In my entire life, I’ve never experienced what you would imagine to be a successful relationship. I’m a hopeless romantic, but by no means do I think a successful relationship looks anything like a story book or a rom-com. My emotional hangups, weaknesses or literal ignorance, have just always put my partners’ in a place of immense difficulty.
My most obvious issues no longer have a place in my life. The combination of talk therapy, group psychodrama, and intimate experiences on the path to emotional intelligence (EQ) have shined lights in places where I’ve needed to go that were far from the normal marked trails of this uphill summit. Plainly, it’s relatively easy to shed bad behavior that isn’t actually tethered to the core you.
For example, lying about things to avoid conflict such as how late you were actually out with your boys when your partner is out of town. Without diagnosing the overarching concern here, let’s just ruminate on the behavior. Core Justin isn’t a liar. But, Core Justin is conflict averse and prone to stretch out moments of happiness as much as possible. That’s a behavior that’s easy to change because my personality isn’t reliant on late-night drinking to feel at home. It doesn’t reflect my personality — it’s just an activity that takes up space in my life from time to time.
It’s important to contrast a personality behavior against a personality trait. I’m making this stuff up because I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. I’m just digging deep into me. I define a personality behavior as something that’s merely topical. If that behavior can be removed from your life with little friction (for the most part), then it probably belongs in this bucket. A good gauge would be whether you define yourself by this behavior.
A personality trait is more intimate to me. It can’t be shed without time and work — lots of friction. A personality trait defines you and it feeds off you like a parasite. It has some control over your body. I’ve had allergies all my life, and in many ways, a personality trait and an allergy response are the same thing.
When I eat a food that I’m allergic to, my body produces a response. It kicks into overdrive to defend itself (even when the substance is absolutely harmless). It tries its best to expel the foreign matter and in the process takes your body down right along with that minuscule bite of peanut or avocado (yes, it sucks, I’m allergic to both).
Life is funny in its symmetries.
The other side of the coin, if my partner says to me, “You not taking care of what I asked you you to do is inconsiderate.” Or, “What you just said to me, and how you said it to me, hurt my feelings.” What is useful information (i.e. harmless) gets converted into an allergic substance. From the food analogy, instead of just tasting, accepting, and digesting the substance; my body responds on high alert. An allergic substance has entered my brain, now I must defend myself.
For me, that has always exhibited itself like this:
- First, Blanket Rejection. I launch into an oblivious retort of the feeling I caused. It couldn’t have been me because I would never intend to make you feel that way. (As the words, “I’m perfect” play in my mind.)
- Second, Distancing. I create space between me and my problems in matters of love. Remember when I mentioned I’m conflict averse? Running from the problem allows me time to “regroup” so I can come back to the table with some sort of game plan to make it go away without having to actually fix myself or cop to the accusation.
Notice my use of the word accusation. Another sign of creating a combative framing around an issue which makes it easier to be defensive.
Quick and funny story about distancing. My Pops had some temper issues back when I was still in the house. One of my most memorable experiences was seeing him have an argument with an aunt. He was fed up and the problem wasn’t going to get resolved at first blush so what did he do? He went outside and start shooting hoops during the middle of dinner. We get these mechanisms from somewhere, usually it’s close to home.
- Lastly, Acceptance and Steering. The last stage of my typical defensive response (my allergic reaction) is to accept that I can’t run any further. Either because I need to feel normal again (i.e. emotional drain or conflict fatigued), and/or I don’t want to see my partner sad anymore. In the best circumstances, I just apologize and try to move on. But old me typically includes a poison pill with that apology. “I’m sorry that you felt I was being inconsiderate. I also feel it’s not fair that…” Probably the worst apology ever; in fact, maybe considered a non-apology by many therapeutic professionals.
As we all know, parasites are hard to remove from the body. Personality traits and habits stick with us for a long time, sometimes forever. I used defensiveness to illustrate this point and while it’s something I’m constantly trying to evolve, a more subtle threat is intention and tone.
I’ve been at the receiving end of “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it” more times than I can count. And it’s true, a lot of pain and suffering can be removed from a negative cycle by delivering words and intention in a softer, more considerate way. Your subtle personality traits (from your perspective not theirs) are harder to correct. If I’m 200-pounds overweight, it’s easier for me to lose some pounds rapidly at the onset of my new diet and exercise routine, than if I’m just trying to trim 10-pounds off and I’m already relatively close to my goal weight.
Why is it so difficult, besides the common heuristic of habits being hard to kick?
- Validation. I’m a business man through and through. My tone and intention in business conversations (and debates) has sharp yet smooth quality; it’s definitive, and it’s protective of my time and money. I get validation from successes in my non-romantic life that make it easy for me to think it’s okay to just apply that state of being to intimacy and love. That’s the completely wrong conclusion to draw but it’s hard to break away from because that’s one hell of a feedback loop.
- Resistance. The older you get, the more personality traits and behaviors blend together and help you convince yourself that the Core Me is the right Core Me. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, nobody else has any problem with it, what’s your problem?” “This is important to who I am.” A brief moment of introspection would tell us being an unflinching, unwavering partner isn’t even close to a personality trait that’s important. Nor is polling the existential room of imaginary friends. Your partner has a problem, isn’t that enough?
- Catalyst. Many of us are barreling through life on inertia and a quarter tank of gas. The combination of the points above creates enough rocket fuel to produce enough forward momentum of habitual personality traits that you’d be hard-pressed to find a strong enough equal and opposite force (reaction) to divert our path onto a more healthy trajectory. I’ve had to experience years and years of teary eyes, depressive moods, and powder keg bouts to even flinch. It turns out, the biggest catalyst is sometimes the threat of losing it all.
I work really hard on myself, and that is not a pat on the back. I’m saying that to express how difficult it is, even for the most introspective of us. The subtle personality traits are silent killers, and they are deeply rooted because of some of our most common communally shared assets and flaws; things our subconsciouses use for survival — ego and selfishness.
I’ve defended correcting my tone because my tone makes me who I am. That’s wildly untrue, but it feels amazingly honest when it passes my lips. I’ve been blindly selfish, I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see that me holding on to one singular version of communication style was just me selling myself on a lie. My ego was validated by my tone’s usefulness in business; my allergic response to change blocked me from being able to fully appreciate the feedback loop. True selfishness isn’t just about the possession of physical things and experiences you’re not willing to share. Selfishness is putting yourself first in the queue emotionally.
I am not giving up me just because I deliver my message with care and consideration. I can use a big stick all I want in commerce, but commerce is definitively unemotional for a reason. Emotion is required for intimacy, and flexibility is required in a relationship. Core Justin is considerate, caring, loving, trustworthy, present, and a slew of other things both positive and negative. Core Justin is not a communication style, an opinion, or even a fixed point in time.
The small things that are huge things in a relationship should be negotiable, evolutionary, and flexible. I think we can all try to remember that a little more often.
You can find more from me at Freelancekills.com.