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Why I’ll Always Be a Negative Nelly

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Recently, I started reading a book on Transactional Analysis. The beginning of the book cites an intriguing study in which people’s brains were stimulated using electrical probes to stimulate memory recall. Every time a memory was recalled, the feeling that accompanied it was also brought forth. If the same area was stimulated a second time, the same memory and feeling resulted. This research shows that we not only store memories of experiences which are significant enough to be placed into our long-term memories, but whatever feelings that came along with them.

The book labored to point out that we cannot erase either the memories or the feelings. They are like data burned to a non-rewritable DVD. Once the pairing of a feeling and a memory is laid down, it is there for good. No matter what you might prefer, you cannot unhook your feelings from your brain’s storage of an experience. This is why the probes elicit them together. There’s no cognitive process or interpretation involved in pulling forth the memories so there’s no bias in this conclusion.

My reading about this study was particularly timely because I had an unexpected experience related to this very issue recently while discussing a situation with my husband. We were talking about a friend of his who we have socialized with on a few occasions and I remarked to him that I felt this friend wasn’t particularly fond of me. I said this because we had a discussion in which she expressed a viewpoint and I expressed a countering viewpoint which ended with her being silent rather than responding to my supporting arguments. I should note that the argument was not heated, nor particularly aggressive, but I found the way in which she stared ahead and essentially went silent to mean that she didn’t like my point and perhaps was not fond of me for having made it.

My husband, who at the time wasn’t aware that this is what motivated me to say that she didn’t like me, said in response to my assertion that she perhaps felt that I didn’t like her. I asked him if she had said something to him and he said she had not. However, at one point in the past, she asked if I would meet her at a local coffee shop near a train station about a half hour walk from our apartment. On the day that the request was made, I had a work-related appointment (I work from home) and told her that I didn’t have enough time to make the round trip to the station and talk, but if she’d like to come by our apartment, we could chat for an hour or so before my work started. She declined this offer and that was the end of that.

My husband believed that she may have the expectation that I would invite her to a similar appointment at a coffee shop if I wanted to be friends with her and my failure to proffer such an invitation could be viewed as a rejection of her. I told him that on a subsequent outing, in which the three of us ventured far afield to do some specialized shopping together, it had been my idea to invite her along. While I didn’t invite her to coffee, I did invite her on this long journey in which we spent many hours together, and during which the aforementioned argument occurred. Surely, my inviting her on this outing counted for something in regards to expressing a desire to be friends.

As he and I discussed this, I became increasingly unhappy and frustrated because he mentioned that there may be a social convention in which I must meet her outside at some point (alone, not with him) if I wanted to convey a sense of becoming friends with her. After he asserted this for about the third time, I felt pressured to do this because he has expressed that he wants she and I to be friend. He actually didn’t mean to pressure me, but this was how I felt. I became increasingly uncomfortable and apprehensive at the prospect of meeting her outside of my apartment.

As the discussion wore on, I suddenly launched into an explanation of why I didn’t want to meet any of his friends in a location outside of our home. I became increasingly agitated as I explained why, and at the end was completely emotionally overwhelmed and crying uncontrollably. I told him that I didn’t want to go out in public with anyone except him because I knew that people would make comments about my weight, stare, point, or gawk at me and I couldn’t bear the humiliation of this happening in front of new potential friends or people who I didn’t trust. I told him that I remembered all too well when I lived in my hometown and walked around stores or went to restaurants with friends and people would make fun of me because of my weight and I would flush with humiliation and my friends would adopt this certain look and demeanor which tried to hide the fact that they heard but wanted to spare me by pretending that they hadn’t. I remember how horrible it felt each time this happened and how being with someone else made these experiences far worse than enduring them alone. At the end, I put my head on my desk and wailed repeatedly that I absolutely could not bear that type of experience again. My husband felt terrible about eliciting this, and he hadn’t meant to pressure me anyway, but it really wasn’t his fault. I didn’t know this was what was going on with me, so there was no way for him to know about it.

This situation illustrated several points made in the book I’m reading. One is that often we don’t remember the experiences themselves immediately, but we recall the emotions associated with the memory. I was apprehensive about going out to meet his friend at a coffee shop, but I didn’t exactly know why. As I was pressured, I had an increasingly fearful and panicked response that I couldn’t quite track. I just knew I strongly did not want to do it. Eventually, the remembered feeling and the actual memories found each other, and I relived in very vivid emotional and visual detail these humiliating and degrading experiences from more than 25 years ago.

The other thing this showed very clearly is that the memory and the feeling definitely are intertwined and that we unconsciously may act on a memory without recollecting it because the associated feeling comes forth. We avoid something or are drawn to something, but we may not understand exactly why. I didn’t know why I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I didn’t.

The thing which this research reveals is exactly how much your life experiences, especially those in your early life (particularly childhood) affect your later life. Since you cannot uncouple the remembered emotion from the memory, it will always be there. If I have copious memories of suffering, pain, embarrassment, rejection, and fear, I cannot erase those by force of will. The brain doesn’t allow that level or reorganization. The only thing you can do it “negotiate” rationally the connections. I may connect public places and embarrassment, but I can attempt to regulate my response to the emotional and memory pairing through analysis and effort. This is no small task nor is it easy. It takes a tremendous amount of emotional and psychological effort to work through such issues, and I have realized that my recent depression is, in part, a result of burning out on exactly this type of self-directed movement away from my natural emotional responses. This started a year and a quarter ago when I started to lose weight, but it has been ongoing ever since with other issues and problems as well as continued weight-related ones.

Since the vast majority of my memories are full of a variety of problems and pain, I’m constantly trying to manage my responses. There are so many experiences which I have a painful memory association with that I’m spending copious amounts of my thinking time trying to “talk myself out of” my default response. I didn’t choose to be negative about so many things. These things are written in the library of memories and every book I open is full of painful experiences. Relative to the card catalog of my entire life, there are few books which have happy pairings, and almost every one of them involves my husband. This is why I rely on him so heavily. He’s the only one with the influence over me (and motivation) to create new and sufficiently meaningful memories which will be paired with positive responses. Without him, I’m spending my days negotiating with my old memory pairings rather than building newer, more positive ones.

So, now I have some biological insight into why I’m so negative much of the time and why fighting my nature is such a chore. I’m not saying it’s not a battle worth continuing to wage, as I want to be healthier psychologically, but I am saying that I can only accomplish so much in a certain period of time. One thing that is for certain though and that is that people “blame” their parents for their problems and this evidence (which is factual) would seem to indicate that that blame is well-placed. Your earliest memories and the feelings associated with them are laid down in large part by your parents, and the worse your circumstances are growing up, the harder it will be for you to ever be happy and whole. The template they lay down with you is there forever and no amount of motivation, willpower, or “can do spirit” can delete these associations.


Written by yesithinktoomuch

November 6, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Rewards, or the lack thereof

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There’s a British comedy series called “Black Adder” about generations of men (played by Rowan Atkinson in his pre-Mr. Bean years) who were complete and utter bastards. The first series takes place in the Middle Ages featuring a prince who attempts to usurp the throne. The second is in Elizabethan times and has the offspring of the prince as a conniving nobleman who schemes unsuccessfully to marry the queen. In the third, his progeny’s progeny is working as a lowly Butler for the prince regent in time of the French revolution. Finally, his descendent is a captain during World War I who attempts to avoid the fate of so many men in that war. In each series, he is a selfish, cynical, mean, and savagely funny.

There is one Christmas special episode though, that portrays one member of the Black Adder line as good-hearted, generous, and kind. During this episode, the lovable doormat Black Adder is given the option of viewing his ancestors and their lives in a reverse playing of “A Christmas Carol”. He sees each of the aforementioned men profiting by their schemes and nastiness, and starts to rethink the path of virtue he has taken. In the end, he is shown two possible futures for himself. If he continues to be good, he ends up a slave. If he follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, he can rule the universe. One can imagine which path he chooses. During the scene in which Robbie Coltrane’s Christmas ghost talks to him about what he learns from what he has seen, he says, “Namely…that the rewards of virtue are largely spiritual, but all the better for it.” Of course, Black Adder himself wonders if the message might actually be that “bad guys have all the fun.”

This episode comes to mind as a result of some choices I’ve made as of late, as well as circumstances that others of my acquaintance have mentioned. I think that part of growing up in a democracy that touts the idea that it is also a meritocracy and which is largely Christian leads one to believe that making the ” right” choice will be rewarded. If you eat your vegetables, you will grow up healthy and strong. If you work hard, you will prosper. If you are a good person, you will go to heaven. If you are generous and charitable, people will be grateful and treat you well.

It’s hard to talk about this without sounding cynical, and I do not mean to be cynical at all. That being said, we often are lead to believe that “right” behavior yields reward. Often it is the case that “right” behavior not only does not bring about a reward, but sometimes is actively punished, especially when that behavior is directed toward self-improvement or psychological or physical health. I do not mean to lapse into a treatise on how “no good deed goes unpunished,” because I’m not that negative (at least not most of the time). However, I do mean to talk about how we need to divorce ourselves of the notion that choices that are good do yield good results for us, particularly when those choices are about fairness and personal valuation.

Recently, I have been doing freelance work for a company that I used to work full-time for. As part of the job, I need to be sent certain information prior to dealing with clients. If the information is not in my hands before the appointed time, it is difficult to do the job. In the past month, the company which gives me these jobs has been dropping the ball. They not only haven’t given me the necessary information after I have specifically requested it multiple times, but the jobs have actually been cancelled twice and I was not informed. Since I am paid “by the piece” according to how much of the task I accomplish, a cancelled job results in wasted time and virtually no pay at all.

I have done the job paid by the piece for several years despite the fact that my hourly rate drops precipitously with one client’s cancellation, but this recent situation in which I not only was forced to plead repeatedly for necessary information (which is not a part of my job) but was also subjected to two cancellations after the job was scheduled to begin resulting in much wasted time and no money. I decided that I was being taken advantage of based on the conditions I accepted and said that, from now on, they pay for my time if they book it regardless of whether or not the clients cancel or fail to take advantage of the service. In essence, instead of paying per completed task, they pay by the hour or I won’t do the job at all.

This choice was one I made out of self-respect. I was being walked all over and my time treated as valueless. This was a “right” choice, but the likely consequence of it will be that I will end up losing this work and they will simply give it to someone else. It’s not because I’m going to be costing them so much more money, but almost certainly because my liaison who dropped the ball and pushed me to offer a changed working condition will want to hide his mistakes. If he presents my case to them, he’ll have to admit that he screwed up several times over the course of weeks such that I changed the working terms. My demands are perfectly reasonable, and not making them would mean I esteem myself quite lowly, but I will almost certainly not be rewarded for my actions.

My recent experience was not the first time I’ve asserted myself reasonably and “rightly” and found that doing so was punished. I was once nearly fired for refusing to work on a day off. The request came from a boss who consistently demanded too much, got much more out of me than anyone else, and who gave me pathetic raises when I got one at all each year. Instead of being rewarded for having a skill set far higher than anyone who might replace me, being an efficient, conscientious and better than competent worker, I was threatened with dismissal for not being a complete doormat.

The rewards of asserting yourself in a manner which preserves your psychological well-being, like those of virtue, are largely spiritual. I may feel less like I’m disempowered and more like I control my destiny, but there will be nothing more to gain from asserting what should be due to me by right of being treated with respect as a human being. In the end, the objective and measurable consequence will almost always be a tangible loss. People don’t respect you if you exercise self-respect. They will simply try to cut you loose for undermining their sense of power over you.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 20, 2010 at 5:27 am

It’s not real

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In the previous post, I mentioned that I used to be part of an on-line newsgroup community. I was heavily involved in this group for about 4 years, possible more, and developed a status and a “celebrity” of sorts. This sort of fame that one can derive from being a big fish in a little pond is gratifying, if your life is unsatisfying and something is missing which it fulfills. People knew my handle and tended to respond to any post I wrote whereas “newbies” or lesser-knowns often found no one replied to the threads they began. It was like being in a room full of people and having everyone listen to and acknowledge you when you spoke, while they didn’t attend to others so assiduously.

Since I live in a foreign culture which is sometimes hostile toward me for my alienness, I needed what this community gave me and that was being surrounded by people who shared my common interest and who related to me in the easily casual and familiar way that people of my own culture had related to me before I went abroad. It was a community that embraced me (such as I showed myself) and did not perceive me as an outsider.

In such groups, inevitably, there are character clashes among various parties and those who see you in a certain way or misread your intentions based on their interpretation of your message rather than your intent. This is the nature of communication. One must expect that something as inadequate as words on a screen will fail to carry intent accurately, and that the emotional status of the listener will color their outlook. The more mature parties would communicate outside of the newsgroup via e-mail about misunderstandings, clarify them in the group in the politest way possible, or simply shrug off their worst interpretation Such mature people choosing the best course of action were exceptionally rare.

The most common response to perceived slights or character clashes were personal digs, snide comments, sarcastic remarks, emotional outbursts, or outright accusations. One particular man was a lightning rod for dislike among some members of the group and he aggressively fought back when attacked. He was accused of lying about his wealth, his possessions, his experiences as a soldier, etc. The testimony of those who claimed to have met him in person did not dissuade his detractors from saying he made baseless assertions about his lifestyle. Once people harbored a grudge, they held onto it like a dog with a rag in its mouth.

I tended to be rather diplomatic most of the time, and tried to nurture new members so that they would feel comfortable posting and taking part. I went out of my way to respond to people who others ignored because then their threads would get responses as a result of my participation. However, this was a very active group and I didn’t have time to deal with every person’s post, and in particular I tended not to jump in and reply to the posts from “old timers” who already had friends who replied to them all of the time unless I definitely had something to say. My “neglect” of one of these old timers created an unexpected situation in which one of them grew increasingly hostile toward me for my lack of attention. In his mind, he had created a scenario in which I was willfully ignoring him and he imagined some sort of tense or antagonistic relationship existed. It was purely in his head. The person he imagined and the person I was, and the relationship he concocted were not real. Nonetheless, he eventually attacked me and asked me why I “ignored” him. The oddness of this was that he did not target anyone else in this entire large and active group for their lack of a response. He had created an imaginary bond with me, so only my attention was of interest to him.

During my involvement in this group, I had some times when I was so upset, angry, or involved that I would be brought to tears by the frustration or mistreatment I was dealt. I took it all quite personally because this group and the relationships I had in it were very important to filling a hole in my life. In the end, I left the group because I realized that this focusing of my energy in this place where the people were real, but the relationships largely imagined, was not good for me. In such internet-based groups, the reality is but a bare frame in which we paint a picture of a community that we concoct in our own minds. It has no substance though, and indeed the whole group eventually was “destroyed” by spammers a few years after I left, proving how ethereal and transient in nature the “community” was. The perceived bonds did not survive the loss of the fragile frame that formed it.

I mention this at this time because I am reminded of it after reading several posts by kind folks who followed my former blog about weight loss who have written lately that turmoil in the weight loss blogging sphere is causing people to back away from their blogs, and I think (but am not sure) some of them misunderstand my abandoning my weight loss blog as being a result of an attack by a certain hostile and aggressive blogger (who attacks many people so it’s hard to take it too personally). The truth is that that party’s actions were a catalyst for my realization that I was cured of my dysfunctional relationship with food and that it was time to move on. I left my former blog because I don’t want to spend every day of my life thinking about weight and food now that I no longer need to spend everyday thinking about weight and food. People likely don’t believe that is really true that I am “cured” since so many people lose weight, pronounce that they are “cured” and then later regain weight. It’s important to note that none of them have done what I have done (moderation, a focus on psychology and behavior modification), and that I am not yet at a healthy weight (but I continue to lose). Their criteria for “cure” was a number on a scale. Mine was a mindset and control around food. The number will eventually follow, and is of lesser consequence than the what I consider a true “cure” for me personally.

I walked away from that blog the same way I walked away from that newsgroup and for the same reason. There comes a point where you do more damage than good when you invest your energies in such pursuits. In the newsgroup, I realized that the imagined relationships others had with me were no different than the imagined ones I had about them. I didn’t need this fantasy supported by the bare bones of reality. I needed something real. Similarly, I don’t need to ruminate on food or weight anymore if I don’t want to be the person who loses weight by making it the centerpiece of her existence. I have to stop focusing on it if I don’t want to be that person. I need another life and another direction.

Because of my experiences with that newsgroup, and some other online activities and communities, I know that all of this isn’t real. The relationships, the drama, the perceptions of friendship and who other people are and are not are much more imagined than real. Yes, there are real people out there and the personas they offer online are facets of who they are, and they do care or hate or feel kindly toward you, but that is the “frame” and there is no picture in it. Until and unless you go a step further (meeting personally, for instance), it’s almost all imagination. It’s internet shadow playing.

The great beauty of the lack of reality of these dynamics is that they cannot touch you unless you let them touch you. You don’t have to fight with angry people because they want to fight. He’s not your neighbor next door who keeps trampling your flower beds because he doesn’t like your dog barking. You don’t have to take the imagined observations of your personality or character as a reflection of who you really are because people are inventing “you” in whatever image suits their purpose or needs. It can be hard not to take such things too seriously or to heart because sometimes the observations are so flattering and kind and the support so seductive and badly needed, but they are no more “real” than the negative ones. It’s still people connecting unnumbered dots to create the picture of you that they want to see and that they believe is true. Granted, some people are better at it and more accurate than others, but it’s dangerous to think that just anyone out there is your friend or enemy because of what they say to or about you online.

In the end, we’re all people sitting in our homes, offices, etc. typing on our keyboards. We are, essentially, alone. The connections we feel are real to us, but they are not true bonds of friendship or enmity. They cannot touch you, unless you imagine that they do.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 9, 2010 at 8:16 am

Posted in reality, relationships

The Partner You “Deserve”

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A long time ago, I made a comment in a newsgroup that I was a part of about how I felt people got the partner’s they “deserved”. I probably should have phrased that assertion differently as most people probably thought that was about moral dessert or about how fundamentally “good people” got “good partners”. That wasn’t what I meant. I meant that we got the partner we “earned” based on our values and choices. I think that on a spiritual level, we all “deserve” happiness, kindness, and love. We may not acquire it, either because of circumstances or our choices, but we all “deserve” these things.

I currently live in an Asian culture in which marriage is often viewed as a partnership that is more akin to a business than to an emotional bonding. While people prefer to love their spouse in this culture, they don’t tend to choose based solely on emotional considerations. For women in particular, the earning potential of their spouse is high on the list of priorities. I don’t judge women negatively for this because I know that it is a response to the lot in life that women are given. They have fewer career options, particularly if they want to have children, and they must choose between hitching their wagon to a man who is capable of providing for their future or fending for themselves in much more uncertain working conditions than the U.S. and remaining childless. Single motherhood is not common, and much more socially unacceptable here.

That being said, some women are fairly mercenary in their approach to marriage. They mainly choose a mate based on his company, education, and income. As they get a little older (over 30), they become more driven to form a partnership with someone based on the promise of social and economic stability rather than any true affection. The men, of course, are often motivated by pragmatic concerns such as the fact that being married brings them a raise, the approval of parents, a live-in mother, maid, and cook, and allows them to have children. Love can be in the equation, but it is seen as optional rather than integral. Overcoming one’s culture is difficult, though it is not impossible. There are couples who love each other who marry, but there is often recognition that love isn’t going to be enough to drive a successful marriage. The chances that a woman in this culture will marry a man she adores but who has poor or who offers limited economic security are relatively low.

It’s easy to adopt an ethnocentric stance and feel that this country’s approach to relationships is cold and calculating, but the truth is that all cultures choose spouses for reasons which are less than “noble” or deeply spiritual. Most Western cultures choose based on beauty, shared interests, or emotional needs. It’s easy to elevate our priorities over those in other cultures when it comes to choosing a spouse, but the bottom line is that each choice is very personal, and should not be judged as more or less morally valid or “enlightened” than another. Each person has the right to choose based on whatever criteria is of greatest value to him or her.

The point which I want to make is not about the criteria for partner choice, but rather about the consequences of a particular choice. Recently, my husband and I had a discussion about a situation which illustrated this point very well. He has an acquaintance who is native to the country we live in, and she has been having some issues with her marriage. One of the problems, and this is not the least bit uncommon in this culture, is that her husband is not interested in talking about things which concern her emotionally. She has been struggling with depression and emotional upheaval and feels unsupported by her husband. She chose her husband, as many people do in this culture, based on the aforementioned priorities of economic stability and the desire to have children before a certain age. She did not choose him based on his ability to communicate, share emotionally, or connect to her on a relationship level. While I believe there is nothing wrong with her choice, she is having regrets and paying an emotional price for her focus on traditional priorities. Her husband almost certainly did not change from initially being communicative and deeply interested in her life to being cold and indifferent.

This particular situation became a point of discussion for my husband and I not because we are busily discussing the concerns of our acquaintances, but rather because my husband wanted to get together with this acquaintance to comfort her about her situation on the one day that we both had time off in the coming three weeks. The conflict of interest came about  not only because this was going to be a precious uninterrupted chunk of shared time together, but because this woman was about to change her schedule and it would become very tricky to coordinate schedules and meet up with her for a talk over coffee at any time in the near future. Under other circumstances (that is, my not having weeks and weeks of work with no entire days off), I would have encouraged him to go ahead and meet her, but I needed to have a precious day with him before facing the weeks of work ahead. In the end, he didn’t meet up with her and we spent a lovely day together, but one of the things that came up in our discussion of this was the consequences of partner choice.

This woman is a lovely person, and she deserves comfort and support in her difficulties. That being said, she currently and for the foreseeable future will enjoy the fruits of her choice of husband. She is unlikely to have to worry about earning her own income. She will have a house that will be paid for and a portion of her husband’s retirement income. Her lifestyle is as assured as one can be. This was one of her priorities when choosing her mate, and she will reap the rewards of basing her choice on them.

When I chose my husband, my priorities were communication, valuing time spent together, physical affection, receiving attention, and intellectual discourse. For both of us, time spent together was a significant priority. My husband had broken up with a woman who had placed him as a secondary or tertiary priority in her life and it was very much on his mind that he didn’t want to end up with another partner who did not put him in first place in her life. We discussed this before we entered a relationship together and it was very clear. The thing that was not a priority for me was my husband’s economic potential or a secure future based on his career options. My husband is not a career-driven man. He works and earns money, but we don’t have the sort of stability that someone who chooses other paths might have. We don’t own a home and our retirement situation is far from secure.

Comparing my situation to my husband’s acquaintance, one can see that I chose to collect the fruits of my choice in a particular manner and that means that I get time, attention, emotional intimacy, and affection on an ongoing basis. She chose security in the present and future. We each “sacrificed” something based on our priorities because it is difficult or very rare to have a career-driven mate who also can spend a lot of time with you and pay attention to your needs on a very regular basis. Generally speaking, careers and commitment to a company take away from time with family and men who are driven by their jobs are less engaged with their wives. It’s simply a part of the balance of life that means that you can’t have it all.

In the end, the thing that I concluded was that my husband was endeavoring to take away the fruits of my choice (time and attention) and give them to someone who had made another choice. She would be getting her cake, and he would be offering her a slice of mine when I was hungry and wanted it because he felt sorry for her. It would have been unfair to me for him to deny me a precious day together to support someone else, even though she “deserves” support and I feel for her pain. I don’t mind if he is helpful toward people in need who are his friends, but not if that help takes something of value from me. I deserve the partner I chose and all of the benefits that came with that choice, just as that woman deserves the partner she chose and the benefits that came with her choice. We both have to live with how our present and futures are going to play out as a result of the choices we made. It’s not that I need every moment of my husband’s free time, but parceling out part of a precious day off in a long period of time when work schedules will divide our time is a significant loss to me. It may not be for other couples, but they didn’t choose their mate based on the same priorities as me.

Getting back to the comment I made in that newsgroup so long ago about getting the partner we deserve, two divorced men took issue with this. I think both of them felt that their partners had fundamentally changed on them after marriage, but the truth is that people rarely change greatly in terms of their character. What tends to happen is not that people turn into monsters after marriage, but rather that the focal point of any relationship through time tends to gravitate away from what you have and toward what you’re not getting. My husband’s acquaintance focused on what she was getting (security) before she married, but on what she wasn’t getting after (emotional support). When those men chose their wives, they prioritized something or other, but once they had it, they started to notice what they didn’t have or what they didn’t want which came along with the entire package. The women likely did as well and difficulties grew as a result. If they chose their wives based on beauty (and one of them certainly did as he told me in detail about how he came to be with her), then the value of having a beautiful wife became less once she was “secured” and all of the issues that go along with being married to someone who is recognized and valued for her appearance came into play. And make no mistake, beauty carries a psychological consequence as do all other physical attributes.

I have talked before about how every positive has a resulting flip-side which may not be quite so attractive. That applies to our own characters as well as our partners’. When you choose a mate based on your priorities or values, you get not only the good attributes which you want, but the less appealing ones which you may not be so thrilled with. When I say people get the partner they “deserve”, I mean that their values dictate the sort of package deal they end up with. They may not be happy with the fact that their choices carried some undesirable accompanying emotional baggage, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t end up with the type of person they deserve as a result of those choices. In the end, you can’t have absolutely everything you want in a partner because paragons do not exist, each person has only so much energy that they can focus in only so many places, and every plus has a minus.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 6, 2010 at 8:58 am

When “the truth” doesn’t serve

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Recently, my husband and I were having a discussion about a situation he had with an acquaintance who he thought he had been building a friendship with, but the relationship took an unexpected turn. He was speculating on hypothetical responses in the unlikely event of her ever asking him if everything was “okay” between them. The situation is rather complicated, and actually beside the main point of this post, but I will try to outline it in a meaningful manner since I think it can be frustrating for readers to just be told vaguely rather than to share in pertinent details.

The exchange they had was one in which he was direct and somewhat effusively positive about her character and she was cold in response. Essentially, she seemed to be inclined toward growing a more than superficial friendship with him for quite a long time, then suddenly backed off. The withdrawal came on the heels of his sending a message saying essentially that she was a “good person” and he later apologized because he felt that she pulled back because he had stepped over some previously unrecognized boundary. Though her behavior up to that point would have lead anyone to believe that she would be comfortable with what he said, the timing made it appear that he had gone too far in being straightforward with her. He apologized for treading over a social boundary he hadn’t been aware of, and she brushed it off and said that he hadn’t done so, but all of her communication with him after that point has consisted of shallow chit-chat.

Both my husband and I have speculated about the nature of what brought on her change of heart. It is impossible for anyone to know for sure except her, but it is interesting that one can put off another person so quickly by saying nice things about him or her. My guess at the time was that she was unable to separate platonic affection from sexual interest and misinterpreted his behavior as showing inappropriate interest in her. He felt the fact that he has always and often expressed his delight in his relationship with me and freely expressed his total adoration for his wife as evidence that he could not have romantic designs on anyone else, but I feel that this wasn’t about him or his intentions, but about her issues of security (or insecurity).

The main point isn’t this breakdown or even the reasons for it, but the path that their relationship (such as it is) may take from this point onward. Beyond trivial e-mail messages once every blue moon, the only possible communication he may have with her will be passing greetings if they stumble across each other in a professional situation. It was this eventuality which we were discussing hypothetically. Since she was the initiator of the wall that went up between them, it would not be out of the question (though rather unlikely), that she may encounter him and ask if everything is good after their tense exchange. We were discussing how he might respond if that were to happen. Our discussion wasn’t about her as much as about such situations in life in general, and how to deal with them best. This provided a certain opportunity to learn something and to grow personally from an unpleasant experience.

My husband said that he really is indifferent to this woman after what had occurred as he has no interest in developing a friendship with someone whose insecurities or issues interfere with mature discourse between two married adults (she is married as well). He doesn’t care how she regards him and will make no special efforts to talk with her nor attempt to avoid her. He would like for a socially appropriate veneer to remain, but he also does not want to be dishonest should she broach the topic of their uncomfortable exchange which ended any possibility of a more meaningful friendship. He speculated about whether or not he would give her the relief she may seek should she ask if all was “okay” or if he would be honest and indicate to her that he has lingering negative feelings toward her as a result of her behavior.

By nature, both my husband and I are very honest people. Sometimes, we are painfully honest, but one of the things we’ve learned as we’ve gotten older is that blunt or blatant honesty itself really isn’t the best policy in some cases. The best policy is to do what serves the situation best and maintains essential honesty. That doesn’t mean that one present a muddled truth, but rather that one decides upon the outcome one desires and acts in a manner which serves to direct the other party toward that outcome and does not present a lie.

In this case, the desired outcome is that this woman learn from her actions and understand that she lost something as a result of her behavior. Most people believe that blunt accusation or honesty will serve this purpose. If he were to straightforwardly tell her, in essence, that he would have been a good friend to her, but her cold and callous treatment in response to his kind words and delayed and cavalier dismissal of his apology when he attempted to address the situation killed the potential for such a friendship, the outcome would be unlikely to be her feeling enlightened and deciding to act differently in the future. In fact, the most likely outcome is that she would feel that my husband was a jerk and that it was his problem, not hers, and she would decide to be more cautious around new potential friends in the future.

Being too bluntly honest would make her less likely to change in the future, not more likely. If he were too bold, she would likely decide that a friendship with him wouldn’t have been worthwhile, she was “right” in putting up a wall, and that she was better off without someone like that in her life. “Showing her” how he felt would be cathartic, but it wouldn’t be productive.

In order to achieve the most desired outcome in which she would address future potential friendships differently yet remain honest about their relationship, I advised him to seek a more ambiguous response in such a hypothetical situation. I advised him to say that, “there was nothing worth worrying about.” Such a response makes it clear that “something” was wrong, but he did not wish her to be overly preoccupied with it. The value of this response is that it leaves the door open for her to deal with the issues that have fallen by the wayside should she choose, or to allow it to drop should she choose not to. If she pressed him further, he could say that it wasn’t a good time or place to discuss it but he’d be happy to get together for coffee or something and talk about it. If she wanted to let it go, she also had that option. He would be placing the power in her hands to deal with it honestly, or to forget about it. Being blunt with her would strip her of power, and make her want to take it back by viewing him negatively and rejecting him roundly in her internal dialog about him.

In “my” (actually “our”)  ideal world, this woman would be mature enough to deal with the issue honestly and straightforwardly. However, she has already shown that she can’t handle direct communication even when it is positive. There is a very high probability that she couldn’t tolerate it when it is negative, and many people are like her. They don’t have the capacity to deal with deep honesty between themselves and other people and shut down when it is in play. When dealing with such people, you serve nothing other than your own ego by foisting bluntness upon them. They won’t grow or change if you push them too far because your opinion and value recede once you push them too far. If your goal is educating and guiding people toward change, sometimes brutal and blunt honesty really isn’t the best policy.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 21, 2010 at 10:22 pm


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A friend of mine recently broke up with her boyfriend of several years for the second time. They came together under less than optimal circumstances when she needed his support due to stress related to her elderly mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s and he was coming off of a divorce. They had known each other for well over a decade, and he claimed to have been in love with her for a very long time but her availability and his never meshed. Since they already knew each other, and their feelings were mutual, she had him move in with her immediately after he professed his feelings for her.

This was my friend’s first mistake. While they certainly knew each other, they didn’t know enough about each other. Their lives together were marked by a relatively high level of chaos, both in terms of lifestyle (her house was always a mess, she kept a lot of pets as part of animal rescue work and he didn’t help much with housework) and finances (she had to abandon high-paying work to care for her mother, he had child support and lost his job). When they got together, she wanted to help him out with his mounting debts and loaned him a good deal of money. He helped her deal with the stress of her mother’s situation and later helped her through treatment for cancer. Emotionally, he was there for her, but in terms of many of the other aspects of being a good partner, he had some serious issues.

In the end, the main points that pushed them apart were her inability to make a place for him in her house with so many pets and his inability to be responsible financially. Animal waste had contaminated many living areas and she refused to relegate the animals to a certain area of the house because she feared for their comfort. She also has always been disorganized and had too much stuff and was unwilling or unable to make the time to get it all together. On his side, he lived like a teenager and spent money on man-toys and didn’t worry about making enough money to cover his debts or help with household expenses. He saw his bills as something that was “small stuff” that he wasn’t going to sweat.

My friend often spoke to my husband and I about her problems and often sent the message that she thought she could change him. She also thought that he could simply make a choice to be a grown-up and then all of their problems could be solved. She is in her late 40’s and he is in his mid-40’s and I think the chances that either of them could make a serious character change is pretty low, particularly when both have a long history of being exactly the people that they are and resisting change.

Both my husband and I recommended that she consider her boyfriend as a package she couldn’t alter the contents of. If she was going to have a relationship with him, she would simply have to accept that he would always be irresponsible financially and that she should incorporate that idea into her relationship with him and take steps to separate herself entirely from that part of his world. She shouldn’t let him live with her (and indeed, she threw him out without breaking up with him initially), but they should carry on getting together, dating, or enjoying each other’s company without her interfering or concerning herself with his finances. We encouraged her to simply accept who he was and not try to change him, because we were both sure that it wasn’t a choice he could make. His character simply wouldn’t allow him to become the person she wanted him to be. She wouldn’t give up on the idea of his changing himself though. She insisted that she could work with him and “fix” him and said she might “surprise (us)” by whipping him into shape.

After she threw him out, he decided to break up with her rather than carry on as a couple. He took up with another woman and the first thing he did was go out and buy an expensive electronic toy that he didn’t need. Shortly after he did this, he had misgivings and they got back together, but she made it clear that he had to change. She went through her lists of things he’d have to do if he wanted to have a relationship with her, including getting a second job to cover all of his bills. Within 30 days, they were finished again because he texted hundreds of pages of messages behind her back to the woman he had briefly hooked up with after the first break up. When she confronted him about this inappropriately hidden communication, his response was rather flat and unemotional.

My sense was that he gave up emotionally because he knew he couldn’t become the person she wanted him to be. The transition from late-middle-aged man-child who acted impulsively and irresponsibly to mature, responsible adult who carried two jobs to pay bills and for kids he didn’t really want was a leap he simply didn’t want to make and deep down couldn’t even find the emotional energy or motivation to attempt. She pushed him to change. He pushed her to change. Neither changed, and the relationship ended again.

During their relationship, I constantly counseled her to accept him as he was, but that didn’t mean that I believed he was “right” or that his behavior was acceptable. If you love someone, you can’t make them reshape themselves into the person you want them to be. They may choose to change for your benefit or in order to improve the quality and strength of the bonds of your relationship, but it has to be their choice. I knew he was never going to make such a choice because I didn’t think he had the capacity to do so. Deep down, he had too many issues to deal with holding him back from being a man.

My friend, though I never told her this, is also never going to change. She has been a disorganized procrastinating person who takes on far more responsibility than she can manage for her entire life. She talked about cleaning things up and getting her house in order, but she rarely did anything of consequence. If he wanted to be with her, this was likely something he would have had to accept.

People often enter relationships with eyes open to the best attributes of their partner and with multiple blind spots to the less appealing ones. As time goes by, vision improves and you see the whole picture. It isn’t important that your partner be perfect, but it is important that those areas which he or she cannot change be ones which you can be sanguine about. If you feel those areas must be changed, then you have to talk about it and then see if your partner is willing and able to change. He or she may not be. It’s not a reflection on the love your significant other has for you, but rather one of their character and capacity to change.

No one wants to be like my friend or her boyfriend in terms of their more negative character traits. He would like to be responsible and she would like to be organized and clean, but some part of each of them can’t make the transition. This doesn’t mean they can’t have relationships with others or each other, but rather that part of the package deal for loving them has to be that a partner can live with these issues without expecting change or being unhappy.

I’ve been very fortunate because my husband hasn’t had any critical issues that he has been unwilling to work on, and he has also been fortunate in that I have worked out many of my issues. In those few areas that remain which seemingly cannot be changed, we both try to recognize the yin and yang aspects of those traits. I may sometimes be pesky in my attention-seeking, but this is part of an overall character aspect of being interested in him, paying attention to him, and caring for his company more than anyone else’s. He can’t have the attention he wants 90% of the time without having some attention he doesn’t want 10% of the time. In his case, he can be absent-minded and forgetful, and this sometimes makes me feel like he doesn’t care enough about things which I value, but the truth is that this is part of his nature as someone who is calm and unflappable most of the time. He wouldn’t be at peace and a source of strength without this ability to not fret over little details. I don’t forget much, but that’s only because I’m a worrier.

Obviously, the character issues my husband and I have are very small compared to my friend and her boyfriend’s problems, but I think that she and he could have worked it out had she constructed an altered image of how their lives together would have worked. Rather than seeing their happily-ever-after as him working hard, getting his spending and debts under control, and giving up on all of his toys, she should simply have seen their wagons as emotionally hitched and economically independent, but she wouldn’t let go of her plans to see him as someone who had to have his act together and rejection on this level made him see her negative traits more strongly and eventually emotionally be absent from the relationship.

We all have to consider what we can and can’t accept, and I wouldn’t be able to live with the sort of behavior exhibited by the man my friend was in a relationship with. Of course, I wouldn’t tolerate her behavior either, but each person has different areas which they find acceptable and unacceptable. Every relationship’s chance of success becomes much higher if people don’t try to change each other and each person tries to become a better person of their own volition. When one or both require change of the other, then the relationship is in trouble, if not doomed.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 20, 2010 at 5:15 am