A few months ago, while I was reading Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, I came across his summary of John Gottman's marriage studies. In response, I posted the following to Twitter:
I believe I was referring to this general section of Emotional Intelligence:
This was a rather frustrating section of the book to read. I saw my own experience written so clearly that it really hit home how predictable the pattern was in my own marital breakdown. Although I had originally thought I was experiencing something unique, in reality I was experiencing what millions of couples have experienced over the years. I didn't have the energy to do much more with it at the time, but I felt a little less alone.
Two days ago, I had a meeting with a Family Justice Counsellor. It was a good meeting that helped give me a little more direction in this separation process. The counsellor recommended John Gottman's work, saying that it might be useful to read it even though my marriage itself is over. She said, "You're still a family, even if you're living in different places. The ideas in Gottman's work might be useful for communication even when you're separated."
So I meandered down to Nugget's Used Books and bought a copy of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: and how you can make yours last.
It's got 231 pages. I'm currently at 119.
And blammity-blammity, wowee-zowee, this is some convicting shit.
I have often been accused of being defensive and been very frustrated with feeling like I can't defend myself without digging myself into a hole. Although I'd recently seen a clear explanation of defensiveness's destruction a few weeks ago, this section from Gottman hit hard about just how my I-think-I'm-doing-the-right-thing behaviour was actually something that dug me deeper and deeper into a hole. Gottman writes,
And then, a few pages later, there was this description of "stonewalling." And my heart sank.
Because I did it. I flooded, I stonewalled. I chose to stonewall and decided that I was doing the right thing, trying to be "neutral," trying to put off the discussion until things had calmed down, until I could think clearly. Instead, it was the final nail in my marriage, the act that shut it down more than anything else, the act that solidified the negative thoughts that bounced back and forth for the months that followed.
I'm still amazed that I can pick up a published book and read my own experiences in it. It seems so... petty. I feel, I should be better than that, or I should have known better. It's humbling to see just how normal it is because it means that if I'd made different decisions, different choices, and maintained things better, there's a good chance that I could have cut a lot of this off a long time ago and maybe continued to have a positive relationship with my ex-wife. But I didn't. And we're done.
I'm a really average, normal guy.
Normalcy is the stepping-off point for my new life.
While my partner and I go through our separate separation processes, we're both travelling parallel paths to self-knowledge a little. We're both learning about re-establishing our boundaries; we've both recognised some of our recurring relationship patterns that don't work in our favour; we've both tried to come to terms with our baggage. Simply put, we're following the classic long-term relationship breakup process:
The heartbreaking thing about all self-improvement is that it couldn't have happened earlier. A few weeks ago, she asked me if there was some moment in the past that I would go back to, some singular, particular moment where I could have made a different choice and had everything go differently, something that could have saved us from our current mutual heartbreaks.
But I couldn't think of one. I've made a lot of mistakes, and I can think of some ways that I could have set up better boundaries, but I can't think of anything I'd change. Life doesn't give us the option to just go back and fix the past, so I do my best not to dwell on those types of hypotheticals. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I've avoided science fiction over the years; I'd rather deal with those sorts of hypotheticals outside of narrative.
As I've said before, I'm doing my best to avoid the act of blame in my life. Right now, blame is growth's nemesis. I have no interest in blaming my partner, my upbringing, or myself for the way my marriage and relationship have gone. I will take responsibility for the careless words I've said and the ways I've given in to self-created pressures, but I need to keep blame out of it. It's been a difficult tension to maintain, but a good one to practice. I find it much easier to sympathize with people and see their hearts clearly when I try to frame their behaviour without blaming them for my own pain.
Over the last few weeks, I've tried to think about how I would go back and change things, to make it all better, to fix things, but there's no way to go back, no matter what Jay Gatsby (embedded above) thinks. I tried to contort my brain to imagine such a moment, but my efforts fell short. Instead, I have to admit to myself that our personalities smashed up against one another and over the years we grew apart, little choice by little choice. It's heartbreaking, of course, to lose a friend this way, but that's just how it's gone. And I can't blame anybody for it.
Because that's the nature of personal growth, of the experiences that make us who we are. We learn where our boundaries are and move them around over time; we discover needs we never knew; we learn that our upbringings can only take us so far.
And there's no one to blame for that.
For years, I've tried to see opinions from the opinionator's perspective. When I was religious, for example, I felt it important to understand how non-religious people saw the world and deliberately sought to understand my faith from "their" perspective; now, as a secularist/humanist/whatever, I think it's important to understand and remember how religious thinking frames one's overall mindset and do my best not to dismiss religious ideas. I think I'm fairly good at maintaining two separate truths in situations like this; empathy is something I'm generally at peace with, and it tends to work for me.
However, the social media echo chamber is a legitimate concern. On Twitter, etc., it takes effort and dedication to "follow" people who piss you off. I recently came face to face with this when I unfollowed a Twitter user whose raison d'etre had morphed into an anti-feminist MRA mouthpiece. I followed them for a long time despite my differing perspectives on things, but I could no longer handle (what I saw as) their closed-minded vitriol. It's perfectly OK to close out toxic people and perspectives; it's my right to do that. Right?
However, when I unfollowed them I simultaneously closed one more door to an alternate opinion and way-of-seeing-the-world, and I'm not fully at peace with that. I hate vitriol, but I want to understand the different ways our society disenfranchises different people. As much as I tend to see Men's Rights Activists as inconceivable, misguided, entitled whiners, I still want to keep myself open to perceived injustices. That's part of their angle on the world and the more clarity I have about their perspective, the more I'd hope that I won't fall into similar entitlement traps.
I think of this a bit when I see those articles about "Who are these Trump supporters," where writers try to make sense of Donald Trump's popularity in a population of people with whom they themselves likely have very little crossover. On reflection, I realized that I do not "follow" any Trump supporters that I know of in any of my social media feeds. I have "othered" that portion of the population and chosen to view them through my chosen people. In the case of Trump, just like with MRAs, I've justified closing my feed to their perspectives because I perceive them as misguided and intellectually and empathetically shortsighted. But I don't know if that's really the right thing to do.
As somebody who values empathy, I'm also aware of its weaknesses. Empathy doesn't help in every situation, and sometimes we can mis-aim it in careless directions, or people might aim it at us when we don't need or deserve it. Empathy is important in all relationships, but it's a skill we need to hone and practice every single day.
The following quotation, embedded below, describes a situation when empathy might be a little misplaced, since people might use your empathy as a tool for injustice.
In this case, it's important to remember that even if we can see something from somebody else's perspective, it doesn't mean they can see it from your perspective. The ability to empathize could be a rather narcissistic, assumptive skill; we assume we can do it and that our perception is accurate, and this very much might not be the case. Just because we feel that we're empathizing doesn't mean we are. Empathy is a sort of essential relational delusion that brings us together under seemingly common feelings and perceptions. We need it, but it's not necessarily accurate.
I guess what I'm struggling with right now is the fact that I feel as if I empathize with numerous different people and peoples, but I could very well just be narcissistically assuming something completely off-base.
I may empathize, but there's no way to prove that I can do it.
That means I have to trust myself. If I feel like I'm working hard at it, and if I'm trying to learn and practice empathy more, I also need to develop the self-confidence to trust my perception. And trusting myself has always been a very hard thing for me.
My empathy depends on my own self-trust.
I've been working through The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome over the last couple days. It's had quite a few passages that have really stood out to me, but this one really takes the cake:
This passage stands out to me because I've heard some of these accusations before — "passive-aggressive," "manipulative," "coercive," "controlling" — and I've always felt that those labels have been obscenely out of place. I felt entirely misunderstood, that the labels were unfair and misguided.
But this. To be honest, I knew this stuff was happening, but I couldn't put words to it and I didn't want to admit it. But to see it laid out so clearly on the page is rather humbling.
Part of this whole process is about learning how to take responsibility for my own behaviour, my own convictions, for the times when I've ignored my own boundaries and needs, when I've said "yes" in order to placate a situation where I most certainly should have said "no."
The other part of this is learning to not take responsibility for other people's emotions, for other people's feelings. I can affect other people's feelings, but they need to take responsibility for themselves as well.
I don't know how to do that yet.
But that's coming up in the next few chapters, and here.
NOTE: I STARTED WRITING THIS POST ON THURSDAY, JUNE 9. I WILL NOTE WHEN I START WRITING ON JUNE 10.
JUNE 9, 2016:
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