Chapter One: Why You Fail at Relating
A beginner’s guide to screwing up
Before we can begin to talk about how to develop and nourish a deep and meaningful relationship, we’d best get a handle on some of the ways people screw up.
There is a short list of beliefs that get in the way of having The. Best. Relationship. Ever. In no particular order:
- Magical Thinking
- Trying to Avoid Conflict
- Power Plays – making demands
- Story-telling and Drama
- Confusion about feelings – sex, charge, intimacy
- Playing Games – Unspoken Intent
1. Magical Thinking
When I’m talking with clients, I usually blame Hollywood, tongue in cheek, for relationship issues.
TV and movies have painted a picture about relating that is both unreal and impossible to achieve. We see a glimpse of a story, and think, “I want a relationship like that!” And then, we concoct a picture in our heads (the movie in our heads) starring our perfect partner. The movie rivals Hollywood in its magic and special effects.
Then, we go out and try to fill the starring role with a real person, and fail. We fail because of Magical Thinking.
The main themes of Magical Thinking are:
- rescue by a Fairy Godmother (or some other magical being, like god)
- a noble knight and his horse, riding to the rescue, or the sudden appearance of a compliant Princess.
- magic (spells, affirmations, “The Secret,” etc.)
- living happily ever after, with no work , no drama, and no crisis.
- If you search long and hard, you will find your “Sleeping Beauty or Prince Charming.”
These themes and others reoccur in most popular media, and typically follow the plot line of: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy defeats the bad guys / evil monster / the “other man,” boy re-captures girl, AND they live happily ever after.
We live and breathe this stuff.
Even though most of us can tell truth from fiction, the pull of magical relationship thinking can short-circuit our brains. You sense it when something goes wrong. That tightness in your chest and gut is the, “This can’t be happening to me!” sensation, and it’s based on the magical idea, “If I’m with the ‘right’ person, everything will just work.”
Here’s my favourite example. I once had a female client who was married to “Peter Pan.” The guy had a Ph.D., and was a professor. He didn’t come for therapy very often, as I challenged his magical thinking – he described me as “buzz kill.”
Here’s what he said about his wife, his marriage, and his fantasy relationship: “I know for a fact that my wife is not my soul mate. She’s a nice person to live with while I wait to meet my soul mate. I have been in many, many relationships, but none have worked out, because I never found my soul mate. Even though I am now married, I am still looking for her.” (Hint to Peter Pan: You can’t find her; she lives in Never-Never Land!)
Scratching my head, I asked, “How will you know your soul mate when you meet her; how will the relationship differ from your many previous relationships?”
He replied, “She will be beautiful and completely focussed on making me happy. There will never be any conflict, disagreement, or problems. We will live a life of complete personal, relational, and sexual bliss.”
I was glad I was not drinking coffee, or it would have shot out of my nose. One more snippet: this guy was nearing 60 at the time.
The kicker? He went off for a holiday (alone) and thought he met his soul mate. He came home and asked my client for ‘permission’ to go back to the island in the sun (no, really!) there to spend 30 idyllic days discovering if she truly was his soul mate. My client agreed to take him back if things didn’t work out, (no one said clients make sense…) and off he went.
His “soul mate” ended up being a dominatrix, and he came home whipped (literally) and hairless (another story altogether.) He sighed, and said, “I was so sure, but having to wear a dog collar was the deal breaker.”
Yet, at last report, 5 years later, he’s still looking.
Peter Pan, in spades.
Magic is in the mind
Many adults believe in soul mates, and that:
- true love just happens,
- everyone is entitled to their very own prince(ss,)
- ‘true’ relationships “work on auto-pilot,” have no conflicts, and are “easy sailing.”
So tell me, do you see a lot of relationships like that, other than on the Silver Screen?
None-the-less, we watch the movies, and create a movie in our heads. It features our ideal partner (I call this person the “imaginary friend,”) – a person so perfect as to defy logic. We endow the fantasy person, and the fantasy relationship, with all of the magical qualities just listed.
We then go searching for someone to match our “imaginary friend.” Well, yikes – this person doesn’t exist, and the movies in our heads aren’t real.
I also call Magical Thinking the Fallacy of Romance
Romance is driven by hormones. You meet someone, and chemistry happens! Brain chemistry, hormones, endorphins kick in – and if the person even superficially matches your imaginary friend, you fall into lust. You want more, more, more! As the song goes,
Love is the drug, got a hook on me.
Oh, oh, catch that buzz.
Love is the drug I’m thinking of.
Oh, oh, can’t you see,
Love is the drug for me. – Roxy Music
You could say that you ‘love’ the feeling, and that you use the person to create the buzz.
- Because of the addictive nature of lust, the person you are enamoured with is turned into the "object of my affection.”
- Love, we read, is rosy – as in seeing through rose-coloured glasses.
- Love is blind – or perhaps better, love is blind to the actual person – your mind is fixated on its fantasy, “imaginary friend,” which you attempt to project outward onto the real person.
You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling (The Righteous Brothers)
This happens, every time. This is the point where the drugs wear off enough for you to see the actual person you are in relationship with. Right there! Next to you in bed, and (s)he has morning breath.
For most, there is a bit of panic. Up into our heads we pop, as we try to make sense of what just happened. There are a couple of choices:
- The adult, the mature person, thinks: “Whoa! Where the hell was I? Man, was I ever caught up in lust. Those are some powerful drugs! Am I ever glad I woke up. Now I can decide if I want to work on a real relationship with this real person, lying right here, next to me.”
- The vast majority (quasi-adults) think, “This person is no longer living up to my expectations!” Which is shorthand for, “(S)he isn’t behaving according to my fantasy.” And the manipulation, games, and strategies start, as you try to force the person in bed to conform to your wacky story.
Magical Thinking actually explains a lot of our silly beliefs
Because we have a fantasy that life should be fair, and that I should ‘win,’ we have trouble with anything that goes ‘wrong.’ Magical thinking declares that things are supposed to go the way we want them to. Like Peter Pan, above, we expect that everything will work out, without effort, or with minimal effort. We think we’ve been cheated when it doesn’t.
Rather than challenging the magical thinking, we get caught up in the drama of blaming others, our parents, or God – we blame them that our fantasy isn’t magically made real!
And yet, the world is operating another way altogether. That way is this:
What happens, happens. What is, is. If you do not like life now, wait a minute, have a breath, do something different, and you’ll likely see something else. And most importantly, the cosmos does not have you (Ego-you) in mind, does not care one way or another what happens to you, and will tick quite merrily long after you are dead and gone.
The cosmos is not a vending machine, into which you insert your wishes and desires, and out of which pops what you want. Sorry.
Take away point:
Your fantasies are only ‘real’ to you – the stories you tell yourself are crafted by you to prove whatever point you are making. Until you learn to let go of your fantasy world and live in the ‘real’ one, you are doomed to unhappiness.
People are who they enact – I am, always and only, what I do.
To repeat, what goes on in your head is neither ‘real,’ not ‘true.’ It’s a cleverly constructed illusion, created by you, starring you, following your plot devices. You can’t stop story making, but you can stop taking it seriously.
2. Trying to Avoid Conflict
When confronted with our partner’s demands that we act like their “imaginary friend,” we might, initially, give it a try. We do this to keep the peace.
At first, it all seems so reasonable. Our partner is asking for “little changes,” and love is all about giving, right? So, it’s easier, in the short term, to give in. The problem arises when we think that pretending to be someone other than who we are will remain comfortable. And another problem: giving in leads to… wait for it… more giving in!
My newest client said, “For seven years, I’ve done everything he wanted me to. I changed how I dress, spoke, acted. I made his lunches, and called him several times a day to tell him I love him. This time, when he left, he said I was smothering him.”
I suspect she gave up more than 50% of her personality, and repressed her own desires regarding how she wanted to live her life. And even after all of that “giving in,” she still couldn’t make him happy.
Well, of course not!
When he compares her to his “imaginary friend,” my client always comes up short. She can’t “make” him happy. Happiness, like everything else, is an inside job.
Take away point:
The. Best. Relationship. Ever. requires that 2 adults show up, and be who they are. It’s not about performing endlessly “pleasing” behaviours – all that gets you is demands for more of the same. (My client said, “I thought if I was nice to him, he’d want to give me what I needed. In 7 years he never did.”)
This book is all about bringing yourself – all of you – to the party. By using such things as total honesty and elegant communication, you end up engaging in Elegant, Intimate Relating. You know yourself, and are endlessly curious about your partner.
3. Power Plays – making demands
Another big problem is the “parent - child” relationship. One partner is endlessly trying to ‘fix’ the other. Lots of sighing, finger-pointing, name calling.
Here’s an example: Sam and Sally waltz into the office. Sally is leading. Sally talks… a lot. Sam listens… and nods. Sally is a rising star, a professional. Sam is self-employed, and struggling.
Sally: “Now Sam, you know that you promised to be home on time, and dear knows I don’t ask much of you, but how you can expect me to be happy to see you when you’re late, and you don’t even call to tell me, and a considerate person would call, and it never used to be this way!” (Big breath, sniffle.)
Sam: “Oh… well… it’s not that bad… and besides, I’m out on calls in the wilderness and there’s no phone.”
Sally: “We’ve been over and over this, and you just don’t realize that I worry about you, and I’ve cooked dinner, except for the two times last week I stayed late at the office, (without telling him, of course…) and if you loved me you’d do this one little thing for me.” (Breath, choked-off-sob.)
Sam: “Well… I know you’re upset, but I do love you… and well… I really…”
Sally: “That’s what you always say!”
I said: “What about a car phone?” (This happened “back in the day” when having a cell phone was rare, and they were huge…)
Sally: “What? Well, I suppose… I’m not sure… Well…”
Sam: (all excited…) “Sure, we could do that.”
Two weeks later, they return, same entrance routine.
Sally: (to me) “Fine idea that was. It didn’t work at all.”
Sam: “Now Sally. I did too call. In fact, I called 8 times out of 10 workdays.”
Sally: “That’s what I mean. I just can’t depend on you. It’s really upsetting when you don’t call. Now you’ve gone and missed two times! I made dinner and I worry about you…”
I pointed out to Sally that 8 out of 10 was a pretty big step forward. Sally looked at me as if I had horns. By the next session, though, she’d completely dropped the “You never call” routine and replaced it with “Sam never picks up the trash.”
Sally has a lot invested in three things:
- That Sam is not behaving correctly,
- That Sam should do it her way, because she’s right, and
- That she is destined to play the tragic heroine, mothering error-prone Sam until the day he dies. Sally placed all the blame for the failure of the relationship on Sam – and she could not see that she created issues out of thin air.
Take away point:
A relationship is not a power play. It’s not about lectures, demands, and definitely is not about ‘fixing’ the other person. It is about becoming elegant an efficient about resolving issues as they occur, without blaming.
(Read more in the book!)