Photo: Fuzzy Gerdes flickr.com
Around the time of the holidays, many of us try hard to get away from the tensions and stresses in our lives, escaping into our “vacation mode”. Some manage to go into vacation mode only abroad, while others manage to disconnect within the country. Regardless of where, “vacation” is not just a place, but a mental state. This mental state allows us to recharge our batteries.
My own personal signs that I am in “vacation mode” are that I take off my watch and let time just flow by, without caring what time it is. Also, when in vacation mode, I am suddenly strangely unconcerned about money and more generous, willing to spend on luxuries which in daily life I wouldn’t allow myself. Duty free shops thrive on the fact that even stingy people freely dip into their pockets when in vacation mode.
Vacation mode allows me to be more open to strangers, more curious, more adventuresome and more flexible. The traffic I might encounter doesn’t upset me, nor am I in a rush to get anywhere. I once missed my plane in London due to my laid-back attitude, which allowed me to continue sipping my cappuccino way past the time when I should have left for the airport.
There are powerful psychological processes that allow us to experience a radically different reality than that of our mundane daily lives. Because of this radical shift in perspective, couples on vacation may experience a sense of being on honeymoon, even if in daily life there are tensions and problems. People have an amazing ability to let go of their problems and go with the flow of a different reality, putting aside their differences. The ability to shift perspective and enter into a different reality works both ways. It can be very disturbing for people to find that the romantic honeymoon they experience in vacation mode ends abruptly when they return home, as if it never happened.
We have the ability to put on a different persona and become different people depending on the context. A change in context brings out a different personality. For example, just like when people go on vacation, tragedy brings out different personalities in people.
Take this story told by Melissa Radler, a resident of NYC, quoted in The Jerusalem Post just after the Twin Towers attack: “A few days after being evacuated from my apartment, I was running out of underwear, so I went to Victoria’s Secret to stock up. A woman in front of me at the register seemed to have the same idea and we exchanged smiles. Suddenly the woman said to the sales-girl ringing up her order: ‘My best friend died this week.’ Everyone listened as the woman, in a calm and composed voice, started listing her friend’s attributes and accomplishments, and continued doing so until she had paid for the underwear. Before she left, the woman turned to face me, so I said, ‘I am really sorry about your friend.’ She burst into tears, put her arms around me and said, ‘And the thing was, she was so beautiful.’ Then she ran out of the store.”
I quote this story because I see an interesting link between the changes people go through during vacations to those they go through in times of tragedy. The woman who put her arms around a stranger would probably never do such a thing in normal times. Yet, given the change in circumstances, the change in context of a personal loss within a national trauma, a different personality was expressed. Behavior that is unthinkable becomes possible. People will express warmth, closeness, openness, trust and even a kind of universal love in these situations, people who normally might not stop to look at a beggar on the streets.
What is the deeper meaning of this ability to shift perspective so profoundly that we can revive problematic relationships just by going on vacation, or reach out with universal love to strangers during a national tragedy? The human ability to become different people in different contexts is rarely discussed, and this is not by chance. We would all like to believe that we are one person, with a consistent personality. We are attached to this idea because it promises predictability. It offers us a kind of (false) security based on the idea that we can count on people to behave in the way we expect. Experience however, shows that we are actually multiple personalities, which can “come out of the closet” and also go right back into the closet, depending on circumstances.
In intimate relationships, the mistaken idea that we are all one consistent personality is a stumbling block to change, growth and development. This idea, however false, has a powerful effect on us, and keeps us from noticing that the people we live with are really many different people. For example, a couple I worked with were stuck in a particularly unhappy marriage for many years. They reported that the marriage had no warmth or intimacy. They never had sex nor did they go out together. Each viewed the other person as cold and indifferent.
After a particularly effective therapy session, they suddenly experienced a week of unexpected closeness and warmth. They bought each other presents, called each other up on the phone many times during the day and even had wonderful sex. Miraculously, they felt that they had recaptured moments from their youth. However, deep down neither trusted the change in the other. After all, each really also believed that a person couldn’t suddenly become someone else. Since each saw the other as basically cold and uncaring, and had built up that image over years, the new personalities didn’t feel real to them. Although they both felt love, they were also suspiciously waiting for the fall. Obviously the fall came, because at some point one of them behaved according to the old pattern. The other immediately thought, “I knew it!” and responded with coldness and distance. It isn’t hard to imagine how quickly their honeymoon was over.
But what would have happened had this couple known that each person is really many different people, and that their cold indifferent partner also carries within him/her the loving and warm personality he/she had when they met? For one thing, knowing about the ability people have to shift suddenly might have helped them to not reach the terrible impasse they had achieved over so many years.
A deeper look at their marital patterns revealed that these people had often shown each other different sides of themselves, but because each of them had become convinced that the partner was a certain kind of person, they virtually ignored any evidence to the contrary.
In fact, had I not worked with this couple to help them believe that their sudden honeymoon was as real as their alienation, they would have quickly revived and reactivated their familiar personalities and would have forgotten that the honeymoon ever happened. People don’t remember events that don’t fit their ideas, so those events simply disappear from their consciousness, as if they had never happened. This can be very frustrating. People feel that their relationships keep them behaving in ways they themselves hate, because in the relationship a personality they don't even like is constantly being activated. Clients have told me that they are far nicer people at work or with strangers than with their partners, and often feel that just coming into their own home can turn them into the kind of person that makes them feel bad about themselves. People will even leave relationships because the relationship itself seems to invite their becoming a person they don't respect.
While it is uncomfortable to realize that we are all "multiple personalities", facing this fact can be very liberating, and can be a way to create change. For one thing, if we deliberately change our context, we can often change our ways of behaving.
Couples find that even having a conversation in an unfamiliar location can create a new feeling. If they normally talk in the bedroom, going out for coffee can create a new context that brings out different personalities. In the middle of a fight, just going for a walk can change the atmosphere entirely. This is because we become another person when we are outside rather than inside, or in movement rather than sitting down.
If people would then allow these changes to become real for them by believing in them, they would have an opportunity to create change. If they would trust that the change in personality of their partner who was so awful, but is now suddenly more attentive is a “real” change, they might be able to unlock the patterns that are holding them into ways of behaving that are hurtful.
Perhaps the major shift that needs to happen is both the simplest and the most difficult. To accept the changes of which we are capable, and to accept the changes of the people we love, we need to give up one of our favorite ideas - that we have one identity, and that this personality we call ourselves is constant, stable and predictable. Once we question this idea we can begin to realize that we can (and do) change all the time, and so do our partners.
Claire Rabin was both in private practice and in academia. She started and ran a three year program in family therapy at the Tel aviv University School of Social Work. Today she runs an institute for couples therapy that she began 7 years ago.