Creative Arts with Patrick Moore


Blame Ruins Relationship Satisfaction
September 26, 2016, 2:35 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Dr. David Burns wanted to know what kind of relationships were satisfying. He asked 1,200 people a bunch of questions about a relationship. This could be any relationship–a romantic partnership, people at work, family, or friends. He had them rate their agreement with 16 Beliefs, some of which were beliefs about oneself, and the rest were beliefs about the other person in the relationship. Finally he asked how satisfied they were with the relationship. He wanted to know if one’s own beliefs, the other person’s beliefs, or what pairs of beliefs, let to satisfied relationships.

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What makes relationships satisfying? Why do we hurt the ones we love?

Dr. Burns made some predictions before he looked at the data. For example, imagine one person has belief #2,  People who love each other shouldn’t fight. Anger is dangerous. The other person has belief #7, I’m right and you’re wrong and you’d better admit it! He predicted the more aggressive person would find this relationship more satisfying than the more passive person would. He and his colleagues made many other predictions. To his surprise, all of their predictions were wrong. There was no correlation among any of the pairings of beliefs.

Beliefs Listed in the Study:

 

Submissiveness/Demandingness

Submissiveness:

  1. Pleasing Others. I should always try to please you, even if I make myself miserable in the process.
  2. Conflict Phobia/Anger Phobia. People who love each other shouldn’t fight. Anger is dangerous.
  3. Perceived Narcissism. You can’t tolerate any criticism or disagreement without falling apart.
  4. Self-Blame. The problems in our relationship are all my fault.

Demandingness:

  1. You should always treat me in the way I expect. It’s your job to make me happy.
  2. Justice/Fairness. If you don’t meet my expectations, I have every right to get mad and punish you.
  3. I’m right and you’re wrong and you’d better admit it!
  4. Other-Blame. The problems in our relationship are all your fault.

Dependency/Detachment

Dependency:

  1. Love Addiction. I can’t feel happy and fulfilled without your love.
  2. Fear of Rejection. If you rejected me, it would mean I was worthless. I can’t be happy if I’m alone.
  3. Approval Addiction. I need your approval to feel happy and worthwhile.
  4. Mind Reading. If you really love me, you’ll know what I need and how I feel without me always having to explain myself.

Detachment:

  1. Achievement Addiction. My self-esteem depends on my achievements, intelligence, or income.
  2. I must never fail or make a mistake. If I fail, it means I’m worthless.
  3. Perceived Perfectionism. You won’t love or accept me as a flawed and vulnerable human being.
  4. Disclosure Phobia. I can’t tell you how I really feel inside. I have to keep my true self hidden.

 

from Feeling GOOD Together by David D. Burns, MD, 2008, p. 56.

Of all 16 beliefs, only one strongly correlated with relationship satisfaction. None of the beliefs correlated with high satisfaction, but one belief strongly correlated with low satisfaction. That one was #8, The problems in our relationship are all your fault. He labels this belief, Other-Blame. Those who blame others, are very unsatisfied with the relationship.

At first Dr. Burns was disappointed with the result of all that work. But once he began using this one simple fact in his counseling practice, he found it helped people improve their relationships significantly and quickly. At least, it helped the ones who were willing to reduce how much they blamed the other, and instead to take responsibility for what they could do differently.

 

People who blamed their partners (or other people in general) for the problems in their relationships were angry, frustrated, unhappy, and intensely dissatisfied with their relationships. In addition, this mind-set accurately predicted what would happen in the future. Individuals who blamed their partners for the problems in their relationship were even more miserably unhappy three months later. Things were clearly going downhill for this group. In contrast, people who were willing to assume complete personal responsibility for solving the problems in their relationships, and who felt a strong commitment to making their partners happy, not only reported the most satisfying and loving relationships at the time of initial testing, but their positive feelings seemed to increase over time. …individuals who focused on changing themselves … were usually able to work wonders in their relationships. In most cases, it didn’t take long at all.

In the following section of the book, Dr. Burns wanted readers to know that, once you stop blaming others, that does not mean you should blame yourself instead. That doesn’t help either! The cure is to stop blaming altogether, to be nonjudgmental [his word, p. 62]

This is great information! Still, I feel Dr. Burns does not describe well enough how to be nonjudgmental, or even how to not judge oneself. In fact, many of his terms seem loaded with judgment about oneself. Yes, in his earlier book, The Feeling Good Handbook  he demonstrated nonjudgment VERY well. But in this book … not as well. Which is unfortunate because to learn to be nonjudgmental, we really need examples, someone to demonstrate it for us.

In particular we need a nonjudgmental explanation for how and why we appear to be hurtful and blaming of our partners and other people. We need an answer to the ages-old question, “Why are we so hurtful to the ones we love?” … an answer that does not in turn hurt or judge US. Dr. Burns does not provide that kind of explanation in this book. I think the book lacks something without this explanation, so here is my attempt:

In our culture, we are trained from an early age to determine who is to blame. If one person is found not-guilty, then there must be another person who is guilty. But in relationships, most of the time neither person is blameworthy. We are trained from an early age to see blame as a black-or-white subject, when it is not that way at all.

Let’s take an example. Mickey is a person described earlier in the book. Here is a sample of Chapter One of Feeling GOOD Together that tells Mickey’s story.. scroll down about 60% and look for the bold heading, “Why Should I Have to Change?!”

Mickey blames his wife for all kinds of things that make the relationship unsatisfying to him. As Dr. Burns asks Mickey more questions, it becomes clear Mickey is doing far worse things to his wife, than the things he listed she was doing to him. In fact, Mickey is having extramarital affairs, and waving the evidence in front of his wife, to torment her. Why is Mickey doing this? The explanations Dr. Burns gives, seem to shift the blame to Mickey. Dr. Burns says Mickey is “intentionally doing things that are certain to demoralize her and ruin the marriage.” I have a different explanation.

I think Mickey fears his wife’s complaints about him would undermine the basis for his identity. Her criticisms would make him feel like the very foundation for his value could be lost. Who would he be without his values, core beliefs, and chosen identity? If this identity is shattered, he fears something like death. He can’t bear to have his basis questioned, or even revealed (for I am guessing, he too is suspicious that his foundation might be built upon sand). Therefore he pokes, even tortures his wife–just to keep her off balance so she doesn’t expose his inadequate foundation. It’s not that he really wants to do her harm, he doesn’t. He loves her. But when it comes to the survival of what he thinks of as his very Self, he can’t let his Self be destroyed, so he feels he must go on the offensive.

By the way, nobody on their own would think this offensively. It is not natural. Animals don’t naturally do this. Plant’s don’t naturally do this. It is not an inherent part of nature, not even human nature. It is artificial. How do artificial patterns get established? Two ways. One is that it is shown to you repeatedly. As an impressionable child, people demonstrated for Mickey the Offensive Method of Protecting Your Identity. His parents demonstrated it, his teachers, his leaders, the great books he read and the media he heard and saw. Repetition repetition repetition. The second way artificial patterns are instilled is by being the recipient. Somebody did this to Mickey when he was young. They used the offense upon him, terrifying him, demoralizing him. At some point being the recipient, he told himself, “Never Again!” Since that time, whenever a scenario smells as if he might have his identity or value destroyed, he now offends, rather than feel that pain again. In particular, it is only people who get close to him who are likely to see the foundation of his self, and this explains why he only hurts the people who love him.

This has happened to all of us. There may still remain a few indigenous cultures on Earth where this is not done, but everyone who partakes in Civilization has experienced both the repetitive demonstrations and being the recipient. It is done to us early, when we can’t defend against it. Then we carry it forward into our own relationships. I call this Enculturation (after learning this concept from Stephen Bruno).

Dr. Burns has made a misdiagnosis of Mickey, in my opinion. Mickey is not to blame. It’s our cultural heritage. Everyone does it, even Dr. Burns.  As terrible as Mickey’s behaviors are, as offensive and deliberate as they seem, they are only intended as self-protection. Mickey didn’t “intentionally demoralize his wife and ruin their marriage.” He only did those things the only way he knows to protect himself when he thinks his value is being questioned. If he knew another way, or learned that his Self does not need protecting, he would no longer do this.

Dr. Burns has some good advice: “Don’t blame others, and instead look at what you can do differently.” Yes, that will work, but nobody will actually do it until certain things occur:

  • the person needs to gain some accurate perception of who he truly is.
  • accurate perception of one’s true self naturally gives the person a true sense of value. Mickey’s true self is far more admirable than he had ever thought of himself.
  • One’s true self is naturally influential, safe and secure. It does not require protection because it cannot be injured or destroyed. There is no point in protecting what can’t be damaged. Defending oneself (one’s TRUE self) is silly, amusing.
  • the person needs to gain some accurate understanding that all people have this true self, that is inherently admirable, altruistic, influential and safe. Mickey’s wife has her true self that is far more than he ever thought her possible of.

When psychologists give a test to measure “self-esteem,” this only measures how strongly the person identifies with the cultural identity, the foundation built upon sand. This is why “high self-esteem” does not correlate with satisfying relationships, virtuous acts, or any other positive quality.

Knowledge about the true self, or essence, is more a matter of philosophy than psychology. Think Plato, Plotinus, Aquinas and Spinoza. I think this distinction between the true self and the cultural identity is necessary for understanding a couple of things in the book, Feeling GOOD together.

Dr. Burns’ describes frustrations he has when giving relationship counseling. Individual counseling works well using his prior methods, but relationship counseling falls flat. He doesn’t understand why people are so horrible to their partners. It appears to them these people are just plain mean, and he says he can’t help them.

I think none of these people (at least none of the ones he describes) are just plain mean, intentionally demoralizing others. They are simply insecure, because their identity has been built upon sand. So they are overprotective. I am this way too. I do all the things on Dr. Burns’ lists. But if I were to agree with Dr. Burns, this is my “dark side.” I don’t think it is a dark side. I think it is just my being defensive, because I am still insecure about what gives me value, so I strike out at anyone who questions my value.

The people in Dr. Burns’ book are not petty, vindictive, shallow, narcissistic, or mean. They are just uncertain about who they are.

Think of it this way: When your favorite person in the whole world, the one you chose to be your special person forever, starts questioning your value—that’s a big deal! You’ve put all your eggs in that basket! You’ve given that person extra power over you. And now they are using that power to examine whether your value rests upon a firm foundation or not. Ouch! That hurts! That person is supposed to be on my side and it sure feels like they are against me when they do that. I have to stop that activity! I will do anything to stop that pain! And so we react with extreme measures.

Once this less-judgmental explanation of Why We Hurt the Ones We Love is added to Dr. Burn’s book, I find his suggestions very useful. I am learning a lot from his books.

 

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