The Gumby Effect

Psychologically, people are stretchy. I call this the Gumby effect, named after the green rubber toy that can be pulled all kinds of ways and somehow always returns to its original shape. When we try hard, we are all able to stretch beyond what’s comfortable and briefly look more capable than we really are. The Gumby effect allows us to be overachievers for short bursts of time. But when the pressure is off, we return to form.

In relationships, picture Gumby-in-stretch-mode when people are trying their best to make a good first impression. Now imagine Gumby retracting to normal size as the person relaxes the stretch and sinks back into who he or she is at core. Consider Gumby in his normal shape as a person’s real level of psychological maturity. Maturation allows us to hold our shape in a way we don’t have to think about. Like Gumby, once people reach their mature form, their personalities don’t change much.

However, when people don’t fully develop psychologically, they often compensate for their emotional immaturity by learning to stretch in order to look good or to get what they want.

If you meet someone in stretch mode, you will think they are more mature than they really are. When they recoil back to their real shape, you may wonder where that wonderful person went. They suddenly seem more selfish, less sensitive, more defensive, more fault-finding, and more controlling. In short, they begin to show their immature shape, their true Gumby form.

Many people get to know their partner when that person is trying hard to make a good impression. In Gumby terms, the partner is stretching mightily. In the early days, the partner may have done thoughtful things, professed love, or showed tender sympathy. But over time the stretch wears thin and then contracts to a more comfortable shape. That’s when you see that person’s true form.

When Gumby people pull back into something less desirable, you might think they could return to their previous marvelous self if only they really tried. That’s true enough, but who lives daily life trying hard? It’s a mistake to think of the selfish behavior as a choice or that the person could be nicer if he or she wanted to. Such people don’t because they can’t—just like a child on good behavior can’t keep it up forever. Remember the physics of a stretch; it’s a temporary state.

When you meet immature people in stretch mode, you won’t be able to see right away that they are incapable of sustaining their niceness. Only time and experience with them will tell you that.

The best approach is to give the relationship time to develop so that you can see whether their caring behavior is Gumby overachievement or their normal functioning. Metaphorically, is that person really that tall, or are they stretching on tiptoe?

This is particularly true in the area of emotional intimacy, where partners open up and communicate with each other about their deepest needs, feelings, and dreams. In the early days of a relationship, Gumby people will stretch themselves into a more expanded version of themselves, trying hard to listen and care. But there will always be moments where Gumby snaps back into the original shape, if only for a second. That snap-back moment is a preview of whom you will be living with.

Ask yourself if your new love interest is kind and reliable in a relaxed way over the long haul or just when stretching for the moment. Are you seeing true kindness and caring in him, or is it the temporary exertion of a more immature personality, sure to retract under the next period of sustained stress?

The answer to this question is not immediate because expansion fatigue takes time to show up. It is the best reason for not jumping into commitments too fast. (Gumby types always pressure you for quick decisions and commitments because it’s a strain to be nice for so long. They long to bag you, so they can then contract into a more comfortable shape.)

In old-fashioned terms, the opposite of the Gumby effect is character. It refers to who you are when there is nothing to be gained from acting otherwise. Character is not who you are when you try hard; it is who you are when there’s nothing to gain. Like Gumby, you can’t tell a person’s real shape when ulterior motives are pulling him this way and that. Let him relax and feel like he’s got you and then see how he behaves.

We can never afford to stop asking ourselves this question about new people in our lives. Is this who this person is naturally, or is he stretching hard? It can be a long and painful process to extricate yourself from a negative relationship once you have fallen for the Gumby effect because you keep hoping that the next stretch will stick. But step back and observe what shape he resumes when nothing’s at stake. Watch how he treats you when he’s confident he has you. That’s the real Gumby.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811 or visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.

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