Some years ago I remember working with a couple who both, at different times, had had affairs. The woman seemed ready to forgive and move one, whereas the man did not. His blockage was that he had put his partner on a pedestal – he saw her as “perfect”, and he was struggling to adapt to the obvious truth that she was not really perfect, she was flawed, as we all are. Which reminds me of another client who much admired a favourite uncle – he was someone she looked up to, her role model. It was horrendous for her to discover that he was a paedophile.
People are not always who we think they are. But when people are important to us, we create an internal representation of them, like a sort of avatar, and we carry that around with us. This is handy, because we can turn to them for comfort, or advice, or love, when they are not actually there. Without us necessarily realising it, their avatar provides us with support.
When there is a clash – when we discover something unexpected about someone – we have a choice. On the one hand, we can ignore what we’ve learnt – we can deny it refuse to believe what we’ve seen or heard. But if we choose not to do that, we will need to change our avatar to include the new information.
Changing the avatar is tough. This is partly because it is all quite subconscious, and partly because of the way it is created. When we get close to someone – when we fall in love, it tends to be a slow process. Bit by bit we get to know that person better. In small steps, we gain trust in them. Slowly, slowly, the avatar is growing in importance and assuming a solid shape. It’s like a stalagmite forming in a cave, one drip at a time.
For my client who’d seen his wife as perfect, his avatar was destroyed, ripped out of him. He was experiencing shock and a huge sense of loss. His avatar had been a false one, and had been exposed as such in an instant. His stalagmite had been shattered by a single hammer blow.
In other cases the avatar is not destroyed, but is changed. It changes shape in a significant way, so that it no longer fits comfortably inside us in the way we are used to – in the way that we need it to. For example, I remember working with a couple where the man had suffered a long period of depression. His partner had come to see him as someone she needed to look after. Her avatar, once a representation of a strong, independent man, had become something she needed to care for, a dependency, a duty. As her partner emerged from his depression, he was feeling stronger but she was struggling to see that. He was changing, but her avatar was not – or it was changing much more slowly.
When things go wrong for a relationship, recovery can be slow and difficult. Probably both of the couple need to make changes, and those changes will most likely affect the relationship only very gradually. The avatars needs to reform, and that happens only slowly, one drip at a time. The drip from the stalactite cannot be rushed.