As a writer, and during a past life in the corporate world, I’ve always been a student of human behavior; curious about how and why individuals and groups act and react to normal and abnormal situations. Am I just naturally inquisitive or downright nosy? Probably both, but I’ve always felt that good management, good relations, and a good plot structure depend largely on prediction; that is, if I could predict individual and/or group behavior, interpersonal relationships would be optimal. In my quest, I have on occasion engaged behavioral scientists for discussion and enlightenment. However, there’s a bit of a slippery slope in my pursuit; that is, when does prediction give way to manipulation? To be sure, when writing fiction, I definitely manipulate the characters according to my will.
With that as a preamble, I present a husband and wife situation for your consideration. And, yes, in this case I was definitely nosy.
“You’re a creep!” Her face was contorted in anger.
He said those words hurt more than a punch to the face. Worse, he had been the cause of her frustration by snapping at her because he thought she snapped at him first. His words were a knee-jerk overreaction–defensive. He knew that. Trouble is, once hurtful words are out there they can never be taken back. Still, in all their years together, he could never recall her calling him such a name.
Maybe I am a creep, he thought, and she’s had her true feelings pent up inside for who knows how long. Maybe she’s just reached a breaking point. Maybe I’ve been a terrible, or at least selfish, partner from the onset of our relationship. The probability of that reality rendered him speechless for a full 30 minutes; gave him pause for introspective thought. He closed his eyes, unwilling to even look at her. He felt chagrined; a disappointment.
After a while, they resumed civilized communication; same old, same old. The event blew over—but not the underlying cause. It seems we humans are often slow to recognize a problem—in this case for decades—and even when we do, we focus on symptoms rather than the root cause. Example: if a headache is caused by a brain tumor, treating the symptom (pain using aspirin) will not solve the problem. Finding the cause may take time, real analysis, and possibly agony. We don’t like that. We want results now! It’s like me with the trombone. I want to skip to the part where I’m awesome without all the time-dragging practice. I want to be a savant. Candor compels me to acknowledge that ain’t gonna happen, to which I say, “Damn, damn, damn.”
In the case of this couple, the inability to communicate their true feelings—because maybe it’s difficult and/or inconvenient—festered into (at least) momentary hatred. He, in a rare moment of honesty and clarity, figured the problem began with him.
He grew up in a supportive home with parents who helped, disciplined, and loved him, but saying the “words” were rare. His parents repeated them to each other, but he couldn’t ever remember being a recipient nor did he care because he assumed it was true. It’s like he was just supposed to know it from actions; and daily actions did fit the words. It was a joy filled home, but innermost feelings, especially those that were troublesome, were kept to oneself. That wasn’t a rule or anything like that; it was simply tacitly understood.
In electronics it’s a capacitor; in hydraulics it’s a dam—energy builds up (in this case frustration or anger) until it must be released. People get hurt. As a result, over the years he built up a kind of immunity to personal slights, insults, etc. He was said to be slow-to-anger, an even keel kind of guy. Nevertheless, in the rare moments when anger arose, and he let it vent; all of his pent up feelings came out. He was a capacitor and a broken dam. It was profane, hurtful, and without restraint, which caused him shame and self-loathing in the aftermath. The recovery process often took days. However, during those uncommon moments, he recognized how murders of passion are committed, and that frightened him.
So the particular subject of this essay never learned how to talk—really talk—intimately to his partner. Further, his partner, stoic in nature, and a natural “pleaser” didn’t either. So you have two people very much in love who do not know how to share intimate personal feelings especially those of deep-seeded disappointment and annoyance. Is it any wonder half of modern marriages end in separation?
Every relationship has conflict; it’s the human condition. Major disagreements bubble to the surface quickly, and couples resolve those by civilly discussing options, noisily arguing, and/or in extreme cases, divorce. It’s the minor ones—those we ignore for the time being—that fester for the long term; that pick at our psyche, and cause deep down resentment; resentment that may be masked to “get along” and/or hang in there “for the children”. Those irritants can be little things: popping gum, chewing ice cubes, cracking knuckles, throwing dirty clothes on the floor, snide remarks covered with “just kidding”, poor hygiene, etc.
The subject couple have enjoyed a long and happy marriage, and each would (probably) take a bullet for the other. Yet they are also, in some ways, alone—living separate lives within themselves. What can each do to maximize their remaining years together? Is their (very) human condition a fate that must be endured or is it a problem that can be solved? Can old dogs learn new tricks? Will they even acknowledge a problem exists?
In my unprofessional, buttinski opinion, we need to discover how our partner / associate is “wired”. How do their brains fire? That is, consider four human processes: analytical ability, drive/ambition, artistic appreciation, and empathy. We all have those attributes, but default to some more than others because, well, that’s the “way we are”. The hardwired firing order is unlikely to change without, say, psychoanalysis or religious conversion. Sooo, if we really desire an optimal relationship, we need, through observation and honest discussion, to determine our partner’s “firing order” and divulge our own. Through discovery, our relationships are bound to improve.
The problem goes back to our initial meetings with one another. When you find someone you like—really like—the natural reaction is to make a good impression, so instead of showing warts-and-all, we behave in such a way as to coerce the other to be attracted to us; show our so-called good side only. Check out the content of dating sites: misleading photos, embellished personal history, etc. (The same thing has been going on with professional resumes for years.)
So, what is our wayward couple to do? Hey, why are you looking at me? How should I know other than offering the advice of two paragraphs above? However, I could expand the thought, and perhaps will do so in a future essay. Meanwhile, give it some consideration.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a long walk on the beach, curl up by the fire, read a good book, volunteer at a homeless shelter, rescue a dog, clean up a highway, and get a job at a not-for-profit enterprise. Yeah, that’s it… That’s the ticket…
How do you like me now?
By Gene Myers: occasionally a peach of a guy