is not so mature? Okay, that’s not going to work well long-term, but that doesn’t mean that you have to write off that person’s sense of humor.
One partner doesn’t want to have sex and doesn’t want to work on the underlying issues? That’s an untenable position in a satisfying relationship, so it makes sense that the other person would not want to continue the relationship, but that doesn’t mean that the unsatisfied partner has to write off the other partner’s creativity or cooking skills.
While this may seem completely obvious, you’d be surprised how often these issues arise for couples who are preparing to separate or even for ones that divorced long ago.
Is your ex really the Prince of Darkness or the Queen of All Evil?
If so, what does it mean about you that you chose him or her? That’s certainly worth exploring!
But making your former partner all-bad is an oversimplification and a very short-sighted approach to ending a relationship. And if your partner is a villain and holds everything that’s bad, that makes you the person who holds everything that’s good, and that couple doesn’t exist!
Relationship villain in the therapeutic relationship
This can even play out in the therapeutic relationship.
A patient may have decided to end treatment for whatever reason. It may be a completely valid reason, but in order to make the decision less painful, the patient may negate everything that was helpful and productive about the therapy and the therapist, rather than appreciating the positive contributions and still deciding to end treatment.
This simplistic black-and-white thinking is problematic in any situation, from moving across the country (the East Village is all-bad, San Francisco is all-good) to leaving a job to moving on from a friendship to ending a marriage.
It may make decisions easier in the moment, but whenever you step out of reality, you’re not doing yourself any long-term favors. Embracing the complexity of human experience is a much more fulfilling way to approach change. You can appreciate a person’s good and even outstanding qualities, while ultimately deciding that the relationship, friendship, opportunity, whatever isn’t a good and satisfying fit.
Certainly it’s easier to trash something on the way out (think of rock stars and hotel rooms) than to respectfully decide to part ways, but we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore reality to make things easier.
I remember hearing a professor say that “when you split the object, you split the ego,” which means when you make someone (the “object”) all-bad or all-good in your mind, you’re diminishing them and you’re diminishing your sense of reality (the “ego”), which is never a good thing!
If you have difficulty ending a “chapter” in your life without making someone or something a villain, therapy can be helpful to learn to accept and embrace the complexity of life, which ultimately leads to a more satisfying experience of whatever you’re dealing with.
If you’d like to better understand couples and marriage counseling, click here.
Diane Spear, LCSW-R, owns a private practice in the Union Square/East Village area of Manhattan (New York City). She specializes in anxiety, depression, couples, and parenting treatment, and has been helping people find the joy in everyday life since 1995. She is accepting new patients. To learn more about Diane’s approach to treatment, click here.