THE ROMANTIC EGO

In the case of Heather, two chapters ago, we saw one way that the ego can stop a person from loving. Heather had a hungry ego that wanted her to be a hot shot in academic psychology and in romance,
so it had taken the liberty of ordaining that she already was. Never mind the minor detail that she had yet to develop in these areas. Never mind that behind the false front of a sarcastic personality, she was afraid to leave her logical comfort zone and try to be creative, and she was emotionally immature. Her ego, being personally responsible for these failings, did not want them revealed.

That meant that Justin, her sensational new beau, was a serious problem; because his very nature was designed to expose Heather’s problems. He was, to be blunt, out of her league. He was much more
accomplished than she—and was good at detecting inadequacies in others.

So Heather’s ego watched him with a wary (and covetous) eye, alert to the danger he represented. He could ruin all its hard-won illusions, could burst its flimsy bubble.


Fear is like a straitjacket that pinches the heart. Heather couldn’t love Justin, because deep inside she was afraid of what he might make her realize. He was a painful epiphany waiting to happen. So she played it careful, sucked up to him and borrowed his sheen, as long as she could . . . and then they got on that train.
If we look at the Justin side of the equation, we will see another thing the ego prefers over love.

Justin was a very talented man, and had already written some distinguished psychology papers. But he also had a vigilant ego. And it saw in Heather a person who could be of service.

She didn’t think of Justin as a mere mortal like herself. And when he fell for her, he fell for that.
Her adoration fit very well with his sense that he was, after all, a superior being. Heather’s insecurity and inferiority were the perfect buttresses to sustain his self-worship. If he had been a better (stronger) person, Justin could have seen through her weaknesses to the talent underneath, could have treated her as an equal and nurtured her. But her fear was his invitation to arrogance, and her reticence was his spotlight.
Justin was capable of better things. When he hooked up with Megan, her greater confidence and prowess (than Heather’s) trimmed his ego’s sail. He was frequently in awe of her, and she of him, just enough to keep them both honest. They made a good team. They came to love each other and they lasted.
So those are two of the ways the ego can sabotage love: by raising one’s partner into a threat, or by lowering one’s partner into a reflection of one’s own glory. And there are other, more everyday, ways.
• Zero-sum games. Have you ever been in a relationship where you felt constantly worried that you would lose and the other person would win? Some people bring this out in each other, He was frequently in awe
of her, and she of him, just enough to keep them both honest.
And every facet of daily life can become a form of combat. The dishes need doing and neither person wants to lose the battle known as “It’s your turn.” Conversations morph into put-down sessions. You can’t share feelings because the other person will see them as a sign of weakness. You feel as if you are constantly
under attack. Every gain by one person is seen as a loss for the other, so you can’t even share moments of success. Hearts are banished from the scene, and we are left with two egos fencing in a lonely space.
• Play. One of the things people do when their egos are asleep, is they play. Playing usually involves taking risks, though it may not seem that way when it’s happening. For example, when two people concoct a comedy routine to portray a friend who annoys them, that involves risk. It’s improve, and it requires trying things that may fall flat. You have to be comfortable enough with the other person not to worry that they’ll judge you. If one person is afraid of coming off as less than brilliant, his humor will be brittle and he may infect the other person with his fear. When you see a relationship where the partners don’t seem to be able
to reach a place of pure play, look for the egos that are taking the air out of the room.
So the toad turns out to have quite a rap sheet. We’ve exposed his crimes against ongoing relationships; now it’s time to get back to breakups and their aftermath. You might think a breakup would strip the ego of its power, but quite the opposite is true.

As far as the ego is concerned, nothing is more dangerous than risking your heart out there in the big, bad world. That’s because losing at love, in the ego’s view, is a reflection on our whole worth as a human
being—not just on our performance in that one area. Our love score becomes our life score.
That makes sense, if you consider that mating may be the highest stakes game that we humans play. When you attach yourself to one partner and form a couple, all nature vibrates with the exciting Darwinian news that these two people are going to try for the brass ring—the chance to reproduce and thereby defeat death. It’s a risky, scary enterprise, not one to be attempted with just anyone. It’s your genes betting that his genes are the right ones to fuse with. It’s an act of supreme trust, faith, and courage. It’s a man in a casino saying, “I am not a gambler, I know the odds and I’ll stake my reputation on this number.”
When you pick someone to love, in front of the world you are saying, “You shall know me by this choice. This is me, this is who I am.”
Small wonder that the ego watches all this with great concern.
This is a huge opportunity for humiliation. In fact the ego advised against the whole thing, had to be excluded from the final conference where the heart’s decision was made. The ego already feels maligned by that slight.
And then, months or years later, you get dumped or spurned or replaced.
Your broken heart lies in the public square and that means your whole worth has been trashed, your dearest gamble repudiated. Your leap of faith, your attempt to sing your own beautiful song for all to hear, has met with scorn.
Like a mafia don, the ego values respect above all else. An insult cannot be left unanswered: that would be bad for business. In extreme cases, this means retaliation.

There are two ways it can go: Our love score becomes our life score.

1. The ego says: I buy that you don’t want me anymore.1 But not wanting me is not acceptable behavior. So something must be done to punish you. Revenge must be had.
2. The ego says: I don’t buy your story. Not wanting me is not possible.
You are mistaken about your own feelings and you need to be corrected. Therefore I will take control of your life and make it right again for both of us.

In Case 1 we get a scorned lover throwing her beloved’s undergarments onto the street and posting his worst photos on Facebook, or in harder cases, angry spouses jeopardizing themselves and their children for the sake of a vengeful divorce settlement. Case 1 can easily shade into Case 2, where the spurned lover simply rejects the premise. A cool way to accomplish this is to carry on as if nothing had happened. Continue to call the ex and talk lovetalk on the phone, send amorous gifts, show up by surprise at the ex’s house (or in their bed). The next, more severe step would be to get the rival out of the picture, not so much for the sake of punishment as for control. The goal is to rid the loved one of the distraction that has been leading them astray. This might take the form of filling up the rival’s voicemail, adding salt to their gas tank, or implicating them in a recent spate of bank robberies.

Although I would hope you and I won’t encounter it in real life, there’s a more dire example that I want to mention—the movie Fatal Attraction. We’ve all watched the story and been chilled by it, but what bears remarking is how nakedly it displays the ego’s way of thinking. An assault on the offending reality—that’s what

1. The ego should say, “You don’t want my owner anymore.” But the ego confuses itself with the
human it belongs to, and claims to speak for him.
It so well captures. The Glenn Close character simply wants to dismantle the happy home that contradicts her theory of things. She is like an advocate run amok; her single-minded premise is that the Michael Douglas character loves her, and anything that tends to disprove that, must be eliminated. The utter clarity of her position can help us recognize it in its (hopefully) milder forms, in our own lives.
And there are other drastic approaches, too regularly chronicled on the news. They go as far as holding the loved one prisoner or removing the beloved and oneself from the planet. In their extremity, they too highlight the ego’s core logic. The message is, “Any world in which we are apart cannot stand. And no price is too high to pay, in order that there not be such a world.”

with friends like these . . .

Maybe the toad’s worst crime is lashing out at other people. But he has another approach, more frequent in most of our lives, that is very relevant to our chances of future love. That is when the romantic ego decides to turn inward and protect its owner. We have now arrived at what may be the most destructive thing that commonly happens to those of us who are injured by a breakup. It’s the hardest to detect and admit, and it goes farthest to derail our future relationships. Learning to recognize it and overcome it is a huge step towards better love next time.

So what does the ego do? Stinging from the insult to our dignity, it vows that this will not happen again. No matter what, it won’t allow anything that risks rejection. Like an over-protective brother, in its zeal to defend the heart’s honor, the ego robs the heart of its freedom. It declares: “From now on, you will love only
They praise us for the wrong things, and criticize us for the wrong things.

So far as you have the upper hand, the balance of power. At the first sign of trouble you will vamoose.”
“Sorry, heart,” it says. “You are grounded.” There are many of us walking around who have been crippled in
this way. We are called “well defended.” And we are, thanks to the wall and moat that the toad built around us. In many cases, we don’t even know it. We go on for years, unaware of the way we’ve been compromised by one incident of pain.

So we choose lovers based on them not seeming like a threat. We don’t get near people who might really challenge us. We seek the upper hand, or as they said on Seinfeld, we always want “more hand” than the other person. If we sense that the other person is gaining too much power, we play the goodbye card.

Above all, we avoid those who could really know us. Because they could do so much harm to our illusions. It’s true that only they could appreciate us, and only they could free us from our shackles; but that’s
just the point, isn’t it? Our jailer, the toad, loves our shackles. So we choose people who can’t know us, and they praise us for the wrong things, and criticize us for the wrong things, and we can never get back
into balance; because only real feedback can tame the toad.

If we do make a mistake and carelessly get involved with someone who really wants to see us and love us, we don’t let them in. We keep them at a distance, keep them wanting more, and if they get too close, we resist. We stir up a fight, pick on some supposed inadequacy, find a way to drive them back. Or we run.
the demotion of the toad So what is the way out?

The first challenge is to realize you are too well defended. The problem—what makes the ego so powerful—is that it works unconsciously in us most of the time; we don’t even know why we are making all the right moves to elude intimacy and vulnerability, to keep the playing field tilted our way. The ego gets to control us without putting its cards on the table.

Examples of the thoughts that it may sneak into our brains:
• At this moment, this conversation is making me absolutely adore her, but I’ll keep that to myself. It’s better to play a little hard to get, and I hate mushy.
• He seems a little too happy with himself, a little too confident. Better knock him down a peg.
• I like spending time with her, but I have seen some flaws. I don’t want to end up with a loser.
• He just looked at that girl walking by. Oh god, he’s thinks she’s hotter than me.
• She says she was just kidding around, but I see an insult in what she just said. Nobody does that to me. I’m going to give her grief about it.
• When it’s meant to happen, the right person will come into my life. I’m certainly not going to make an effort to find somebody— that would make me look desperate.
• Casual relationships rule: you get the kicks without all the heavy crap.
• I really enjoy the chase and the challenge of someone who is hard to win. But once they give in and love me back, I just lose interest.

2. This attitude might remind you of Bob the shipping clerk.
How do we fight this sleight of hand? The answer is to bring the ego out in the open and force it to state its primitive little fightor- flight argument. Then you can see what it is—a piece of lousy logic. So dispute that logic; demolish it. How? Let’s see. The self: Okay, Mr. Toad, let’s hear what you have to say.
What is your point?
The ego: My point is simple. You got hurt, because you loved. So stop loving.
The self: Hey, anyone who loves exposes themselves to hurt, if only because real love is hurt by anything that injures the loved one, right up to death. Love expands your field of vulnerability beyond yourself. That’s the beauty of it!
The ego: I didn’t mean that kind of hurt. You got dumped! You got humiliated!
The self: Right, and that’s all that matters to you.
The ego: You want to be rejected? You want to be found inadequate?
The self: Hey, I am inadequate—in some ways. In others I’m pretty cool. I don’t mind if both are known. And anyway, your basic argument is wrong. I didn’t get hurt because I loved someone. I got hurt because it didn’t work out, this time.
The ego says, “What happened to good old anger and resentment?”
The ego: Oh right, like it could work out with somebody else.
The self: Of course it could. There are reasons why it didn’t work out this time. Maybe we just weren’t right for each other. Maybe the timing wasn’t right. Or maybe we just blew it. Maybe I blew it. I can figure these things out, if you would let me.
The ego: You’re going to look at what really happened and own up to your part in it? That’s sick. That smacks of humility. What happened to good old anger and resentment?

What happened to winning?
The self: It isn’t about winning. And by the way, you might want to own up to your part in what went wrong.
I’m not sure you are innocent here. I seem to remember some pretty bad advice coming from you, back when there was still a chance. “Don’t be brave, don’t take risks, don’t be honest.” Oh, and your best one: “Don’t let the power pass to the other person.”
The ego: You’re going to get us humiliated!
The self: You know what? I don’t care if I get humiliated now and then. It’s only hurt pride. And if I keep you under control, it won’t be a big threat anyway.
A wounded ego is like a schoolyard bully—it rules with fear.
And what you have to say is: of course I’m afraid. But that won’t keep me from trying. Because I’m not a coward like you.
It takes a kind of brutal self-honesty to admit that your pride has been demolished, that you’ve been brought low. But it’s worth it. Because with that out of the way, you can revisit the history with clear eyes. You can be straight with yourself and fair to the others involved. You can take an honest inventory of your own behavior. You can figure out what really happened.
And that makes it possible to do better next time, as we’ll see in Part Two, “Unlocking The Lessons of the Relationship.” I turn now to another thing that is part of many breakups—betrayal.
The experience of being betrayed can do its own kind of harm, which will linger on if not dealt with. At the top of the betrayal marquee is a little thing called cheating. In the next two chapters we’ll give that a thorough airing.





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