“It’s just temporary until…” is a lie we’ve all told ourselves at one point or another, whatever “temporary” thing it’s regarding. And the reason we do so is fairly straightforward: Sometimes, it’s the only way to convince ourselves to keep things together. “It’s an emotional safety net,” says Claire Vines, a psychological therapist in L.A.
Which may explain why I’ve always understood, “It’s just temporary until…” as inherently negative: A sort of cognitive dissonance whereby you can only continue on by convincing yourself that change is eventually coming — that your current path isn’t your true destiny. But do we ever really mean it? Is that temporary thing really a short-term plan, rather than a long-term commitment whose gravity you’re downplaying?
It’s important to note when considering this that the answer is often dependent on which party is pondering the state of the relationship. Certainly, throughout life, we’re required to feel like we’re part of a long-term commitment, even when we have no such intentions — in a job, for example. “You’ve got to consistently be of service to the people you are working for in order for them to feel they can’t live without you,” Maggie Mistal, a career consultant, radio host and speaker told Forbes back in 2012. “That means not only doing what you’re told but anticipating your boss’ needs and proactively offering help and/or ideas.”
On the flip side, there’s plenty of advice out there for people who want to know how to make their temporary relationship — say, a summer fling — last longer. “If you want to make your summer love last through the seasons, be confident in yourself, curious in the relationship and know that things will inevitably change, so be flexible as well,” writes Debra Rogers at the Huffington Post.
What about when you don’t intend for something to last, though, but for myriad reasons a temporary fix becomes permanent? In the world of IT infrastructure, temporary technological fixes that are deployed as stopgaps but are never replaced with permanent fixes are quite common. “The Y2K bug was a classic example of temporary products that never were replaced,” reports IT World. “When programmers wrote the code that became problematic for Y2K, they expected that the software would be rewritten or replaced by the time the year 2000 rolled around. As it turned out, the code was never redone or replaced.”
In the political sphere, perhaps the most famous recent example of a temporary fix was President Barack Obama’s legislation on undocumented immigrant children (DREAMers) who were brought to the U.S. Even the title of the immigration policy — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — makes clear that this was only meant to be a temporary postponement. “In his announcement of DACA, then-President Barack Obama said, ‘Congress needs to act’ because DACA is just a ‘temporary stopgap measure’ for this immigration issue,” reported The Washington Post. (In case you missed it, Congress has yet to pass any definitive immigration legislation.)
Still, as comforting as it is to know that basically everyone does this, it doesn’t help explain why we do it. According to Vines, the answer is depressingly simple: Convincing yourself that a person — whether it be a friend or romantic partner — is going to be a temporary player in your life is a way to disengage and remain detached until you become ready to bond with that person. She notes this phenomenon most often occurs with patients who have been brought up feeling unsafe during their developmental years. “Some people are always running,” she explains. “Their defense mechanisms is, ‘It’s temporary, if it doesn’t work, I move forward.’”
As you’d expect, it’s not an emotionally healthy way to live life: One consequence of always assigning a temporary label to people, says Vines, is loneliness. “Not solitude,” she emphasises. “That’s more of a choice.”
This “emotional safety net” isn’t unique to relationships, either — as mentioned above, it often happens in a work or lifestyle setting too. “We all have a certain state of being that we consider ‘temporary,’” writes Shauna Mackenzie for Best Kept Self. “We’ll be more fit when the weather improves and the holidays end; we’ll work on getting the house in order when work projects are over; and we’ll be able to afford that unique style when we’re more financially fit.” (Vines also attributes this professional limbo to a similar fear of commitment.)
So how long does it take to decide something is for real, and not a passing convenience? Vines can’t say for sure — but she does tell me that the worst thing you can do is to wait too long to find out.