Sunday, November 4, 2012
Rulebooks without words?
November 4, 2012
Life happens, the old cliché warns us, while we are doing something else. And in a somewhat similar fashion, our rule book for relationships is shaped wordlessly while we are engaged in living and talking about something else.
“Do you really have a rulebook for relationships?” a friend asked dubiously after reading last week’s blog. “I don’t think many people do.”
Perhaps guide book is a more helpful phrase than rule book, but everyone does indeed have an internal guide book that shapes the way relationships are formed and managed. Relationship difficulties can (and do) spring from faulty beliefs that form the content of this internal guidebook, of course. But dealing with content (good or bad) requires us first to grapple with the frustrating challenge of translating our internal wordless guidebook into language, making words for what we sense as truth so that we can consciously think and choose about the ways in which we relate.
A colleague in graduate school was the intellectually brilliant child of two college professors, one of whom was a closet alcoholic, and the other a gifted enabler for the alcoholic partner. In the world in which Nancy [not her actual name] grew into adulthood, tolerance of human differences was a highly valued trait. She was taught, “It is wrong to judge the behaviors of others; live and let live.” Consequently, Nancy’s relational guidebook contained a wordless rule: when others do things that hurt you (for example, turn up intoxicated at your birthday party), you must not say anything—you must give them, uncritically, the right to behave as they choose even when their behavior is hurtful to you. No objections permitted.
Would you be surprised to learn that Nancy’s relational history included “friendships” in which others took unfair advantage? Nancy was the recipient of a family trust, but it was not her generous family allowance that made Nancy an easy mark. It was not a personal approval of violence as such that made Nancy tolerate abusive behavior from others. The problem lay in Nancy’s wordless rule that she could not object to the behavior of others nor place limits upon their behaviors. Initially Nancy had little if any conscious understanding of this, however. Relationships in her life reflected people “just doing what people do,” and Nancy responding in the way that “any tolerant person” would behave.
One day early in our clinical training, a supervisor bluntly confronted Nancy. “Why do you tolerate such abusive behavior from that client?” the supervisor demanded. “Where are your boundaries?”
Nancy was annoyed and somewhat insulted by the question. Talking about it later with me, Nancy said, “I was fortunate; I had parents who taught me to be more tolerant than the majority of people. Bad behavior just doesn’t bother me.”
During training, the process of bringing her wordless rule of “no objection permitted” into words required a great deal of personal struggle for Nancy. Forming relationships characterized by mutual concern for mutual well-being will perhaps never be automatic for Nancy—early learning retains surprising power throughout a lifetime. But once Nancy was able to put her “rule” into words, she could establish a conscious relational guideline that included both true tolerance and the necessary boundaries required for responsible self-care. Learning to practice the new rule was not a simple matter, but for Nancy the pay-off in mutually beneficial relationships was well worth the struggle.
Thinking with you today that it is a life-long challenge to understand the meaning we have made of the experiences we have lived. I can readily remember my Dustbowl Depression childhood in the Kansas prairie, but I am still uncovering the wordless rules I crafted out of that experience I lived.
As life happens this week, become self-aware. Watch yourself being you, and take a quiet moment to consider: what wordless rule might you have been following just then as you acted in that way? What have you lived that translated into the wordless guideline that may have shaped that relational moment? How can you say the sensed "truth" you just acted on?
Knowledge describes the journey; wisdom knows what the journey means.
See you next week.