I met this man a few years ago and it was like a thunderbolt struck us – the stuff movies are made of. He told me that his female roommate was just a friend. We went on a few dates before I realized she was actually his girlfriend. He promised that they were going to break up, so I hung around for a bit, but of course it never happened. Last year, I ran into him, and he said he was no longer with that woman and wanted to date me. I turned him down flat because I figured that if he was going to lie and cheat on her then he would do the same to me. I’m kicking myself now because I have never met anyone like him. Is it really “once a cheater, always a cheater,” or could it be different for us? I have to put this to bed in my mind because I can’t stop thinking I missed out on “the one.” – Opportunity Lost
Sure, your encounter with this man was “the stuff movies are made of” – the ones in which Godzilla comes clomping through town and puts his big clawed foot through the roof of some poor villager’s house.
What you should be doing is tiring your arm out by patting yourself on the back. You showed presence of mind in drop-kicking “the one” – the one who, before long, would have been in a bar telling some woman that you’re just his “roommate.” But now your loneliness is telling your logic to put a sock in it, luring you into a common error in evaluating risk that behavioral economists call “optimism bias.” This is best explained as the “I’m special!” bias and involves the unrealistic thinking that the bad things that befall other people will see us and go, “Nuh-uh… no way… not her!”
Though we know – usually from painful experience – that character change is hard (and rare), optimism bias leads us to flirt with bright ideas like “Maybe he’s done with the cheating!” It’s probably easier to think that now, not having seen him for a while. And the reality is, even serial killers sometimes go dormant. This shouldn’t be taken as a sign that they’ve grown weary of cutting up the neighbors and storing them in Ziploc bags in their freezer.
Real change, when it happens, comes with signs there’s been a transformation – like expressions of deep remorse about being unethical and a sea change in a person’s moral standards. And these are just the preliminaries. Character change is revealed through action – over time. Sure, you could keep this guy at arm’s length for a year while you observe his behavior. Or, instead of hoping against hope for character change, you could opt for a change of characters, as in getting out there and meeting new men. Should you fall back into feeling wistful about this guy, remind yourself of German psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm’s thinking that love isn’t just “a feeling”; it’s something you do (in this guy’s case, to more than one woman at a time). Or as one of my other favorite 20th-century philosophers, a Dr. E. Fudd, put it, “Good widdance to bad wubbish.”
© 2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com). Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon. Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).