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Priscilla Presley and the art of leaving behind the one you love

Her statements at the Venice Film Festival made it clear that, despite being the love of her life, she left Elvis because they had incompatible lifestyles. Hers is not an isolated case in the game of love

Priscilla and Elvis Presley.
Priscilla and Elvis Presley.

Priscilla Presley was not scheduled to speak at the Venice Film Festival about Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s film about Presley’s love affair with Elvis. But the King of rock’s former wife, visibly moved, surprised the audience: “Yes, I left, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love him. He was the love of my life. It was the lifestyle that was so difficult for me, and I think any woman can relate to that,” Priscilla said.

Many couples break up because of lifestyle differences (the case of Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner is a good example). But it’s not easy to leave someone you love. “It’s hard because we’ve grown up with the internal belief that ‘love conquers all,’ so we have a lot of beliefs around Disney-style romantic love. The problem is that love doesn’t conquer all, and it shouldn’t be the deciding factor in making the decision to strengthen or leave a relationship. The first step should be identifying what we think about love and what harmful attitudes we have in its name. On the other hand, often, we’re attracted not by what we like, but what we know and what’s familiar. If we come from problematic contexts, we may need professional help to reconstruct everything inside before automatically starting a relationship with another person. What we want isn’t always what we need,” explains Raquel Jiménez, the creator of @tusilencionoteprotege.

Love and change

The psychologist Lara García Ferreiro points out the harmfulness of the myth that love can change things. “No one will change something about themselves if they don’t want to. You become an emotional addict when you get hooked on a toxic relationship and think you can change the other person. For something to change, you have to differentiate what kind of motivation they have: is it intrinsic or extrinsic? The former works, because it means there is a change in their mind, that their motivation comes from within.”

She emphasizes the importance of knowing what phase of change a person is in. The psychologists Prochaska and DiClemente observed six phases of change: the first is pre-contemplation, in which the subject denies having any problems. In the contemplation stage, they start to think that they should break up with the toxic partner. This is followed by preparation, in which they consciously commit to ending the relationship and going on to the following phase, action. Then comes the maintenance stage, when all contact is eliminated. Fortunately, the final stage of relapse does not always occur. “The person has to be in phase three or four for the change to work. Because of our emotional wiring, women think that the other person will change, and it’s dangerous, because you can turn into an emotional addict and assume the role of a savior nurse. That isn’t your role: people have to be healthy, and if not, they need to work on themselves,” she explains.

Leaving someone whose lifestyle harms the relationship isn’t easy. Those who end a relationship may experience low-self-esteem, guilt and fear of how their ex-partner will respond. Elvis threatened to kill Priscilla’s partner when they separated, and he called her constantly after their separation. He never truly let her go.

Sofia Coppola’s latest movie is not a fairy tale. It tells the story of Prisclla’s experience in a toxic relationship with the most famous man in America. The director explores a relationship ruled by the singer’s controlling, manipulative misogyny. Thanks to Coppola’s gaze, the couple’s story, often veiled in romanticism within pop culture, now centers the famed figure. While in Barbie the doll is the protagonist, and Ken a mere sidekick, Coppola makes an effort to make Priscilla much more than Elvis’ wife. In the book Elvis and Me, Priscilla Presley explains how Elvis controlled the clothes she wore, her appearance and her makeup. In a 1985 television interview with Barbara Walters, she spoke about their time together: “I was definitely under a spell of what I thought was love. But I had to take responsibility for that too. What did I know? I knew nothing else. I had no experience. Not even in life but with other people,” confessed Priscilla, who began a relationship with Elvis when she was just 14.

Priscilla Presley
Priscilla and Elvis Presley with their daughter Lisa Marie.Magma Agency (WireImage)

More chemistry than physics

Leaving someone you love requires strength that not everyone has. Sometimes, as Ferreiro points out, emotional investment also comes into play: after having put so much into a relationship, we resist leaving it due to the belief that at some point, we will reap its fruits. “We must keep in mind that when a person treats us very well, we get used to the dopamine and we secrete less, to stay calm. But in a toxic relationship we secrete more dopamine, because we are more passionate. That hormonal kick gets you hooked. This imbalance in chemistry can cause the feeling of wanting to return to the toxic relationship. Three things happen in the brain of a person with emotional addiction: tolerance syndrome, that you tolerate more and more abuse; withdrawal syndrome, when leaving the toxic relationship, the brain seeks the injection of dopamine; and craving, which is that intense desire to consume,” says the psychologist.

When Sofia Coppola, at the film’s presentation at the Venice Festival, was asked by a journalist if this “dark fairy tale” is a feminist story, the director responded that for her “it is a human story” in which she has wanted to show “the reality of romance and illusion.” Given the magnetism of toxicity, it’s important to be aware of how not to fall into those relationships. “After a loss it is essential to reconceptualize everything you have internalized from past relationships and ties, make it conscious, get through the bad times and even go through sadness and other unpleasant emotions. Only that way is it possible to move forward. And above all, we must encourage self-compassion after a relapse, reminding ourselves that it is never too late to start again,” says Rocío Jiménez.

Silvia Congost, a psychologist who is an expert in emotional dependency, explains that “emotional dependency must be overcome. We overcome it when we know that we would not return to that person under any circumstances. And to do this, sometimes it is necessary to ask for professional help and undergo a therapeutic process. You must recover your self-esteem to realize that that situation was not the best for you and that you deserve someone who really fits you and with whom you can be happy,” he says.

Elvis did not know, in short, how to love tenderly. But Priscilla did know how to take the brave step of leaving behind the one she truly loved, because love, when it is toxic, is dangerous and addictive.

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