Ask Dr. Tracy

The Broken Popcorn Machine Parable

So often in my private counseling, I've heard the same story from both men and women: "I met this attractive, interesting person, the sex was exciting, our relationship started off great, and I fell in love."

Then they go on. "But I've poured my heart into this relationship for over a year, and he (she) just isn't responding. He (she) insists nothing's wrong, but I know something must be."

These are not "Crazy Love" situations, as in Coleen's and my "Did For Love" cases, where the person you're in love with is an obvious philanderer or crazy person. These cases are more like Sandy's story, where the relationship failed to blossom into mutual love and eventual commitment for a different reason: the person you've fallen for looks normal but turns out to be commitment-phobic, has fear of intimacy, or is simply a "witholder."

Invariably, my hopelessly in-love client feels there must be something they're doing wrong, or something more they should do to solve the problem. I feel sad for them, for the unfairness of the situation, but all I can do is tell them the following little story, about a mother and her son and a popcorn machine at a carnival.

The son gets a coin from his mother for popcorn but comes back empty-handed, so his mother walks over to the machine with him to help. She is careful to put the right coin in the right slot, and she even shakes the machine, but no popcorn comes out. She turns away but he pulls her back, his heart set on popcorn. "The popcorn is right there," he cries, "I can see it, and we put the money in, so why can't you do something to get it?"

His mother gently explains why she can't help. "I'm afraid there's nothing you can do and nothing I can do; the machine is broken and the only one who can fix it is a popcorn machine repairman."

Accepting the message of this parable is difficult, so I usually continue. "Your partner is a broken popcorn machine. You've put your coins in and deserve to get love out. You may even see love in him (her), but there's nothing either of us can do to get it out. The repair he (she) needs is years of therapy. This is a popcorn machine you can't fix, and you can't wait for it to get fixed. Put the loss behind you and get on with your life."

In addition to commitment phobia, withholding, and fear of intimacy, there are some other problems you may encounter in relationships which prove sadly resistant to love and the best of intentions. You probably can't:

  • Cure an alcoholic
  • Cure a drug addict
  • Make a Homosexual straight
  • Get a heavy person to lose weight
  • Get a smoker to quit smoking
  • Get a slob to be neat
  • Rescue a crazy person
  • Expect fidelity when it was never there before
  • Keep a crook on the straight and narrow
  • Expect someone to always stay the same
  • Expect someone to be what you expect

If you've done all you can in a relationship and it's still not working, the Broken Popcorn Machine story may help you come to peace with letting it go.

Related Keywords: Bad Prospects, Letting Go, Giving Too Much

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