Falling Out of Love

In 1991, psychiatrists Kevin Passer and Julia Warnock wrote about a patient named Mrs. D., a 74-year-old married housewife with a remarkable ailment. She had originally received the diagnosis of atypical psychosis because of her belief that her husband had been replaced by another unrelated man. She refused to sleep with the impostor, locked her bedroom door at night, asked her son for a gun, and finally fought with the police when attempts were made to hospitalize her. At times she also believed her husband was her long deceased father. She easily recognized other family members and would misidentify her husband only. What Mrs. D suffered from is a rare psychosis called Capgras Syndrome, a delusional misidentification of people (even pets!) close to you.

Capgras was first described by two French doctors in 1923, Joseph Capgras, for whom the syndrome is named, and Jean Reboul-Lachaux. Their patient, Madame M., was convinced that her family and neighbors had all been replaced by lookalikes. She said she'd had 80 husbands -- one imposter would simply leave to make room for a new one.  Her husband looked familiar and was memorable to her; she was simply unable to connect his face with the actual feeling of recognizability.

Those dealing with Capgras forget the ones they love, most often their closest love. Typically comes the belief that the man or woman in their house is a fraud. Sometimes associated with Alzheimer's, they have literally lost their loved one. Though able to distinguish the face in front of them, they do not experience the warmth once related to it.

What happens when you no longer recognize the job you once valued? What to do when you show for work one day and the atmosphere is strange and uncomfortable; work is familiar but the same affection is no longer associated?

My first job was typical: earning $2.50 an hour to pull weeds at a cemetery a bike ride's distance away. The work featured hot sun, perpetually green fingers, but a paycheck! Well, cash anyway. Nothing inherent in the labor should have been motivating, but simply having a job felt like a privilege and a thrill.

Working for pay is purposeful in itself, and most reading this post are likely to have the advantage of choosing their career.  You probably were able to select a professional path and follow in what you believed to be a calling. Remember sitting through interviews and waiting by the phone or email to find you were awarded the position? It is like hearing from a high school crush. And then first date butterflies as you drive to the office, followed by a rosy honeymoon period.

At some point, many employees become embittered with work and lose the love they once had. We forget why we came, what brought us joy, or we merely become disenchanted. The job we were once excited for is no longer recognizable.

If you find that the work you once thought you knew is now foreign, or that you have fallen out of love with it, I have some suggestions.

Re-ignite the passion. My parents attended Marriage Encounter workshops in the 80's to keep their marriage from becoming an everyday chore. They attended retreats, journaled, and found new aspects to cherish in an old relationship. There may be similar conferences, seminars, books, or blogs to examine that can remind you of the fondness you once had. Just as in a relationship, don’t take your work for granted. Instead, put the time and dedication into restoring your previous delight in work. 

Mentor a junior colleague. My father dealt with grief over Mom's death in part by volunteering with the same hospice that cared for his wife. Serving is a proven method to take the emphasis off of personal despair by focusing on someone else’s needs. Taking a younger teammate through the growth process can be a reminder of your initial passion, reacquainting you with that first love through their untarnished viewpoint. It can also provide a purpose at the workplace that may have otherwise been missing.

Take on a new challenge. If work is furrowed with mundane tasks, a change in routine can test your mind and spirit. Asking to be challenged signals that you are willing to go beyond what is expected. Meanwhile, new projects may be enlivening, as well as an opportunity to find something fresh that you can love at work. 

Interestingly, Capgras has an effect only on sight, so a method for managing the delusion is to first announce your presence through a door so the patient's mind can associate the face with a voice they know. Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran suggests verbally making the emotional connection by saying, for example, “Hi, honey, it’s your husband Bob, I’m home! I can’t wait to tell you about my day! How are you?” Coming into sight, the patient has already established loving ties to the person speaking, helping them to accept an unfamiliar face.

It may take great effort to re-recognize what you loved about work...but you did love it at one time.


Elliot Anderson is the pseudonym of a midwestern father and writer who wishes work were not such a painful place for people. He believes if leaders would invoke simple courtesies, they could help employees thrive. As a team player, he brings joy to his workplace by cracking jokes and sharing food. He’s worked in both nonprofit and government organizations. He studied religion, journalism, and intercultural studies. Though you won’t find Elliot on social channels, he will respond to comments on his articles here.

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