“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, …then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” – Daniel Goleman, author
“I’m just fed up with his flirting!”
Frank called me to make an appointment for himself and his wife of twenty five years, Fiona. When they arrived, I was surprised to meet Frank. On the phone, he had this soft, gentle voice but in person, he was a huge man over six feet tall and over two hundred pounds. His partner, in contrast, was a petite person with a deep, husky, almost masculine, voice.
Fiona was a lawyer while Frank owned a successful roofing business. They had no children of their own but were very devoted to several nieces and nephews of their siblings. Frank was starting to grey at his sideburns while Fiona’s hair was a black that seemed too deep to be natural, given her twenty five year marriage.
They were an attractive couple, well dressed and turned out…looking every inch, successful people. Once we had reviewed their histories, their parents, siblings and life traumas, I asked them what was going on that would bring them to see me. Fiona jumped right in angrily with this,
“I’m just fed up with his flirting!”
“If you want to have a life that is worth living, a life that expresses your deepest feelings and emotions and cares and dreams, you have to fight for it.” -Alice Walker, author
“She is forever comparing me to her friends’ husband’s.”
Frank responded by looking away from her and at the same time, looking disgusted with her comment.
I responded directing my attention to Frank, “Frank, do you perceive you are flirting with other people?”
“Of course not!” he said, indignation written all over his face.
“But Fiona sees you that way, yet you do not! How do you see this behaviour she is referring to Frank?”
“I’m just being me, being who I am. I like people, I’m friendly to most people I meet. And, I meet a lot of people in my work in sales.” he replied.
“So, you perceive the behaviours which Fiona finds upsetting as just you being you. But, she perceives it as flirting. So, what is it that you perceive Fiona does that annoys you a lot?” I asked.
“She is forever comparing me to her friends’ husbands. She’ll say, ‘Joan’s husband, Jack, would never do that!’ Or, ‘Martha’s Marc would never do what I saw you do!’ Or, ‘William, Wanda’s husband, never acts like you do in public!’ And, on and on and on!” he said, clearly exasperated.
Fiona jumped in to defend herself with, “I’m only telling you the truth for your own good!”
“The truth is that we can learn to condition our minds, bodies, and emotions to link pain or pleasure to whatever we choose. By changing what we link pain and pleasure to, we will instantly change our behaviours.” – Tony Robbins, author
“… the same behaviour can be interpreted completely different by different people…”
“So you are both very frustrated with each other’s behaviour. How long have these sources of frustration been going on?” I asked to get some sense of the time line we were working with.
Frank was the first out of the gate this time with, “As long as I can remember she’s been accusing me of this kind of stuff.”
Fiona piped in with, “I think I started noticing it on our wedding day!”
“Do you want to understand why you have such different views of the same behaviour?”
“Things are either right or wrong and what he does is wrong…simple and straightforward to me!” Fiona said her anger rising.
“Well, I think it is wrong to compare me with anyone else!” Frank said in his defence.
“The reason the same behaviour can look different to different people is because each of us has a unique value system, which we learned from our past life experiences. And, it’s our unique value system which determines what is right or wrong for us.” I said, as a way of explanation to get them thinking instead of feeling upset.
“Are you suggesting that the same behaviour can be interpreted completely different by different people, Ken?” Fiona asked evaluating the idea.
“It happens every day to everyone, Fiona. Every person is seen by someone as having every behaviour in some form. It’s like that old cliche that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder!’ That is true of every human behaviour or trait.” I said.
“More information is always better than less. When people know the reason things are happening, even if it’s bad news, they can adjust their expectations and react accordingly.” – Simon Sinek, author
“Do you understand the difference?”
“Are you suggesting I compare Fiona to my friends’ wives?” Frank asked with an edge to his voice.
“And, are you suggesting I flirt with other men as well?” Fiona asked also with an angry edge to her voice!
“Yes! And, yes!” I said, smiling gently.
They both paused, looking at me with different forms of surprise on their faces. Fiona’s looked tinged with irritation while Frank’s was more with insight.
Fiona responded first, and insightfully, by saying, “In my government job I was usually reporting to men. You had to keep in their good graces to keep your position. So, thinking back now, I was the one who organized the birthday, retirement and Christmas parties within our unit. And, looking back now, I had to appease a lot of people, many who were my male supervisors, to get the task done. I can see how some of the people in my office might have perceived me as flirtatious in getting everyone involved.”
“Great insight Fiona! Remember, it doesn’t mean you were intending to flirt with them. You were just being you, behaving inside your values. But, due to their own value system, some may have perceived you as doing so! Do you understand the difference?” I asked her.
“Yes, I’m starting to get it now!” she replied.
Frank, hearing Fiona’s response said thoughtfully, “Well, when you put it that way, I often ask my three close friends how their spouse is doing with their work or their kids or their finances or something. These are common topics when we’re together. So, I guess I do compare these women to Fiona.”
“All relationships change the brain – but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.” – Diane Ackerman, poet
“ “I feel devalued…like I’m not good enough for him!”
“It sounds like you both understand the idea. So, let’s go a little deeper in our analysis.
Fiona, how do you interpret what you have been calling Frank’s ‘flirting’ behaviours? And Frank, how do you interpret Fiona’s ‘comparing’ behaviours?” I asked them.
Fiona responded quickly, “I feel devalued…like I’m not good enough for him!”
Frank followed with, “I feel I’m not being respected for who I am, not being allowed to be me!”
“These, as you know, are very important perceptions of ourselves which we need to function. So, you can each see why this discussion we are having is so vital to your future together.” I said.
Then, I added, “Since there are no mistakes in our natural world and we are part of that natural world, that means your marriage has been, and continues to be, a perfect learning system for each of you.
“Do you really mean to say the purpose of marriage is not to be happy but to learn?” Fiona asked.
“Fiona, Frank, contrary to popular belief, the purpose of marriage is not to get ‘happy’ but to get ‘wiser’ for your future survival. As you mull that idea over in your head, does it have a ring of truth to it from your life together so far? ” I asked them.
“Your emotions are very unstable and should never be the foundation for direction in your life.” – Joyce Meyer, author
“Do you want to do that…grow yourself yet again?”
They looked at each other momentarily. And then, each looked off in the middle distance in different directions. A few long moments passed while we all sat in silence. Frank was the first to respond.
“Ken, Fiona and I have been together a long time, longer than many of our relatives or friends. We’ve raised our two children and are on the verge of soon being grandparents. We’ve had our ups and downs, for sure! But, I came here today because I don’t have any regrets about our time together.” he said, a glisten appearing in his eyes as he wiped them unconsciously.
There was another pause as I watched Fiona gather her thoughts. Then she offered this with her own eyes verging on tears.
“I hesitate to say this…but I share Frank’s perspective on our relationship. We have been through some tough times but also had some wonderful moments. But, I really wouldn’t change anything about it. And, when I think about my level of self confidence today compared to when we first met, it has grown dramatically in so many ways. I really learned to like me a lot more from hanging around Frank.”
“So you both are saying you evolved yourself from being together for the last quarter of a century. Can you see these current perceptions of your partner that you find so annoying are just another opportunity to grow yourself. Do you want to do that…grow yourself yet again? If you do, I have a question for each of you.”
They both quickly agreed as Frank reached over briefly to touch Fiona’s hand.
“When we direct our thoughts properly, we can control our emotions.” – W. Clement Stone, businessman
“Our strongest emotions are usually tied to our earliest relationships.”
“Here’s an idea and question for each of you. These behaviours of “flirting” and “comparing” have been going on for some time. Since they generate such strong emotional responses in each of you, this suggests to me they are old and were learned earlier in your life …probably before you met.”
Then I added, “Fiona, who was the person, before Frank, who you perceive did not value you the way you wanted or expected? And Frank, who was the person, before Fiona, who you perceived didn’t respect you for who you were at that time or tried to control you, perhaps?”
Each looked at me with a blank look on their face.
I added another idea.
“Our strongest emotions are usually tied to our earliest relationships. So, go way back in your history and find your earliest memories of this experience.”
Frank quickly replied, ”It was my dad. I spent my entire childhood trying to be my own person instead of what he wanted me to be.”
“And, I bet you are still mad about it. I bet you don’t see yet how it served you in your life, growing up in that home as a child?”
“No, not really! I never noticed a connection before.” Frank said, curiosity emerging in his voice.
“…it was these events which brought you both here today to strengthen your relationship.”
“What about you, Fiona? Have you found your earliest memory yet?” I asked.
Fiona was staring off over my shoulder into the distance at some past events. At my question, she turned back toward me and said in this quiet voice,
“My mom had nine children and I was her third last. I know she was busy, had lots to do, but…I never felt valued by her, never felt good enough for her.”
“Now we know the original sources of your emotional reactions to your partner’s behaviour. Since you both are resourceful, successful individuals, this suggests whatever you learned from those perceptions of your parent were useful to you.
“Do you mean feeling unvalued by my mother was a useful experience?” Fiona asked.
“Fiona, you could actually say those perceptions somehow enabled you to get to be here today…you learned important things for your future which you are still experiencing right now.”
“Ken, are you saying having to be my own person in my relationship with my father was not only useful back then but continues today?” Frank asked.
“Yes, that’s it! Have you noticed it was these events which brought you both here today to strengthen your relationship. So, those annoying behaviours of your parents are still serving you both today. And, I’ll bet you can come up with lots of other examples. Do you see the point here…each of our life experiences has a special value to us?” I asked them both.
“I thought events were either good or bad, a success or failure?” Fiona commented.
“But, you’re saying every experience is both bad and good, a failure and a success.” Frank paraphrased.
“Yes, that’s the natural system reflected in all of our hard sciences like physics, chemistry, biology , astronomy and so on.” I said.
“The degree of one’s emotions varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts.” – Bertrand Russell, philosopher
“Luckily for me I had the dad I did, otherwise I might not be who I am today…”
“Then we need to figure out how my feeling devalued by my mom as a kid and Frank feeling controlled by his dad as a kid, also helped us at that time in our life…is that where we need to go next, Ken?” she said.
“Yes Fiona! That is it exactly! That’s very insightful of you! Are you both ready to do that?” I asked them.
“I certainly am!” Fiona replied, quickly.
“Me too!” echoed Frank.
And that was where we focused our work. It didn’t take very long. They were both open and eager to put the pieces of their past together in a way that respected them and the people involved. Fiona was able to connect her perception of not being valued by her mother to her high value on self confidence, empowerment and ambition.
Frank was able to connect his perception of a controlling father on his highest values of independence, self esteem and his business. He remarked how his father’s lack of confidence in his business skills had motivated him then, and now, to work hard and make it a viable enterprise.
As they evolved their perceptions of their past, their love and commitment to each other were re-established. Near the end of our time working together, Fiona summarized her evolution in thinking by saying,
“Now that I understand what was going on with my mom, I have also stopped guilting myself for being angry with her because I always knew in my heart she did love me!”
And, Frank’s seminal summary of his evolution was when he said,
“Luckily for me I had the dad I did, otherwise I might not be who I am today, doing what I love and having Fiona in my life, eh?”
“The sign of an intelligent people is their ability to control their emotions by the application of reason.”
– Marya Mannes, journalist
Until Next time…
Now you know, the purpose of your significant other is to help you grow in self appreciation. The behaviours of your partner that bug you the most are often tied to other earlier relationship experiences which are not resolved. Once you resolve them you will clear up old brain noise, old relationships and grow your appreciation for your partner and yourself!
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Namaste, (I salute the grandly organized design of the universe, manifested in you!)
Further information: www.kenpiercepsychologist.com