Since my girlfriend of five years broke up with me in December 2019, I’ve thought many things, but top of my mind has been these two questions: a.) am I a good person?; and b.) am I good partner? After listening to the 2007 book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, two social psychologists, who spent considerable time in the book on relationships, I’ve renewed my ruminations over those two questions.
I did a full review of the book, so I’m not going to rehash everything, but the main thrust of the book is that humans are self-justifying creatures. Then, the logic goes, because we want to believe we are good people, and because we need to rectify the cognitive dissonance occurring in our head, we will self-justify doing something wrong as it not being wrong because we are good people. Good people don’t engage in wrong acts; ergo.
This closed logic loop of self-justification extends, as Tavris and Aronson explained, to our interpersonal relationships, and often, is the culprit for divorces and separations, or as they brilliantly put it, couples psychologically separate long before they separate on paper and in space.
Or to put all of this in another way: Humans are biased toward ourselves because it’s us! Thus, in any scenario, especially with other humans, we become the heroic protagonist of our memories, and the stories we tell ourselves. And again, this would extend to interpersonal relationships, particularly at a moment of evaluating what went wrong to lead to a break-up, a separation, or a divorce. In those situations, because we are biased toward ourselves, we may have a tendency to cast ourselves as the wronged protagonist, and the ex-partner or spouse as the villain. We can, of course, imagine scenarios where that is legitimately true, such as an abusive spouse, but I’m just broadly speaking.
There is also the cognitive dissonance the person doing the breaking up is experiencing, and goes back to the closed logic loop: They think of themselves as a good person, and good people don’t hurt other people, therefore, if they are breaking up with someone, it’s because that person was bad enough to deserve breaking up with. You see how the villain casting can go either way?
You can see where I’m going with this, though, right? I’ve thought about that “role-casting” a lot since December 2019. Something I did with full intention thereafter was to not do that. I was as cognizant of that pitfall then as I am now. I didn’t want to cast her as the “bad guy” and me the “sympathetic hero” to my family or friends. After all, we have to remember, too, that the family and friends who hear of a break-up, and who will naturally want to take up the mantle of defending you as the “sympathetic hero” and her as the “bad guy,” do so with the good intentions of both to make you feel better for having been dumped, and because they are also biased in your favor as your loved ones and friends.
I was particularly mindful of this because I knew the general pieces were there to cast her as as the “bad guy” because of how the final few weeks went. But that doesn’t tell the whole story of the relationship, which is my point here. That doesn’t tell the whole story of me as a partner to her. Or her to me.
So, I go back to the Tavris and Aronson point: Maybe you can be a good person, but you aren’t a good partner? At least, not yet. At least, not in the past. At least, not in that relationship. And just to do the throat-clearing here, when I say not being a good partner, I’m not talking about abuse or harm. I’m talking about someone, like myself perhaps, who isn’t suited to interpersonal, intimate relationships at that level. That, for whatever reason, they can be a “good person,” but a “bad partner” to someone else’s needs and wants.
But that’s the cognitive dissonance, of course, and I admittedly experienced and do experience that a lot when considering everything: I like to think of myself as a good person, so it would flow logically that I would make a good partner, and to square that cognitive dissonance, I should do the role-casting of, Well, I was a good partner, it was her that was bad.
However, if I won’t and don’t do that, then what am I left with? Holding both of those concepts in my head at once of being a good person, but perhaps not a good partner. (Obviously, I could re-cast myself as a bad person and therefore, a bad partner, squaring the dissonance, but I’d like to think I’m not a bad person!)
I can imagine at least two rejoinders at this point from someone reading this: Can’t you be a good person and a good partner, but that particular relationship just didn’t work out? Or, maybe you’re being too hard on yourself in a bid to be gracious to her?
To the first, that’s a fair rejoinder, and I am only working with a sample size of two (I had a five-month relationship when I was 21-years-old, and this most recent five-year relationship), but I suppose I would think about it this way. When I try to “objectively” re-evaluate the relationship and my memory of it, I know I wasn’t a good partner! For example, I went into a relationship with someone who already had a child from a previous relationship, knowing I’m not a kid person, but thinking I could acclimate. And then thinking, I love this woman so much, I can definitely acclimate. I can become a father figure! And then thinking, in the way Tavris and Aronson alluded to the sunk cost fallacy in economics, I’ve made it years into this relationship, I can’t suddenly say the kid dynamic isn’t working (because think about the other implication: I’ve been concealing this thought and concern all these years, eek). Eventually, the latter did happen, and I was the one who initiated a break-up in the fall of 2018. We would get back together after I internally convinced myself that, wait, I can be a father figure after all! But once you broach that subject about the kid, you can’t unring that deleterious bell. That’s one example, albeit quite specific to that relationship, so maybe not the best response to the first rejoinder (I think as I write!). Let me do another one then: Broadly speaking, I like being alone! It’s like the difference between being alone and being lonely. I’ve never considered myself a lonely person, even in the worst throes of my depression. Over the course of the relationship, I found myself slinking back more and more to get my “alone” time. That was unhealthy and something I think would likely repeat itself in future relationships, if they were to happen. And yes, I do think some of that was attributable to my depression, but not all of it. I know that, if I’m being honest with myself. (Just as I can’t cast her as the villain of our relationship story, I don’t think I can cast depression as the villain, either, but it certainly was a minor villain.)
As to the second rejoinder, I already sort of addressed that by bringing up the minor villain of depression. If I’m trying to be gracious to myself, that’s the answer, and by extension, I’m being gracious to her for having to try to handle someone deeply in the throes of depression. But also, I would respond to the second rejoinder by arguing that being gracious toward her is the whole point I’m making here. That is the right thing to do, as I understand it, rather than casting her as the villain. I do know I can be hard on myself, too, but I don’t think I’m squelching my own feelings or perspectives in order to be gracious toward her. Or to put it differently, it is possible to hold this nuanced view: Neither of us were perfectly good in the relationship, and neither of us were perfectly bad, either. We both made mistakes. We both contributed to the fissure that would dissolve our relationship. The problem people make is trying to tip the scales in their own favor.
I feel like I’m rambling and repeating myself at this point, but I hope you understand what I’ve written here today.