In which our riveting tale of conflicting human desires comes to a climactic denouement.*
In part one of this series, we talked about the wonderful ability people have to identify patterns and make use of them. In fact, we’re so good at this that we often will create patterns where none exist, especially if that makes us feel like the universe makes more sense – either explaining the inexplicable or making us feel as though we belong within an understandable social framework.
In part two, we talked about the equally prevalent desire humans have to be their own special unique selves. The need for an identity separate from the group, the desire to feel like our story is different than any other story in significant ways is (according to Dr. Dan Gilbert) one of the key reasons so many people are unhappy. That desire fuels lotteries all over the world as well as the bodice-ripping romance novel industry, with “that special someone” appearing with the winning numbers or the winning broad chest that will sweep us out of our day-to-day and into…well, something else, and that something else must be better, right?
We never have any trouble imagining how things can be better. Ever notice that? Even though scientific studies (again, thanks to Dr. Gilbert, among others) we are remarkably bad at actually predicting how we will actually feel if that “better” ever comes along. The short answer is: it rarely feels as good as you would expect. Thankfully, the reverse is true as well.
The Pivotal Point
As I was considering these two phenomena, I wondered how it is that we can hold such diametrically opposing views, even about the same thing? For example, I was in a relationship with a partner who was having some jealousy issues. Understandable when you travel as much as I do, and exacerbated by the fact that she was somewhat introverted while I am pretty gregarious and social.
Now, to put on my relationship counselor hat, jealousy is never about the symptom itself. It’s basically rooted in the fear of something else, an insecurity about the relationship that needs to be addressed. But treating the symptom – by, say, deciding I’m going to avoid talking and connecting with people – won’t actually alleviate the problem. This I know, and I know that almost all the relationships that have overcome jealousy have done so by addressing the actual fear, not by just changing some surface behavior (“I swear, I will never so much as look at anyone else!”).
Get that? I know what most other couples, faced with this problem, have done to get through it and be happy. So what did I do? Well, I won’t go into details, but it was basically deciding to avoid certain social situations that were harmless in and of themselves, but which I thought might help alleviate the feelings of insecurities my partner was feeling.
Why did I do that, when I knew better? Why did I treat our relationship as a special snowflake, even when I was very aware of how we fit within the larger pattern of relationships facing jealousy? At what point had I changed from “I know what to do” to “I’m going to do this instead?”
The embarrassing answer is: I did what was familiar, rather than venture into the unknown. I stayed in the patterns already worn into our behaviors rather than doing the work to forge new patterns.
I did what was comfortable, instead of what was right.
The Uncomfortable Twist
I believe that’s the place where those two opposing ideas change: we will flip-flop between them precisely at the point where the actions required become uncomfortable. It’s easier to think “Oh, I know this doesn’t work for others, but we’re a special case” than to do the work necessary. It’s just as easy, when faced with a situation that is uncomfortably personal, to gloss over it with “Oh, lots of people deal with this, it’ll blow over.”
The uncomfortable truth is that sometimes we are most often like everyone else in our demographic, in most ways. It’s the details, however, that make all the difference. The reality of both of those things is most often taken for granted, except when we are required to do something about them.
That’s when things get uncomfortable. That’s the moment where we are faced with the necessity to choose what we will do with that discomfort. Move through it by working and facing the uncomfortable truths? Or avoid it by taking refuge in one of the two concepts?
I would suggest that we follow the advice of one of the deepest relationship thinkers I know, Franklin Veaux, who offered this gem:
Life rewards those who move in the direction of greatest courage.
That’s why this whole three-part series has been under the “practice” heading. First, the practice of recognizing that point at which we “flip” our beliefs about our role in things, when we twist away from the discomfort of what needs to be done.
And then cultivating the practice of moving into the discomfort, sitting with it, and doing the work necessary for truly moving beyond it.
It ain’t easy. It ain’t fast. I can’t even guarantee that it’s worth it, because it’s not my life I’m talking about, bub, it’s yours, and you’re the only one who can decide whether you want to face up to reality or continue to self-deceive.
In my case? Well, the truth is that “partner” I mentioned has been several partners over the past decades. In some cases I can unequivocally say that I chose the “comfortable” path and it was completely (and occasionally spectacularly) ineffective. In other relationships I tried working through things, sometimes even with moderate success. Other factors led to those relationships ending, though, which means I don’t really know how effective it would have been in the long run.
All I can do is keep practicing, and trust that bit by bit I will get the hang of it. It’s rough, though, no doubt.
How about you?
*bonus points if, after reading that, you said “Wait, Gray, that’s redundant!”