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Imagine that you are writing an advice column about relationships. Make up a problem that someone is writing to you about. Provide an answer based on social psychological theories and research on interpersonal attraction and intimate relationships. Use at least three relevant terms and concepts, and describe the results of at least one study in your answer.

Dear Dr. Guro

I hope that this letter comes to you at a good time. I have a problem: Three years ago I broke up with my, then, 4-year girlfriend because I finally found the guts to admit to her that I cheated on her emotionally. I have no excuse. I made a mistake and I only made it worse by keeping it from her for almost a year. The break up was bad, as you can imagine. We tried to fix things in the months that passed but to no avail. We finally broke it off after six months of trying. But, it didn’t end there.

Ever since then, we’ve been on and off, going out for a couple of weeks then get into a bad fight and not talk to each other afterwards. But after a couple of more weeks, loneliness sets in and I can’t help but try to patch things up with her again. It was my fault in the first place so don’t I owe it to her make her feel better in this post-break up transition? So we’d date and hookup for a couple weeks but she would always bring up the fact that I cheated on her and how she would never have done that to me, and how unfair I was to her. We’d end up fighting. Also, she’d always be checking up on my social network accounts to “keep tabs” but would always complain about the girls who mention me on their posts or who would “like” or even comment on the things I post. Sooner or later, she’d bring up the reason why we broke up and how it was my fault why she’s the mess that she is right now. So we’d end up shouting at each other and leave each other arbitrarily until we (or at least I) can’t bear the loneliness anymore and start communicating again.

It’s tiring. It’s a never-ending cycle. My friends have already ditched me a couple of times because I didn’t want to really break up with her. As much as they wanted to be there for me, they told me that I need to swallow this bitter pill.

I still love her in a way, but I’m not sure anymore if keeping her is still the right thing to do. She’s just too precious for me to just “throw away” like that like what my friends are suggesting. Also, I still feel like I owe it to her to do what she wants because I was the cause of the break up in the first place. I’m still laden with guilt. Any advice from you would be very helpful.

Sincerely,

The Cyclist

Dear The Cyclist,

Thank you for your letter and I’ll try my best to share with you what I know.

Based on your letter, you’re in a complicated situation: you’re treating your ex as if she’s still your girlfriend, and you want to know how to stop that already. Rest assured that I am not here to judge why you did what you did that led to your break up, because people are entitled to change for the better. But what I would like to talk to you about is something difficult to do and you must find the right support system to help you with this.

First off, one way to escalate or maintain relationships is through proximity—functional distance, to be exact. It’s how available you are (physically and emotionally) to the person you desire, and the more available you are, the more desirable you become. Even by consistently being there (otherwise known as the “mere exposure effect”) makes you more desirable because you’re familiar. Thus, the cliché “proximity breeds liking”. However, in your case, we need to reverse the process: be un-functionally distant. The proximity you provide is already breeding contempt. You both need time to heal and clear things out in yourselves. Your presence is only bringing up more hurt than good. As hard as it is, you will need to start forgiving yourself for what you did and realize that life moves on. As for her, it will take some time because what you did ran contrary to her schema (or an organized collection of beliefs) of what a relationship should be.

Let’s face it, no one wants to be betrayed and that’s exactly what you did; you went against all her expectations. Just to show you how complex this can is cognitively for her, let me introduce a framework proposed by Ross and Fletcher (1995) that basically showed how people come up with theories that help them explain, predict and control relationships. Everyone does this and, I’m afraid, your ex-girlfriend’s theories about your relationship took a big blow. In essence, there are three layers of theories that we adhere to: the general social theory (how we attribute or explain people’s behavior in general), the general relationship theories (how we construct our beliefs, expectations, and ideal standards about relationships), and local theories (how we understand ourselves in relation to our partners). You mentioned that she kept bringing up what you did and it is precisely because what you did ruined all layers of the theories she adhered to. I can only assume this much from what you’ve read but you seem to be a nice guy in general and therefore nice guys will never do hurtful things (General Social theories). At the same time, because you agreed to be in an exclusive relationship with her, she expected you would not betray the written vows of fidelity (general relationships theories). Lastly, it seems like from your letter and how she treats you, you did not give any clue at all that you were capable of doing such an act (local theory). Therefore, because of the dissonance you’ve created with your action, she will have a hard time moving on from the dissonance she’s experiencing and is probably already doubting herself as a result. Which brings me back to me my next and main point: you need to decide when to close the door for good for other doors to open.

There was a study done by Dailey et al. (2009) about how satisfied couples in on/off dating relationships were in their relationships—they weren’t, at all. In fact, the arbitrary nature of the relationship, where couples would break up and make up, then break up again just to make up again, only gave more ambiguity and distress to the situation. What makes things more complicated, they said, is that bringing up the topic on the current relationship of the status is unpleasant, so couples end up not talking about it and continue down this spiral. They recommended that for those who want to permanently end the relationship, one of them needs to be explicit in wanting to end it—and this is my recommendation for you as well: it’s time to move on.

Proximity breeds liking only when no one in the relationship is hurt. But when someone is hurt, distance is your ally. It takes a while for people to rewrite the thoughts that they have grown used to and we should honor their dignity by giving them the proper space and time to rethink things and to re-evaluate themselves and ourselves as well. If you really love her like what you said, then giving her the  chance to be distant from you, allowing her to finally start living on her own, and allowing yourself to be the better person that you were meant to be as a separate individual from her, should be the most loving thing to do right now. You’re not throwing her away or abandoning her, you’re just sowing her to the ground and away from your arms so that she can properly grow into the person she was meant to be. You just need to trust she can make it on her own.

Then again, like I said, this advice isn’t easy and boy will you need your friends to get you through this. But don’t worry, this too shall pass. Nothing takes forever to finish, and I’m pretty sure love isn’t done with you yet.

I hope his helped and I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,

Dr. Guro

Additional Reference:

Dailey, R.M., Pfiester, A., Jin, B., Beck, G., & Clark, G. (2009). On-going/off-again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships?. Personal Relationships, 16(1), 23-47.

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