Science vs. Love: Stories about the battle between head and heart

This week, we’re presenting stories about times when science gets in the way of love — or vice versa.

Part 1: Jacqueline Trumbull is preparing for a career in research psychology when she gets a call from a casting agent for The Bachelor.

Jacqueline Trumbull is a clinical research coordinator for a psychiatry lab at Mt Sinai and, as seen on TV, aspires to a Ph.D. in clinical psychology (so she better get in). Because of her life philosophy to say “Yes!” to as many opportunities as possible, she found herself on Season 22 of ABC’s The Bachelor, yet said “No!” to the prospect of giving up said Ph.D. and moving to Arizona for an admittedly dashing race car driver. She has spent several years in psychology research and currently focuses on mood and personally disorders, with a particular interest in narcissism.

Part 2: Psychologist Monica O’Neal is an expert in relationships — but in her personal life, she finds herself struggling when it comes to saying goodbye.

Dr. Monica O’Neal is a Clinical Psychologist and Relationship Expert with a private practice in the Back Bay. Popularly known as "Dr. Monica," she specializes in the treatment of relationship challenges and interpersonal conflicts. When Dr. Monica isn’t at her practice, she is a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and consults for various local and national media outlets. Dr. Monica is an avid bike rider, and throughout the summer, you can find her in the Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut as a weekend “counselor” at the very first camp for adults, her favorite place on earth.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jacqueline Trumbull

About two months into my new job at Mount Sinai I got a call at work.  “Hi, Jacqueline.  This is Melissa from the casting office of The Bachelor.” 

“Hi.”  I had forgotten that my friend had nominated me as a joke about six months prior.  That asshole is in the room right now. 

“Are you still living in New York City and single?” 

“Yes,” I said. 

She asked me a few more questions and then, “So do you think you could take about nine weeks off from work in September?” 

“No.”  A lot of people do quit their job to go on The Bachelor.  Jobs come and go and The Bachelor is obviously a once in a lifetime opportunity.  But I had a checkered career history.  Four years prior, I had graduated college with a philosophy degree and was working in web design, so I had just spent four years studying the meaning of life.  And then was unceremoniously spit out of the warm bath of academia and into the 9:00 to 6:00 grind where I felt like a nuisance and a fraud. 

And I know that imposter syndrome is real but I actually was an imposter.  To this day, I still can’t build a Squarespace website.  I hate web design. 

So there I was doing work that felt totally wrong to me afraid that I would be undriven and depressed for the rest of my life.  There were literally days when I would just sob on the couch after humiliating interviews wondering how I would provide for myself.  And then it hit me.  I already spent 100% of my time thinking about depression.  I might as well get paid for it. 

So I moved home, in with my parents, every 23-year-old’s dream for two years.  I went back to undergrad and I started years of low-paying or no-paying research all so that I could be one of the 2% to 3% of applicants who gain acceptance into clinical psychology PhD programs. 

But once I made that decision, everything kind of fell into place.  I was motivated, I was happy and confident.  Psychology had an intellectualism and a relevance that I had so craved.  And I finally got a real job as a research coordinator at a really prestigious hospital studying exactly what I wanted to study in grad school.  It’s probably the biggest asset to my PhD application.  It was with this newly-won sense of achievement and gravitas that I was asked to try out for reality TV. 

My first reaction was, no, thank you.  My career was too important.  This job was amazing.  I couldn’t take off nine weeks of work.  Nobody can do that in September. 

But then the devil on my left shoulder tugged on my earlobe and said, “Remember high school?” 

It’s a humbling experience to realize that even though I went to a great university and had dated good-looking, successful men and am in an amazing career, I’m still not over the total injustice of having been a loser in high school.  And once the idea of permanently cementing this chip in my shoulder started to take hold that I realized the full scope of this opportunity. 

Jacqueline Trumbull shares her story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Jacqueline Trumbull shares her story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Zhen Qin.

See, I didn’t just want validation from the kids I went to high school in West Virginia with.  I wanted cosmic validation.  I wanted to feel anointed by the universe as though I had been specially chosen to peek outside the bounds of normal reality and to experience, even fleetingly, fame.  To look at the inner workings of the show that fascinated so many people that college courses had been written about.  I would get to experience that.  That was amazing. 

And I know that this is narcissistic but it was right there within my grasp so how could I not close my fist around it? 

Anyway, it wasn’t just about validation.  I still call it psychological skydiving.  If I went on this show, I would see myself in the third person.  I would experience myself as you see me.  You guys are all probably aware of the unnerving experience of hearing your voice on a recording.  It kind of challenges your view of yourself.  It’s really unsettling. 

Well, I was about to see everything.  I was going to see the way I kiss, which as it turns out is aggressive.  Arie said I was a good kisser, so whatever.  I was about to see the way I walk in heels and how often I play with my hair, the way that asshole looks at me when I say something stupid.  I was going to see everything.  I was going to put my trust in producers whose motivations were pretty opaque. 

I was going to put my image in the hands of indifferent editors to sculpt as they wish.  I figured I would have to watch the episodes trembling under the bed, cradling a bottle of vodka, squinting at the TV but I would deal with my own anxiety later because, to my horror and elation, I was asked to go on the show. 

But the worst part was yet to come.  The part that I had been dreading more than anything was asking my boss to go on The Bachelor.  The worst part is he had never even heard of it.  It is difficult to truly convey the total humiliation of describing the plot of The Bachelor to your 75-year-old psychiatrist boss. 

I tried to intellectualize the shit out of this.  I told him all about my deep psychological reasons for going on.  I even referenced Carl Jung at one point.  But in the end, you can’t escape the simple reality. 

“So there's like 30 of us and we’re all dating this one guy, right, and every week he dumps a couple of us until he marries the one that’s left.  So can I go?” 

He was not stoked about this idea but he knew how much I wanted to go on.  He had a very real and legitimate concern that our very small lab couldn’t function correctly understaffed so he let me go.  But I gave my lab a phone number to call if they really needed me back, if it became too stressful. 

And with that, a few weeks later, I flew to LA and stepped out of a limo into total emotional upheaval. 

That first night, surrounded by women and color-saturated gowns in a gaudy mansion where everything kind of seemed fake, lined up by a man wearing foundation so that another man could pick out the top 21 hottest girls to advance to the next round, I wanted to go home.  It felt so tacky even degrading.  But I stayed, and I made friends, and I started having a pretty good time. 

When I first went on, I kind of had my career in mind.  I didn’t want to appear demonstrative or judgmental so that first week when I was crying about something stupid, my producer pulled me in for an interview to see the dramatics.  I felt violated and betrayed.  I stood in a corner refusing to talk to him. 

But maintaining a relative hold of my sanity quickly bored me because I didn’t come to hide.  I came in a sense to be exposed in front of ten million people.  So in the second week when I was crying over something…

Everyone is always crying on The Bachelor, by the way.  Always crying.  It’s like ten years of therapy for which you then need another ten years of therapy to make up for it. 

So I was crying over something stupid, I pulled him into the interview because I wanted people to see me. 

As for Arie, which is the name of the bachelor, I don't know whether the greater psychological challenge would be to fall in love or to resist.  But as time wore on, I became increasingly interested in the former.  So exactly one month into my time there, he asked me on a one-on-one date in Paris and I realized I could be on the brink of something pretty big. 

He picked me up outside our hotel in a red convertible which, promptly, broke down.  We laughed it off.  We took an Uber to a high-end Parisian store where I purchased a $1,000 simple black dress, which I then wore to Maxim’s which is a restaurant that I had been dying to go to.  It’s a five-story art nouveau masterpiece which had once been called the most famous restaurant in the world and was featured in one of my favorite old movies, Gigi.  Well, production bought out the entire place. 

We ate oysters and escargot.  We drank scotch.  We moved outside to smoke cigars off camera.  Even though we had only spent like 10- to 20-minute chunks of time together every few days, this felt like a whole hell of a lot more than a first date.  We had the kind of physical magnetism that kept our hands on each other at all times.  He made me feel sexy when I thought that I would go in as the weird bookish girl. 

He asked me about my PhD aspirations.  He said that we can make anything work as long as we loved each other.  We talked about marriage and kids.  At one point, he gave me this look that was so full of shy and yet unmasked hope and vulnerability it’s burned into my memory.  And when they replayed it on TV, I just instantly broke down crying. 

Photo by Zhen Qin.

Photo by Zhen Qin.

The whole date was out of a dream but I was quickly ripped out of the fantasy.  Because when I got home that night, I found out that my co-worker had called.  It had been extremely stressful at the lab and they needed me back or they needed to replace me. 

I knew that this call could be coming but until that night my heart and Arie’s heart had not been on the line.  I was riddled with guilt and anxiety because the next week was hometowns.  There are four women left.  We had to bring him home to meet our families and if we didn’t think that we could get engaged to him in less than a month we really didn’t have any business being there.  Suddenly, I was faced between choosing between my job, which was the biggest asset in my career, or this man that I thought maybe I was falling in love with. 

I made my decision and a few days later I knocked on his hotel room door.  We sat down on the couch, I immediately located the closest alcohol in the room, launched into a shaky explanation of why I thought I should go home knowing that there's no way to practice saying goodbye to someone that you're not ready to leave. 

It wasn’t until that night that I realized how much he cared about me too.  He asked me not to leave.  He asked if there was anything he could do to stop me from leaving.  If he could go on another date, if we could just spend the week together. 

I didn’t tell him about my job because, here’s the thing, even though as we were holding each other and kissing throughout that entire breakup and I was devastated about leaving, I didn’t know if anything I was feeling was real.  In fact, the one thing I knew was that we had fundamental issues that could not be resolved in three weeks.  We had no business getting married.  So even though the reason I left The Bachelor was my job, the reason I left Arie was because we weren’t right for each other. 

That was just the beginning of my grief because then my airtime was erased.  Even though I was on eight episodes, people only knew my name for two.  Even though I was one of the last women standing and we had probably one of the strongest connections, suddenly our relationship didn’t look like it mattered at all.  It was nothing. 

And even as I gleefully ignored the Facebook friend requests pouring in from my high school friends, all I could think about was what I had given up and what I had chosen to forfeit, the opportunity that I could have had if I just had made a different decision.  Suddenly, all that mattered was what the other women had.  It’s amazing how unhappy you can be with an awesome situation when you know you could have had more. 

And suddenly I had an actual measurement of social dominance.  The Instagram Follower Account.  It was an actual measurement of what I had given up.  I was obsessed with it.  I was obsessed to my family and friends.  It became extremely difficult to maintain friendships with the women that I had been so close with because I was envious of them.  I figured that no matter what happened, I would be a degree happier than I had been before.  I had 50,000 Instagram followers, I had attention and sponsorships that I didn’t have before.  But all that mattered was how much less I had now. 

Eventually, the city warmed up, which makes everything better.  I started dating again.  Things started to normalize.  But there was one more decision I had to make because the producers were now asking me to go on a spinoff show called Bachelor in Paradise.  I had always known about this show, even loved it, but I was always firm that I would never do it because it’s a tawdry show where ex-contestants sit the beach in Mexico taking tequila shots and making out with each other.  I figured it would absolutely torpedo my PhD aspirations. 

And if I had just left The Bachelor and Arie for my career then how could I justify jeopardizing it again?  I still shudder and fear at what will happen if I don’t get a PhD.  There's nothing else I want to do.  I don’t want to be an actress or even famous in a goal in itself.  It’s just that I don't want the experience that I had to have been irrelevant.  I don't know how to live with not making the most of the extremely rare opportunity that I had and Paradise provided a second chance, a chance to regain everything that I had given up. 

I lay on my couch and typed out a question I thought would be interesting to research in graduate school, if I ever got there.  It was, “How much will a person risk to seek social dominance?” 

If I don’t get into a PhD program, I'll be pretty adrift.  I don't have a backup plan.  I'll lose my source of fulfillment and money but if I didn’t go on Paradise I would have FOMO. 

So how strong is the pull of attraction?  Well, a couple of weeks after typing out that sentence, I boarded a plane to Mexico.  Thank you.


Part 2: Monica O’Neal

There is this thing that I tell my patients all the time.  A little saying that I tell them, “that is that it is much easier to say goodbye in anger or indifference, than it is to have to say goodbye in love.”  What that means is that loss is really painful...and it’s sad...and there is no goodbye without loss.  Sometimes we want to avoid that sense of pain and so we will turn somebody into a jerk or have a fight with them, at the last minute or the day before we leave, or we act like they're not important to us.  What I do as a psychologist is I really try to help people confront and tolerate and nurture these difficult emotions especially, in the place of love and intimacy, so that they can have healthier relationships with themselves and with other people...because the other way is really destructive. 

Now, this is my passion.  I actually think it’s what I’m supposed to do.  I feel like it’s my calling because I feel like I’m pretty good at it.  But if you were to have met me at the beginning of my training, you would be pretty amazed that this is where I’m at now. 

I’m going to tell you a little bit about me as Monica.  I am a military brat, an air force brat in particular.  I was born on a base in North Carolina then moved to Germany then back to North Carolina then to South Carolina then to the Philippines where I spent three of the most magical years of my childhood, then back to South Carolina.  So, by the age of ten I was a continental, I was immersed in all this culture and I just really had seen a lot of the world. 

The best thing about it is my parents actually made it seem like an exciting adventure every single time, so being able to leave was exciting.  It was great. 

Now, I’m going to retell this as Dr. Monica from the lens of psychology.  I moved five times before the age of ten and each time we moved we could only be excited about it.  There was no talk about sadness or the people that we’d have to leave behind.  I learned to adapt to that and I got really good at it, moving on, new adventures were very exciting for me. 

In high school, I decided to join different activities that allowed us to have weekend travel, like marching band, and I can recall being a little perplexed but not really too bothered when I would just take my bags and head straight to the bus and I would see my classmates and my friends like lingering goodbyes with their parents and hugs and kisses, and I was like, “See you later!” behind my shoulder, just throwing deuces as I just ran on the bus.

Monica O’Neal shares her story at the Oberon Theatre in Cambridge, MA. Photo by Kate Flock.

Monica O’Neal shares her story at the Oberon Theatre in Cambridge, MA. Photo by Kate Flock.

And it was the same when I went to college.  There were no tearful goodbyes, there were no weekly phone calls home.  My parents wanted them but I never was homesick at all.  I mean, I was excited.  It was a brand new adventure for me and it was exciting.  It was so exciting in many different ways and, one in particular, I fell in love for the first time. 

So I met this really, really nice boy during orientation, before school started...and we’re going to call him Sebastian...because I've always wanted to date a Sebastian...because I think it’s a really sexy name, and so this is my way to date a Sebastian.  Sebastian and I met over the summer prior to starting school, but then when we got back on campus he and I both reached out to each other.  We just really had a natural bond that just bonded us.  We wanted to be around each other. 

Our friendship was just so beautiful and so sweet and it turned very quickly into a loving relationship.  And I loved him.  I really did. 

About six months into our relationship, I remember being in Sebastian’s room and finding this pretty little necklace in this pretty little box upon a shelf in his room.  When I found it, immediately I was like, “Oh, what is this?” 

His response as I freaked out: “Monica, it’s a gift for you.” 

“Well, why haven't you given it to me?” 

He kind of got a little quiet and shy and he said, “Well, I don’t want to tell you.  You're going to think it’s stupid.” 

I’m like, “I’m not going to think it’s stupid.  Just tell me.” 

So, a little uncomfortable, he finally relents and he says, “Well, I was a little uncomfortable giving it to you because, I don't know.  I guess I felt like it would be silly.  Because sometimes I feel like you don’t like me as much as I like you or that I’m not important to you, or you don’t need me.”  

Now, I was listening intently and was really paying attention to everything he said but then when he got to that last point, I was like, “WHOA!”  I was like, “That is stupid!  I do like you.  I like you a lot!  But, of course, I don't need you.  I don't need anybody.” 

It was savage.  It was awful.  And you could just see the sadness and the crestfallen look in his face. 

I did the very best that I could.  The thing that I did well was I was able to make a joke, to kind of smooth it all over.  It worked...and he gave me the necklace...and we dated for the next two-and-a-half years until I initiated what would be our final, but very, very mutual breakup, at the end of our junior year. 

I would see him periodically on campus.  We would just kind of say hi from afar.  But at one point he did actually reach out to me to tell me that he had gotten engaged.  This was about a year afterwards.  So he got engaged to the person he started dating after me. 

When he told me I was like, “Okay.  All right.  Cool.  No big deal.” 

Photo by Kate Flock.

Photo by Kate Flock.

I saw him one last time.  I saw him on the night of our graduation.  We just happened to bump into each other at the same greasy spoon and watering hole.  That’s why I went to school.  A lot of travel.

But we were at the same greasy spoon.  He was there with his fiancée.  I was there with my friends.  But he still made the effort to come over to introduce her...but really I think it was to say goodbye.  I don't know if it was the revelry from earlier in the day and the drinks that were flowing but I have no idea.  I wasn’t paying any attention to anything he was saying.

But I can tell you at the very end of it...after he said goodbye...I just kind of gave him this steely smile and just said to him, “Have a nice life.” 

Yeah, I hear you guys.  It was pretty savage.  It was terrible.  It was awful.  It was really, really awful. 

I found out the following October that he had gotten married, a year before he was supposed to get married.  Much to my surprise, I cried myself to sleep that night and went through an entire roll of toilet paper.  But by the next day I was in the office telling the story and thought it was really silly, and I couldn’t believe what was going on. 

Three years later after all of that, I had started my graduate program working on my doctorate in psychology and I finally, at this point, decided to start my own psychotherapy thing going.  So about a year into my psychotherapy, one of my best friends was moving from the DC area to be with his partner in Chicago.  On the morning of his move, he called me over.  I wanted to go over to say goodbye, which I did.  There were hugs and kisses, and all the things. 

I watched him lock their U-Haul, go down the road.  I was waving goodbye, blowing kisses.  I was doing goodbye pretty good.  Then on my way home I was craving a little something, just a little snack. So I decided, “I’m going to stop in the little bodega here and just get a little treat,” which ended up being a couple of different desserts, some cheeses, some olives, some crackers, chips and dip.  There was definitely chocolate in there!  And then I went next door to the video store and picked up three of these sappiest rom-coms that you can ever imagine. 

Then I went home, I changed into my PJs, closed the blinds, closed the curtains, took all the food with me in bed...where I remained for the remainder of the day.  I ate everything and I bawled through all three movies. 

About two or three days later, I was in therapy recounting this really bizarre Sunday to my therapist, and I capped it off by saying, “I don't know what got into me.  I’m so confused.  I was fine and then next thing you know I’m in bed and I can’t get out of bed.” 

That’s when she kind of softens and she looks at me.  Then she leaned in with a soft voice then she said, “Monica, you just had to say goodbye to one of your best friends.  That is what goodbye is supposed to feel like.” 

And when she said it, I felt like I got hit by a bolt of lightning.  It really took my breath away.  Then I started to sob and I was sobbing so inconsolably.  It was as if every single truncated goodbye hit me all at the same time.  That eruption just broke through so many of my emotional walls, which we call defenses, but it just broke through them and left me feeling so raw. 

All my emotion was just so visceral and on the surface but it made it easy to talk about with her in the safe space.  And that’s really where therapy gets started; when your defenses are down and you can actually access that emotion.  Guess what?  It worked.  It worked and I’m so grateful for he..and I’m so grateful for the process...and it made me passionate about being a therapist...and it made me believe in the power that it can do to make your life make my life better.  And that’s why I love it today. 

But I will tell you that even though I’m much more present and emotionally available in all of my relationships, in all parts of my life, there are moments that something will remind me of somebody that I kind of was dismissive of...and I will feel regret and long for do-overs.  But we don’t really get do-overs...except last summer. 

Photo by Kate Flock.

Photo by Kate Flock.

Over 18 years later, Sebastian came into town.  He had business here.  He was going through a divorce, and he asked if we could meet up and just have a chance to catch up, and we did.  We talked and one of the things I did, obviously, was offer an apology for these two things: the necklace and the goodbye.  And he remembered both of those, and he accepted my apology. 

But then I went to go apologize even more, and just say to him that I was so sorry that I didn’t let him feel how important he was to me and how much I did love him.  And he actually stopped me. 

He said, “You know, Monica, I knew that you loved me but I also knew you were a tough cookie.  I knew there was more to it.  But I actually loved that about you too.” 

When he said it, you can imagine my heart was just like… just wanted to explode.  It filled me with all sorts of feelings: sadness, regret, peacefulness, just feeling contented and a real sense of, wow, this person loved me and I loved him and I wish that I could have known that.

But it’s okay.  In the moment, it felt really bittersweet because both of us could really see each other for where we were...who we had been when we met when I was 17 and he was 18...and it was really a lovely moment. 

The most bittersweet part was that, as with any relationship, at some point we had to say goodbye...and so we did.  And when I got home, I went into my kitchen, I grabbed all the junk food I could find, I changed into my PJs, probably a onesie...let’s be honest, I changed into that...closed the blinds, closed the curtains, got into bed and cried.  Because it was so clear to me, “that it’s much easier to part in anger or indifference, than to have to say goodbye in love.”  Thank you.