I have this exact problem, and deselecting "mirroring" does not work prevent the primary display from changing to this garish cartoon resolution (aka Best For Display).
It is false that a MacBook Pro that has a screen capable of 2880x1800 cannot handle a second screen. It does it rather well. It can even handle 2 extra full 1080p screens (actually one of my extra screens was better than 1080p) on top of the built in retina screen, all simultaneously, without any sort of slow down while doing normal work (not games).
What makes this process somewhat annoying is that when you are used to working in 2880x1800, you may have your windows arranged a certain way. When the resolution goes down, the window arrangement is ruined (they're all shoved into the upper lefthand corner) and going back to the original higher resolution does not restore placement of all your windows. If it were a matter of merely going into the settings and restoring my original resolution, that would only be a minor nuisance.
I should note that OSX will generally remember not to change your primary display's resolution after you have gone through this process once, once for each physical monitor. I believe the port used must be the same as well.