Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Is the Only Way the Hard Way?

I have never discovered if you really do get a fine or imprisonment for smashing the glass over the fire alarm on the platform of Sheppard Subway Station because I never smashed it. For years I would wait for my train, gazing uneasily at the warning over the glass, as if I would not be able to help myself and just break that glass. I didn't want to break the glass; I was terrified of breaking the glass. Breaking the glass might get me a FINE or IMPRISONMENT. I have to say, though, that even now I experience an unresolved tension about this stupid alarm, and maybe when I am a very old woman I will be back in Toronto and see an actual fire on the tracks. And then I will break the glass, secure in the knowledge that I will be neither fined nor imprisoned. Oh, the relief.

Freud would have a field day.

Anyway in the combox yesterday, someone mentioned the impossibility of knowing how to handle a relationship situation until you are actually in the relationship, and that made me sad. It shouldn't be that way, but it so often is. Both my mother's generation and my generation ignored any faith-based relationship advice of our parents (if they gave any) on the strength that they were old, and old-fashioned, and didn't know what they were talking about. This left some of us thinking, "Oh, if only I had listened to my mother," which strikes me as cold comfort, even for the ignored mothers.

I suppose the problem for mothers is that they prefer just to be themselves and cannot be consciously "on" and supremely clever twenty-four hours a day. Thus, when my mother objected to my calling boys on the telephone, instead of explaining why it is pointless and frustrating to telephone boys who do not telephone you, she called me a brazen hussy.

Now this was in 1986 (the women of my family never forget stuff like this, ever), and "brazen hussy" was not an everyday turn of speech. Nor did it apply to ordinary things like calling boys on the phone which every women's magazine I read in 1986 thought it perfectly acceptable to do. "If a boy doesn't call you, call him" was the commonsense thought of 1986, which was why it was particularly galling to be called a brazen hussy (i.e. a sexual sinner) by my own mother. And thus it made me less likely to listen to anything my mother ever had to say about love in the modern world, which is too bad, for although the world changes rapidly, human nature does not.

And thus the only way I learned just how frustrating and pointless it is to telephone boys who don't telephone me was the hard way. And "hard" is an apt adjective, as it really was the equivalent of trying to knock down a wall by banging my head against it. Your Auntie Seraphic never appealed to the masses, but to a small if worldwide brotherhood of men who adore short pale women with masses of reddish hair.

Frankly, I do not think I actually grasped how one can come to know the reality about oneself and make testable hypotheses about other people until I read the work of Father Bernard Lonergan, S.J. If you care for a serious plod through epistemology, I suggest you read a few essays from his Second Collection or from his Method in Theology (also available in Polish, albeit probably only in a Polish university library) before grappling with Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. But if the first paragraph you read makes you weep, pick up He's Just Not That Into You instead, and examine closely the techniques Greg Behrendt uses to convince you.

Speaking of Greg, one of his devices is the input of his single gal colleague, Liz Tuccillo. Liz is there to voice any objections the female reader might be making as she reads the words of the incomparable Greg. I find Liz an interesting figure because here is married Greg giving all these amazing, cold-water-in-the-face insights, and there is single Liz saying "But I don't like that, Greg."

Liz's protests interest me because I have a reasonable hypothesis that just as girls don't believe their fuddy-duddy mothers (if they have fuddy-duddy mothers instead of less trustworthy latex-offering hippy mothers), readers don't always believe me either. And when the stakes are quite high for the reader, this could bother me. However, I have learned to detach. I say my bit, and then the reader can get on with it, ignoring me or doing what I suggest, writing back to say thanks, or not writing back at all. It's okay.

It would be less okay for you, however, if the person suffering and needing decent advice was your own best pal. This is really a nightmare situation, because you don't want to alienate your pal and you equally don't want her to mess up her life. And on top of that, if she doesn't listen to you, your feelings get hurt. So what to do?

In ministry school, we were taught to listen to a suffering person and to ask questions for clarification. These questions for clarification were not for us to slake our curiosity, but for the suffering person. And in hindsight I saw that my therapist used that technique on me. Instead of telling me the answers to my problems, she asked me questions until I came up with the answers.

A really, really good question was, "Would you rather be married to an alcoholic or to a man who is not an alcoholic?" This question helped me (not perfectly, not without serious bumps and horrors) both to break up with and to get over the alcoholic boyfriend I was absolutely crazy about. And as a result I did not learn the hard way, how really awful it can be to be a co-dependent married to an alcoholic. In fact, although it seemed like alcoholics (drinking and non-drinking) were coming out of the woodwork, I was able to keep myself from dating any of them.

So the answer to my title question is "No". But the difficulty is getting really good and convincing emotional support, advice and help not to end up learning the hard way. And this is why I so often suggest readers take their problems to their parents (or favourite aunt) or a priest or a trained therapist. And, of course, to be rooted in reality.


Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

I can't remember if I've said this here before, but my grandmother says, "There's an easy way and a hard way, and the easy way is learning from other people's mistakes, and the hard way is making your own mistakes." I've always thought that was good advice, especially since I know she learned some things the hard way (divorced a really horrible person).

It can be hard to take advice from someone, but I think if one trusts the source, then it's easier. There's enough advice around the internet (of various quality) that it comes down to a choice of who we find credible. Anyone who's here has made that decision in your favor already. :-)


Mustard Seed said...

I agree that it's sad to feel as though you can't know how to deal with a relationship problem until you're faced with it, but I've experienced that too. I think a lot of smart women look back and wonder "what on earth was I thinking?" but it rarely seems so black-and-white when you're in the situation, especially since every person has some good in them. The comments in the combox at least made me realize that I'm not the only level-headed girl who has gotten stuck on a guy who was wrong for me.

One thing I've noticed is that if I can't be totally transparent about a relationship with my friends, something's not right. Not that I need to share every boring detail about the person I'm dating, but if a guy says or does something that doesn't sit well, I might find myself not wanting to tell my friends because they might not like it. Since my friends are women of good judgment and wisdom, I'm lucky to have them on my side, but too often in the past I've found it easier to just ignore red flags instead of addressing them.

So now when I hesitate to tell my best friend something about a guy because it'll make him look bad, I ask myself WHY (eg "he wore a plaid shirt with camouflage shorts to our date" vs. "he told me he passes out drunk most nights of the week"). A couple good, wise friends or family members can make a huge difference in pointing out what I may not want to acknowledge to myself.

Urszula said...

I like your advice about asking questions. I seem to have a lot of friends who get into terrible relationships and I always struggle with how to reach out to them, to help them through it.

I agree though with some of the previous commenters that unfortunately, for some particularly obstinate and thick-headed people like myself, getting burned is the only true way to learn. Or it was, until recently, when I've been more content to take the backseat and just observe other people - and draw conclusions from their observations, and help them of course as much as I can - rather than participate in drama myself, or drama I create for myself. I suppose I reached a saturation point.

I do hope you're not discouraged about writing to/for us... You have done more good and helped more people than you could ever imagine!

Jam said...

Haha, "plaid shirt and camouflage shorts" made me laugh out loud.

I think it's often a shock to find that something you KNOW is wrong is such a strong temptation. Or maybe that's just my susceptibility to pride talking :) "My judgement can't be THAT bad!" So to some degree I don't think you have to get burned to learn, but maybe you have to experience the temptation before you can fully take it seriously. Or something like that.

healthily sanguine said...

I am not a big fan of learning things the hard way. In fact, by nature I am a very teachable person and learn best by listening. In other words, I'm pretty suggestible and open to advice. That makes it all the more frustrating, sometimes, to look back and see all the instances where I really could have used some good advice and never got it. People are afraid their words will be taken the wrong way and so don't say anything; I know because I currently do the same thing. Also, I have divorced parents. Having divorced parents is a major setback to getting good, relevant relationship advice. Bottom line, I have come to be at peace with the fact that it was part of God's plan that I learn some things the hard, painful way. And I am grateful to Him for the things that I managed to learn without the pain of mortal sin attached to them.