Love and the Zeigarnik effect 

Yesterday, I felt the happiest I’ve felt in months. I was driving home from work, with my tunes up slightly too loud, singing along and I couldn’t stop smiling.

The spell has broken. The sun has come out after months of rain and grey skies.

I’m not in love with Whipperspawn anymore.

(I renamed the Whippersnapper; since he lied about his age, I think he’s too young to be a Whippersnapper.)

My heart has finally caught up with my head. And my head has leapt further forwards.

When he ignored my message asking for help, he started seeming less physically attractive. Now, I really see him for what he is. He’s just a normal, average, flawed man. If that.

I’ve only just started feeling like this.

The start of this week, I felt very strange indeed. I couldn’t work out if I was getting physically ill or just having a mental breakdown.

Monday morning, right before my alarm, I was dreaming that my dead ex-boyfriend came back, and we were living together in our old house again. I was so incredibly happy, but I knew he was dead so I was trying to work out if he was a ghost or a delusion. My mum wanted to come round but I wouldn’t let her because I knew she would tell me he wasn’t real and I wanted to go on pretending.

I have dreams like that from time to time, where he comes back, and I’m so happy until I wake up, and then I feel unsettled for the rest of the day.

All week, I’ve had waves of nausea and bad headaches, but mainly I feel unbelievably exhausted and distracted.

I keep realising 10 minutes have gone by and all I’ve done is stare at the wall.

I think it’s the Whipperspawn revelation.

In some ways, the fact he’s 23 is not the biggest deal. There are funny mathematical quirks I notice, like the fact he’s closer in age to my 14-year-old Godson than to me.

But it’s not his age itself.

If he had put a dishonest age on OkCupid but we never discussed it, I wouldn’t be so bothered.

But we both slightly fetishised the age gap and talked about it constantly, and every conversation was a lie. I’m sure we mentioned him being 25 on every date, at least once. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had over 100 conversations about it.

One hundred lies.

I know it’s melodramatic, but I feel disorientated. Someone’s age is a fundamental part of their identity. I was talking to my flatmate about it, and he said “it’s very un-anchoring, isn’t it?” That’s exactly how I feel. Unanchored.

It’s like someone has opened up the Word Document ‘Dater Analysis’s Life’ and done Find and Replace on a few minor details, and now I keep coming across unexpected changes.

I also think I would shrug it off more, if he’d seemed like a shady character from day one. But one of the things I liked best was his honesty.

I was fine with the fact he was riddled with STIs, that he’d slept with 10 times as many people as me, and that his body image affected our relationship, because he was open and honest.

He was so upfront about how much he liked me. It seemed like our relationship was built on something strong and almost pure (probably the first time something featuring genital warts so highly has been described as ‘pure’).

Now I realise what we had was just a precarious house of cards of nonsense. And the bottom row was just jokers.

I also feel uncomfortable that my sexual age-gap decisions weren’t mine to make. I consented to sleeping with someone in their mid-20s, but I unknowingly fucked someone in their early 20s.

And yet, despite feeling creepy about it, one afternoon this week, I was absolutely obsessed with having sex with him, one last time. I couldn’t stop thinking about having his young, juvenile (BUT DEFINITELY OVER THE AGE OF CONSENT) 23-year-old body between my thighs. I think my brain registered the emotional arousal from my anger, and it was so unusual, it thought “Dunno, she must be turned on I guess?” and cranked up the sex hormones.

All of this, I could get past, if he had told me differently. It must’ve been hard, if he was falling in love (which I still believe) and had this secret. I even have a hazy memory of him saying “what would you do if I was younger than 25?” And I think I replied “You’re not, though, are you?”

If we’d been in bed together, intertwined and having a nice moment, and he said “I need to tell you something – I’m only 22. I’m sorry for lying,” I would’ve got over it.

Even if he texted me after the breakup, and said “I need to get this off my chest. I lied to you about my age. I hope you can forgive me.”

But the way he did it –  he kept back that piece of information until it was useful for him. He was so histrionic and aggressive, when he said “just to make you hate me even more, I was only 22… I hope you fucking detest me. Bye.”

I hope you fucking detest me.

It’s so manipulative. And I feel so used, the way he only talked to me recently when he needed something. As soon as he’d got what he wanted, he wouldn’t even finish the conversation.

The deceit, manipulation and being used have made me feel grubby. I feel like I did when someone went through my handbag and stole my purse, or when someone hacked my laptop and encrypted all my documents.

It’s the exposed, dirty feeling like someone’s been through my knicker drawer.

I did like the conversation we had on Sunday morning. He was apologetic for lying about his age, and I was being sassy and cool about it. He was asking for lots of advice and seemed to be hanging on my every word.

Then we stopped talking about him, and he lost interest. This was so helpful because it made me like him even less. (He seemed really interested in my stories when we were together. Now I don’t know what was real.)

We had left it that we would meet up, to get closure and say goodbye, when he has a new job.

Afterwards, a few things dawned on me:

  • where were the other apologies? He apologised for lying about his age but nothing else. My original beef was with him ignoring my important text. He indignantly said he hadn’t done anything wrong, but later said “actually I completely agree with you”. So the next thing should’ve been “I’m sorry I ignored you, then sorry I was a prick about it.” Instead he just launched into this self-indulgent Morrissey bullshit about being ‘jealous of his illusions’ and hoping he dies
  • There’s no way in hell he’s going to text me in a few weeks saying “OK, got a new job, when shall we meet?” It seems pretty obvious now – he may not want much to do with me, but he sure as hell doesn’t want to say goodbye and let me go. Throughout our relationship, meeting up caused him endless anxiety, making him cancel, even if it was something fun like sex or the cinema. As if he’s suddenly going to be fine with a) meeting up and b) saying goodbye. This pleasant, mutually satisfying goodbye is never going to happen.
  • The person I loved so much is a 25-year-old guy who never existed

When the chat on Sunday started petering out, I decided to draw it to an official close by asking about meeting. I didn’t want him to just stop replying and leave me hanging again.

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happened. Even though he agreed, he ‘can’t’ meet while he’s unemployed and has hours and hours of time. So we left it that he’d let me know when he’s ready, in a few weeks.

Here I am again. Hanging around, dangling, like an incongruous spider.

It’s given me a really bad Zeigarnik effect.

My flatmate, Joe, introduced me to this.

According to the Zeigarnik Effect, we remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones. It was first discovered when a Psychologist noticed that waiters wouldn’t remember what people had ordered once they’d paid, but would remember the orders of people who hadn’t paid yet, even if they happened at the same time.

The idea is that incomplete tasks create a kind of psychological tension, and use cognitive energy, which makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s a bit like how your computer is slower if you’ve got too many programmes running at once.

It’s the reason that when I’m working with someone with insomnia, I might recommend taking a pen and paper to bed, so if they’re drifting off to sleep, and think of something they need to do tomorrow, they can write it down and forget, instead of trying to sleep with that thought running in the background.

It’s probably why it feels uncomfortable when TV shows end on a cliffhanger or when you don’t get to finish your story.

It’s why I couldn’t bear it when my colleague’s email signature had an open bracket in it, but she forgot the close bracket.

It must be why unresolved relationship endings are harder to get over.

Things have always felt so unfinished with WS. The last time I saw him, we thought we were staying together, and both said “see you 3 weeks.” I still have his shirt, and don’t know what to do with it. Whenever I’m waiting for him to get back in touch, I keep thinking of things to say.

I’m never going to get a good ending. He won’t give me that. He wants to keep topping up my Zeigarnik Effect, so he still has power over me.

And on the very slim chance that he does meet me, will it really close off my Zeigarnik effect? If he leaves before I’m ready, I’ll feel unfinished. If he acts like a prick, which certainly isn’t beyond the realms of possibility, I’ll feel unsatisfied. If he acts like the lovely guy from when we were together, I’ll feel incomplete because I won’t want it to end.

I realised these are my options:

  • give him a chance, wait for him to reply over the next few weeks, in case I do get what I want
  • message him saying I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to meet and explain I need to re-block him, because everything I said previously still stands
  • message him saying I’ve changed my mind but don’t re-block him, so he can have his say
  • just block him on everything, saying nothing.

I can’t wait for him to reply. I felt like I’d got out of prison last Saturday. I can’t go back. The piece of web I’m dangling on is starting to stretch and split.

I can’t let him know I’m ending contact. It will go on forever, each of us saying “this is the Last Message. Apart from this one last thing…” If I say goodbye and block him, he’ll find a new way to have the last word. If I say goodbye but leave the door open, he’ll slam it shut with my foot in it.

It feels horribly mean, but I’ve just blocked him on everything, without saying anything.

I feel awful, because as far as he knows, he can just text me when he’s ready. The last thing I said, was “let’s say goodbye in a nice way, without blocking each other.”

I said to Joe, “is this like sleeping with someone and then creeping out, while they’re asleep?”

He said “No, it’s like sleeping with someone, but they won’t let you leave, and now it’s 10pm the next day, and you need to get out.”

Even though it feels horrible, a tiny part of me recalls every time he promised to do something and then refused, so there is a delicious irony to it.

He’s probably currently thinking of how he can get out of meeting up with me.

9 thoughts on “Love and the Zeigarnik effect 

  1. I love love love reading your thoughts from a psychologist’s perspective. So rational and realistic.

    I was shocked to read that you ultimately blocked him without telling him beforehand… but secretly love it. 😉 And when he finds out, he’s going to go bananas! You are absolutely right that he checks out as soon as you ask something of him.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: I’m completely obsessed with sex right now | Dater Analysis

  3. Pingback: Great date, terrible texts | Dater Analysis

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