Amanda was a fashionista, struggling to launch her own clothing line. In her early 20s, razor-thin, and strikingly dressed, she certainly looked the part.
In business Amanda was, in her own words, "a killer," with a strong sense of entitlement, the sort of patient who is surprised when I ask her not to take calls on her cellphone during a session. Unfortunately, Amanda behaved with the same demanding selfishness in her romantic life.
On the face of it, Amanda's boyfriend Blake was the perfect partner for Amanda and her volatile moods. Blake was handsome, refined, easygoing and had his own strong sense of self (he was a successful medical researcher). They'd been together four months -- a long-term commitment by Amanda's standards -- but they were in the middle of a make-or-break fight when she came to see me.
The quarrel began at a party where Blake ignored Amanda and spent the evening talking to another woman. Enraged, Amanda took him to task on the ride home -- but Blake defended himself. He hated these parties she dragged him to where she trawled for backers for her new company. So what if he'd found someone he enjoyed talking with and had a good time for once?
By the time they reached home they were no longer speaking. But Amanda was still thinking -- and all her thoughts were about the injustice she'd just gone through. Like a broken record, her mind repeated justifications for her rage and hatched plans for revenge -- like sleeping with a GQ model she knew. She stayed awake all night compiling a litany of everything about Blake she couldn't stand, from his favorite sweater to the way he cleared his throat.
"Have you had this kind of reaction with previous boyfriends?" I asked her.
"Only when they deserved it," Amanda shot back, and burst into tears.
It turned out every one of her relationships had ended the same way. After a couple of months (or even weeks) the guy would do something to offend Amanda that she'd escalate in her head. "I can't love the person any more. I can't even stand to be in the same room with them. My friends call it my 'point of no return.'"
Amanda's rages affected her business ambitions too. She'd already screamed at a buyer for a major department store over a series of perceived slights, lost the order and spent months trying to woo him back.
In each situation, it didn't matter if Amanda was right or wrong. Her problem was that she'd reach a state of obsession with the person who'd "mistreated" her. It was as if the person had moved into her head and pitched a tent. While she fixated on how badly they'd acted, and how she'd even the score, life was passing her by.
We call this state the "maze" because once you're in it, it's almost impossible to free yourself. Amanda was an extreme case, but everyone, even the calmest and most rational among us, gets trapped in the maze. We're led there by a universal human expectation that the world will treat us fairly. This is the fantasy of a child. When the scales of justice don't get balanced on the spot, it leaves us in a private hell of rage and retribution.
There's only one way out of this trap; we need to live by a principle more powerful than fairness. We need to accept other human beings in the condition they're actually in -- especially when their behavior offends us. The force that creates this acceptance is love. But it's not easy to love someone when your natural inclination is to hate and hurt them.
This kind of love isn't the result of changing your opinion about them; it's love you generate despite your opinion. That requires a tool. We call it "active love" because it takes effort, but the beneficiary of this effort is you. When you fully accept someone as they are, you have no further expectations of them -- only then are you freed from the maze. You can begin to live again.
For more by Phil Stutz, M.D., click here.
For more on relationships, click here.
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