Note: I do not mean this post to be a criticism of my parents or any of the other people in my life. I know that everyone is doing the best they can in the relationships that they have.
One of the things that I have come to value most in relationships is honesty and vulnerability, particularly the ability to be straightforward and ask questions. I have learned to appreciate this because in many cases, arguments or disagreements can be solved simply by finding out what the other person is actually thinking or feeling. More often than not, brainstorming solutions together will solve the problem.
Unfortunately, this is not the way that we’re taught to interact with people. From the time we’re little, we’re treated as little puzzles that need to be solved, as if there’s some code that can crack the behavior of a small child and get them to do what you want. I think that my parents did a fantastic job raising me, but even they bought into this mentality in some ways. When I’ve spoken to my parents about their techniques, my mother has told me things like “If you keep a kid on a schedule, they’ll be much less cranky” or “If you ignore a kid who’s throwing a tantrum they’ll stop”. Now these are effective techniques, and for new parents they can be a godsend, but unfortunately they don’t do much to validate the actual feelings of the child involved or teach the child what to do when they’re feeling overwhelmed or upset.
In contrast, I’ve been reading Libby Anne’s blog lately and there has been a surprising amount of content about treating your child as a real human being with legitimate needs and wants and the amazing returns that she’s gotten as a parent by adopting this technique. This involves validating a child’s emotions, trying to communicate and compromise where possible, and explaining why the answer is “no” when the answer has to be “no”. Instead of coming up with a series of tricks that will have a certain effect, Libby Anne prefers to work with her children to identify their emotions and brainstorm solutions so that in the long term they will learn how to manage those emotions themselves.
Unfortunately, most parents work by trying to devise methods to get their children to a certain behavior, rather than working with their children to create healthy behaviors and tools to live well. The most obvious and harmful example of this is corporal punishment: if you beat the child then they’ll do what you want and learn to do what you want them to do. But we all do this to some extent or another. Think of the magazines that boast “this quiz will tell you if he likes you” or “10 ways to tell if your relationship will last”. Every teenage girl has engaged in this behavior: trying to discern what the text means, trying to “unlock” the secrets. And media is even worse when it comes to portraying women (they’re a mystery! A complete mystery! Buy her things to unlock the secrets!).
Friends do this to each other as well. There are “rules” to friendship (e.g. it’s against the rules to date your best friend’s sibling). Dating relationships are potentially the worst culprits. While many people say that they value communication, it is still all too common for people to try to figure out how to get their partner to act differently while not actually talking to their partner about what’s bothering them. “Nice guys” are a prime example, but I’ve been known to do this as well, thinking things like “If I just don’t speak up ever about what’s bothering me then they’ll think I’m nice and want to be with me forever” or “I’ve already texted x times and they haven’t texted back. Is it against the rules to text again? What are they trying to tell me? Do they hate me?” It’s a process of both mind-reading and personalization, in which every action must mean something about you and in order to crack the code you need to behave just so.
Unfortunately, human beings are not puzzles. There is no secret combination of words and presents that you can present to someone in order to unlock their love or kindness or good behavior. When we approach children in this fashion, we teach them to approach all relationships like this. And when we do this, we set them up for all kinds of problems. If relationships are about getting the other person to behave in the way that you want them to (whether that’s them being happy or that’s them doing whatever you want), and the way to do that is to find the “correct input”, then you end up with problems like people thinking they’re owed sex, or people believing that they’re allowed to do whatever it takes to get the result they want.
It can also lead to the flip side: people assuming that if others aren’t ok then it’s their fault, people thinking they have to manage the emotions of others, or people who have never been taught appropriate ways to deal with their own emotions because they themselves have always been “managed”.
For me personally, I have found that thinking there are things you should be able to do that will make feelings or bad situations stop has led to really bad behavior. It didn’t teach me that sometimes things had to feel bad and that I would get through it. Even worse, it let me stay in relationships that were abusive and painful because I felt that if I simply found the right combination of actions, the other person would stop behaving the way they did.
More than anything, I wish that I hadn’t been convinced that there was a right way to behave towards others when I was first forming my identity. I can no longer tell whether I became sexual because I wanted to, or simply because I thought it was what you did with someone you loved and it would make them happy. I followed the scripts that others told me would work, the scripts that not only were supposed to make the other person happy but were supposed to make my emotions work in a certain way. I never felt that I could openly speak about what I wanted or didn’t want, and when I did say no to things there were reasons that had to be stated (because otherwise it will be rejection and that makes the other person sad: you didn’t input correctly). I wish that I hadn’t been spending my time trying to suss out how to get others to act, but rather taking the time to think about what I actually wanted and what I care about.
When I was asked recently about how I would be in a relationship without feeling that I needed to manage the other person, I replied that I can’t even imagine what I’m like just being myself in a relationship. This is a good part of why I’m finding the question of identity and orientation very confusing. I feel like every relationship I’ve been in, I’ve acted the way I felt would make the other person happy, repressed the parts of myself that wouldn’t have the right reaction, and said things I didn’t wholly mean becuase it was what you were supposed to say in order to make another person smile. I went through grandiose gestures of romance because that was what it meant to “be in a relationship” that was how you were supposed to show your love and if you did that then your relationship would be good.
All of these ways of approaching relationships are about looking at outward signifiers (what action did I take and what action did I get in response) instead of actually trying to get information from each person about what’s happening internally. I want to be honest in my actions instead of spending my life trying to manage exactly the right stimulus to garner the right response in people I care about. If I have children, I don’t want to try to come up with tricks to get them to behave well. With myself, I don’t want to bypass what my emotions are telling me by coming up with some action that shuts off the bad feelings. I am not a code to be cracked. I don’t need anyone else trying to figure out how to fix my feelings, nor do I need to fix myself. I need honest communication that asks how I can recognize my emotions, understand why they’re happening, and deal with the source of the problem.