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February 16

The Butterfly Effect

Filed under: Advice,Psychology — posted by Mia @ 4:01 pm

Doree Shafrir at The New York Observer recently described, ruefully, the slacker boyfriend who totally got his act together — a little too late. “Maybe, I realized, I had seen him as someone who had potential but just needed a little tweaking,” she writes. “But it was sort of annoying that he managed to do all the tweaking after we’d broken up.”

Ah, the Butterfly Effect, as Shafrir calls it it: “One day he’s a pot-addled caterpillar barely hanging on to his barista job, begging off brunch because he’s only got $37 in his checking account, spending his nights ‘playing music’ (his band is going to start playing shows again really soon) and eating cheese fries, and then, six months after the breakup, he’s turned into a Monarch: lost 20 pounds, has a job as a graphic designer, his band is playing the Bowery Ballroom and he has a new girlfriend (tall, blond, wearing what appears to be the $282 Vanessa Bruno sweater you eyed longingly at Stuart & Wright) who, he casually mentions when you run into him at brunch, is the heiress to a paper clip fortune.”

The comments on her piece are  a flurry of hurt feelings and still-misunderstood motives. And rightly: the blossoming of the ex is one of the least understood post-breakup phenomenons, and one that causes some of the most lingering hurt. Hey, I was the one who encouraged all that! Don’t I at least get producer credit?

My thoughts: The Butterfly Effect does not refer to relationships where one person is projecting their ideals onto their boyfriend/girlfriend, then gets upset when that person doesn’t perform perfectly to please them. The argument of many in the comments goes: if the person truly loved you, they wouldn’t want to turn you into their idea of what you should be. Which is totally true, and if you have been on the receiving end of this treatment, you know it’s insulting at best, hurtful and confidence-shattering at its worst. Hopefully we learn to avoid this kind of relationship, or go to therapy when we can’t figure why we keep getting into them.

The Butterfly Effect can happen only to someone who really did want to change all along, while the significant other was witness to their dissatisfaction with their… life, job, apartment, fear of yoga. But real transformation, as we know, can occur only when the person changing is ready, willing, and able to do it — for no one but themselves.

The problem is that humans are bad at change, both the doing and the witnessing. I’d argue that in a way, it’s most difficult to change while among people who know you well: family, close friends, lovers. Siblings and parents, for example, may refuse to see you as anyone but the kid they grew up with. They embarrass you with recollections of your lesser moments, then try take credit for anything you do right. You’re a Supreme Court justice now? To your fam, you’re still that third-grader who got caught telling a fib, and it was their teasing who made you who you are today.

If you’re serious about change, you need to get support from a casual peer group — like a bowling team or a book club. These people like you, but don’t know you well enough to have a fixed idea of who you are, and will not feel as though they are personally threatened by any changes you make.

This reflects the natural order of our social development. We begin to break out and form our own opinions as teenagers when peers, not family, are the most important social unit in our immature hearts. Then in our twenties, we undergo more changes than we will at any other time in our lives. And this is a good thing. This is natural. Unfortunately, this is also when we usually have our first attempts at real adult relationships.

We’re supposed to be changing and growing as people, but it’s hard to do while in a relationship, especially one that is comfortable (remember, that’s why we left home, or still need to). Yep, we are complex creatures, all of us.

Recent studies of the effects of praise on children lend insight into our perverse reactions to unconditional praise. The more “I know you’re brilliant, you can do it!” is thrown at you, the more terrified you’ll become of proving everyone wrong. We’re most likely to try our best when we’re only praised for effort, and we’re most likely to succeed when we’re told we can’t.

Remember how annoying it was you when your mom said you were attractive, even though you hated your nose? Not only did her praise embarrass you, it made you start to think she was soft in the head. How could she possibly know what she was talking about, when clearly you have a big bumpy honker right in the middle of you face? If one day you weren’t bothered by your nose anymore, it would only be because something in your view changed, not because you suddenly believed your mother.

This is where the breakup comes into play. One big change makes other big changes easier. Without the protection and support of people we are intimate with, we are free to risk more, we can try and fail without witnesses, we can start fresh without reminders of past failures. So: what can seem bewildering and selfish to someone on the outside can be an intensly important development period for the person going through it. Fly, butterfly, fly!


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