If you feel a negative contrast between what you experienced in the past and what you are experiencing now, you feel the short-fall as “unhappiness,” “loss of energy,” or “depression.”
At first after Paul died, the contrast was nearly unbearable. I had been accustomed to intense connection and constant affection. We spent every spare minute enjoying each other’s closeness – just being together. He had been sick for a year prior and I had always been busy administering to his medical and personal needs, all of which gave my life a sense of purpose, meaning, and focus. It was all about being in love.
Then there was nothing. I sat in the midst of the void at loss for a sense of purpose, feeling lost. The negative contrast crashed down around me and I called it “grief.”
Grief has a lot to do with contrast.
But it’s been a few years now and my frame of reference has changed. I’m no longer comparing today to the days when Paul and I were entwined together. Instead, I am comparing today to the first year following his death. And things have improved enough for me to feel a positive contrast. Hence I don’t perceive myself as unhappy anymore.
Another way of saying this is, you can grow accustomed to something challenging and it takes time.
Contrast is why breakup is so unbearable. You are left with the broken pieces of your heart searching desperately for crazy glue, in painful contrast to the past when you were happily coupled looking forward to your future together.
But sometimes negative contrast is subtle, hard to see. You feel unhappy and don’t realize that you are comparing the quality of your current life to some previous time. You might not be conscious of your frame of reference.
Take Victor. He left his wife because he was feeling hemmed in, bored, and desirous of being with other women. He loved his freedom, but five years later he found himself feeling unhappy and wasn’t sure what the issues were. So he’s changed jobs, changed girlfriends, changed apartments, but he just didn’t feel the get up and go he used to have for life. Since he was fighting depression, he came in for therapy.
What was going on was that his mind was comparing his current life to the old married days when he felt secure and connected, had a sense of future and steady companionship, embedded within extended families, with hustling and bustling of activity. These were the days before he’d begun to grow bored and restless.
Although he chose single life and doesn’t consider his decision to leave his marriage a mistake (whether his reasons are valid or not is immaterial), his mind (working somewhat unconsciously) was busy comparing the quality of his earlier married days to his current reality. He was basically alone, since none of his new relationships resulted in sharing a “total life” together.
Realizing the “contrast” helped him in two ways: It helped him understand where his depression was coming from and it clarified his goals. He has a clearer sense of what ingredients he needs in his life to make him happy, a better sense of direction.