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Virtual Love

Excerpted from

If Love Could Think: Using Your Mind to Guide Your Heart


The original Pygmalion-from the Greek myth-was a celebrated sculptor who was turned off to women, considering them all to be untrustworthy whores. Yet he desperately needed these objects of his disdain, certainly wanting one to share his bed. So capitalizing on his creative talents, he crafted a statue of a woman, making it more beautiful than any woman could ever be. And of course, Pygmalion ended up falling in love with his own workmanship.

He named her Galatea and he showered her with flowers, pebbles, pet birds, and clothes. He talked to her, he held her, and he kissed her And then-what else? He took her to bed with him. We don't know exactly what happened next, except that Pygmalion was now deeply in love and praying to Venus for a wife just like his ivory girl. One night, as he was stroking her breast, the ivory softened, "made pliable by handling." As Pygmalion kissed her lips, he felt them warming. Then Galatea blushed, her eyes opened, and ... a blessed marriage quickly followed.

If only life imitated myth! Actually, it does, but only up to a point. Indeed, even under the most ordinary circumstances, falling in love is a creative, miraculous, and somewhat solipsistic affair. As we saw in the previous chapter, when we are in love, we think this other person is very special, but the fact is that we also create an image of him or her in our mind so that he or she will give us exactly what we need In this sense, falling in love is about overlooking imperfections that otherwise we are only all too willing to observe. A long nose, receding hairline, big thighs, big nostrils, big ego, small breasts, or small pockets are all irrelevant when we're in love. When my patients date and then decide it's not the right person, they often explain it with "She's not smart enough," or "He's a little boring," or "She's just not that attractive," or "He's not ambitious enough." They stubbornly refuse to ignore the other person's deficiencies. But when they fall in love, not only do they ignore such deficiencies, they also exaggerate, elaborate, and even invent positive features and traits that are merely in the eyes of the beholder.

Taken to an extreme, this is the Pygmalion syndrome, which is often a central feature of Virtual Love. We are in love with a prefabricated construction of our own making, which has little to do with the actual person we are dating. Unfortunately, we don't always know this early enough in the relationship because unconsciously we choose people and situations that obscure reality. In the case of Virtual Love, these "people and situations" most commonly involve a long-distance relationship. I'm in New York, she's in Boston. We met when I visited a college friend in Cambridge and we had an instant connection: great conversation, unbelievable sex. I then started going there every other weekend and she comes here too. We can never get enough of each other and our weekends are packed with fun activities and good times. Then we start talking about the next step-commitment. Who would move, who would quit their job, can we do it on a trial basis? Who will pay for the move? And what about supporting the one unemployed? Should we get married first? What about her autistic brother? Do I want something like this in my children's genetic makeup? And she: how are we going to deal with your mother coming every Saturday to clean your apartment and change your sheets? And more important: what if I quit my job, leave my family and friends, and move to New York, and six months later you change your mind? "Yes," I say-or at least think-"what if I start resenting you for depending on me too much? And what if you start resenting me for asking you to give up so much and move here for me?"

For obvious reasons, in the long-distance relationship, these kinds of questions have an extra intensity-we cannot test them against reality without making the big move. To be sure, the Big Move can work, but only if both parties are ready to throw caution to the wind, make a commitment, and stick to it come what may. But that's a big if, because these days most young people practically require empirical proof that "it can work" before making such a commitment. In addition, the unfortunate fact is that many long-distance relationships are a fixed game. That is, the concerns of reality rear their ugly head with particular vengeance because on some level we know all along that our weekends together-as wonderful and bittersweet as they have been-are a work of fiction. The problem is not so much that we ignored the fact of our geographical distance but rather that we have used it to avoid feeling ambivalent about the other person. We used it to avoid feeling put off by her neediness or my aloofness, or her defective genes or my dependency on my mother, and so on.

As the Big Move becomes more likely, those deficiencies loom even larger. Do I really want someone who has no life? Why else would she be willing to throw away everything for me? And she: why should I move for someone who's so selfish and spoiled? So as much as we have tried to create a perfect relationship, sculpting our weekends together with the conscious spontaneity of romance but the unconscious precision of an architectural blueprint, we slowly but surely approach the moment of truth, where anger, blame, and rejection creep, or sometimes burst, into the relationship. Sadly, this truth is not the full truth either. If the Pygmalion syndrome is one extreme, in due course it often leads us to the opposite extreme: the Frankenstein syndrome. Like Frankenstein in the Mary Shelley book, we end up creating a monster that will turn on us. Chances are she is not a needy, defective loser after all! But the more balanced truth is what we unconsciously wanted to avoid feeling upfront-love in spite of ambivalence.

So in order not to end up with the Frankenstein syndrome, we must deal as early as possible with the Pygmalion syndrome. Dealing with it early is what I've always tried to do with my patients-so many of whom at various times struggle with the dynamics of a long-distance relationship. As we saw in the previous chapter, however, it's not always easy to catch these things early.

Tags: Mental Health