SNTDBIDW - The Same Damn Thing You Did Last Time

OK -- here's installment two in SNTDBIDW:

How To Break Patterns

I do not personally know a single adult human being who hasn't danced out at least one horrifically dysfunctional (at worst) or annoyingly ineffective (at best) pattern in their life.

Granted, I do not personally know the Dalai Lama, and I acknowledge that there may be a plethora of exceptional human beings who do not run up against this challenge -- but if they exist, I have not met them yet.

If you are one of these exceptional human beings -- someone who has never once had the thought: "Uh-oh, here we go again!", or "Oh shit, I've had this exact same argument before, with this exact same person", or "Crappity-crap-crap! I KNEW I shouldn't have done this!!!!!!" -- please introduce yourself -- I will consider you the exception that proves the rule.

I will leave aside, for the moment, the multitudinous psychological and metaphysical discussions that we might have about why otherwise bright people sometimes engage in patterns of behavior that are self- or other-destructive, counter-productive, or just plain stupid.

I will instead, attempt to describe the "Because It Doesn't Work" aspect of dysfunctional patterns, and offer some suggestions.

I will start with an example, by way of personal anecdote, about one of the "patterns" that plagued me for many years.

For many, many, many years -- (like 46 years) -- it seemed to me that the only type of person that I could possibly be attracted to as an intimate partner was a "withdrawer".

Which was problematic for me.

You see, I am not a "withdrawer". I am an "advancer".

If a conflict arises, I am the type of person who wants to confront it immediately, and talk it out until it is resolved, no matter how tired, hungry, angry, or cold I am at the time (and therefore, often, how fairly in-equipped I am to find resolution at the time) .

However -- I have, with atomic-clock-like precision, paired with partners who were my polar opposite in this respect -- human beings who tended to want to take time away from the issue until they were not so tired/hungry/angry/cold before they attempted resolution -- or who wanted to take time away from the issue altogether -- forever -- and seemed to actually prefer entertaining the subtle, toxic undertone of unresolved shit, as if it were some kind of exotic spice for Relationship Stew (pun intended).

For many years, I approached this dilemma with a single strategy: I would simply batter away until I got them to "deal with it".

Ask me how that worked out.

Over time, I began to realize that I was approaching these situations in a most unscientific, illogical, and irrational manner -- I, who prided myself on my rationality, and my logic.

Here's the metaphor: If you were a scientist, and you went into the laboratory and mixed two chemicals in a beaker, and the reaction of the two chemicals was such that it blew the laboratory sky high, and burned the fuck out of you -- would you rebuild the same exact laboratory, and mix those exact two chemicals in precisely the same kind of beaker again?

OK -- maybe you would -- one more time. Tops.

On this second attempt, though, if you blew the lab to smithereens and burned the fuck out of yourself again -- well, chances are that you would . . . . . . Try Something Different.

Strangely, I didn't do that for many years. Instead, I kept applying the same disastrous formula to my experiments -- over, and over, and over, and over.

It went like this:
a) Problem arose in relationship (usually in the form of conflict or disagreement).
b) Argument ensued . . . . or Discussion ensued -- and quickly devolved into Argument.
c) Partner who had low-tolerance for conflict or ongoing process demonstrated fatigue, or expressed desire to go away and process internally before continuing to talk. (I tend to process "on-the-fly", as I talk.)
d) I would press partner further, often pulling out the "Never go to bed angry" card, or claiming that their need for a break was simply avoidance (which observation may have actually been correct, in some cases).
e) My pressing would simply add to low-conflict-tolerance partner's overload, and render them even less likely to want to engage.
f) At that point, I would generally push harder and thus, exponentially grow the conflict.

(Lab Note, circa 2002: After several dozen disastrous explosions in the period between 1974 and 1983, I undertook a slightly different approach for the next eight years in which I chose to give the subject "space", while fastidiously resenting the fuck out of them. This procedure ultimately resulted in a somewhat delayed, but much larger, explosion. During the period from 1991 to 2002, I alternated between the "press on" and "back off and simmer" procedures, with consistent results. [see attached slides of rubble and broken glass].)

I'm not 100% sure why I persisted in applying just these two strategies for so many years, but I have a partial hypothesis, and some strong hunches. The hypothesis is the result of years of in-depth therapy, wherein I figured out that I was in reaction to my mother's tendency to withdraw in the face of any conflict. The hunches are along the lines of: I suspect that I held in my mind some notion that if my partner got what they wanted, it meant that I couldn't get what I wanted (because that was the way it had worked in my FOO).

I'm not fond of the concept of "compromise". I don't think it's bad as a theory, but I've rarely seen it work in practice.

The Merriam-Webster definition of compromise demonstrates why that may be so, I think:

1 a
: settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions b: something intermediate between or blending qualities of two different things
: a concession to something derogatory or prejudicial compromise of principles
I think that, all too often, while meaning #1 is usually the intended theory, meaning #2 more often represents the actuality.

What's interesting to me is that, even though I had self-awareness about my dynamic with my mom and my family-of-origin, and insights about my own judgments concerning the concept of compromise, this didn't magically get me to stop blowing up the laboratory (I'll speak more below on what did end my lab-annihilation streak).

Before I do that, however, I want to note that these were my particular chemicals and beakers -- yours may be different.

You may be the person at the other end of the spectrum -- the person who overloads easily in conflict, and needs space to process internally before having the energetic resources to resolve things with others (and isn't it remarkable how often we pair in just this manner -- Withdrawer with Advancer, Introvert with Extrovert, etc.?)
Your particular pattern may have nothing whatsoever to do with personal relationships, but rather, it may a pattern that you have repeated ad nauseum in your work life, or your spiritual path, or in some other arena of your life.

Here's what I did to change the withdrawer/advancer dynamic in my intimate relationship:

I did something different.

About six months into my current relationship -- the relationship in which I found the love of my life -- the apple of my eye -- the floatage for my boatage -- the frosting for my flakes -- I noticed that "that thing" was starting to show up. That oh-no!-so-familiar thing: My partner withdrawing, and me pressing on.

Prior to meeting my Beloved, I had assumed, from the frequency of my patterned behavior in intimate relationships, that I just had what I called a "broken picker". I assumed that I had simply made poor choices in pairing -- by choosing partners who happened to demonstrate traits that were like my mother, and which, consequently, triggered the living hell out of me.

However, with the Beloved, I felt quite clear that I had made the correct "pick". I was madly, frothingly, in love with her, and she was madly, frothingly in love with me back. This was not at question for either of us in any way.

So, when the dreaded pattern started showing up, I had two epiphanies: 1) Maybe I was picking people "like that" for a reason -- that reason being that I actually needed to clear up this pattern, and 2) Maybe my past approaches had simply been ineffective -- not "wrong" -- not "bad" -- simply inefficient.

During our third big repetitive fight (in the car -- bad place to fight, btw), as I found myself thinking: "Here I/we go again!", I did something I had never done before -- I pulled the car over to the side of the road, and I said exactly what I was thinking:

"Sugar, I adore you. I want nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with you. And. . . . . .what we're doing now? -- Where you withdraw and I press on? I've done that before, and I don't want to do it any more. So, if this is what we're going to do in the future, I think we should just break up right now, even though I'm madly, frothingly in love with you, and I know you're in love with me, too. Because I already know where this goes, and I just don't want to go there any more."

My Beloved stopped, looked thoughtful for a minute, and said: "Yeah, I've gone here before, too, and this isn't how I want to do it, either . . . . . let's do something different."

Since that day, six years ago, we've been doing it differently.

Our particular form of doing it differently means that we don't compromise -- but rather that we work collectively to make sure that each of our needs gets met in our interactions. This means that I sometimes give her space to think and process at her own pace, but that she also recognizes my "need for speed", and that when she does take space to process, she makes a concerted effort to actually process, rather than simply escape (which she admitted was one of her patterns). It means that I acknowledge that my "need for speed" can be just as much a tactic for escape from discomfort as I used to think her need for process-time was. It means that when we come into conflict with each other (which is remarkably rare these days), we often end up choosing to do things that are not necessarily as immediately "comfortable" as our old patterned choices were -- but since we've tried those patterns out pretty thoroughly, and discovered that they just don't work, we're each willing to go through that discomfort.

So, if you hear yourself saying or thinking things like: "Here we/I go again!", or "Damn! I thought I had figured this out, and here it is once more!" -- or even "See! I told you this would happen!", I'd suggest to you that you have just admitted that you are dealing with a pattern -- something with which you have enough experience that you can recognize it when it comes around again, and dread the results as predictable.

I would posit that it is at this precise moment of recognition that you have the opportunity to Do Something Different.

That "Something Different" will probably feel (at least initially) uncomfortable and unfamiliar -- which is usually a very good sign that it is actually Something Different.

And if you blow up the lab again?

Well, at least you will have new data about what works and what doesn't work.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 5:55 PM  

5 comments: said... September 29, 2008 at 7:57 AM  

Hi, nice to meet you - my name is Withdrawer. LOL

Meet my wife Jess... Advancer.

ROFL -- I saw a lot here that I recognized.... especially the "don't go to bed angry" thing!

Except Jess is slowly turning me into a "meet me half-way-er"

pidomon said... September 29, 2008 at 4:45 PM  

how did you get so damn smart?

i will keep this in mind next time find myself thinking "There I go again"

thanks for sharing and the insight!

Anonymous said... September 30, 2008 at 1:34 AM  

Once again, in your revealing your Self, you have enlarged my horizons and brought an excellent gift forth.
I am grateful for your generous heart!

Nia said... October 2, 2008 at 10:38 AM  

This is a lot better than what all the self-help books in the market and the majority of therapists would say.

And I have read it when I should have been preparing lessons for tomorrow (I'm a teacher), and my partner is telling me that I should be leaving the house in five minutes. I promise I will Try Something Different and stop being such a procrastinator.... some time.

Misfit Farms said... October 6, 2008 at 12:27 PM  

Very good - clever and insightful, as we have all come to expect from your work.

Perhaps the metaphor is a bit overboard, but last Thanksgiving, I accidentally set my deck on fire in the middle of the night while smoking the family turkey. Oddly, my first, foggy thought as I stood there in my PJs looking at the smoldering deck boards was, "Oh shit, not again!"

The next day, after sleep and sunshine, I committed myself to stop accidentally setting things on fire. Now if I can just apply the committment to other areas of my life!

Post a Comment