Acknowledging Reported Emotions Before ‘Explaining’ Them

Suppose you say, “I’m <angry, sad, disappointed, anxious, irate,….> because of X <my neighbor’s behavior, my father’s letter, my mother’s language to me last night, my husband’s antics….>.” As an example, “I’m sad because  my brother ignored my birthday this year.” Now, suppose your respondent immediately launches into an ‘explanation’ of, or ‘apologia’ for, X: Your brother didn’t really ignore your birthday, it’s just that he was traveling and didn’t have WiFi, and so wasn’t able to call you on the day. Or something like that. This response by your interlocutor attempts to fit the actions or events that have caused you some emotional pain into a causal arrangement that makes your acquaintances’ behavior more explicable; it makes the case that the action was not personally directed, that it was not malevolent, and so on. Your interlocutors are attempting to defuse and remove the sting of the hurt; they are attempting a therapeutic maneuver, devising a narrative that will allow you–as if in the clinic–to tell a story that ‘works better’ for you.

This, more often than not, turns out to be a mistake; such ‘explanations’ and attempts to ‘mitigate’ the hurt, the anger, the pain, simply do not work; you remain as angry, perplexed, or irate as before; indeed, these emotions might have been exacerbated, and you might have an entirely new conflict, one with your interlocutor, on your hands. The problem, of course, is that the original statement has been misinterpreted;  it is a confusion to think these kinds of statements are attempts to assign causal blame; rather, they are reports of feelings.  When the person we are talking to starts to address the causal relationship they think they have detected, they have moved on past the original emotions that actually prompted the report. Contextualizing the reported emotion so that it fits into a wider nexus of actions and reactions and emotions is a worthwhile task; it may indeed make the sufferer feel they are not being persecuted, that they are not alone, and so on. But this sort of amelioration is best carried out after an acknowledgment of the feelings at play. These sorts of reports are calls for help; they report discomfort; they seek relief. But like any good healer, we must first make note of the symptom reported and only then attempt a diagnosis. To begin by offering apologia is a surefire method of negating and dismissing the initial report, which seeks, first and foremost, a hearing.

This kind of interaction is exceedingly common; I have participated in many myself, both as offender and victim. It is often reported as the kind of conversational play between men and women that sets the two genders apart distinctively i.e., men jump to ‘solving the problem presented’ while women ‘process the emotions reported’ (though I think gender lines cannot be so clearly drawn here; there are exceptions aplenty on both sides.) It derails more conversations than might be imagined; and it only needs the simplest of conversational maneuvers, an acknowledgment that we have been listening, to ameliorate it.

Middle-Aged Laments: Changing, Disappearing, Friendships

I feel old friendships changing, some diminishing in affection and interest, some fading in that crucial dimension of the interest we show in each others’ lives, and thus, threatening to vanish into insignificance. Some because of lack of attention, of the tender loving care that is needed to nurture relationships; some we have tried and tried and strained to keep alive, only to find them sputtering out, impervious to our ostensibly tender affections; some because, somehow, in some mysterious way, my friends and I have come to divine that we are changing, growing apart, irrevocably–and have withdrawn from each other, to set out on other paths, cutting our costs as we do so. We have been exposed to the–possibly clichéd–wisdom that friendships, like other relationships, take us from one station in life to another, and we sense the destination station is at hand. And then there are physical barriers of time and space; sometimes thousands of miles and multiple time-zones, sometimes even with the same city or country or state; I have lived in three countries, my reach extends, bringing me the joy of contact with the far flung, but also the melancholy of separation. I am growing older; I am a parent; at home, a human demands nurturing and rearing; an involvement that makes unprecedented demands on my commitments in time and energy. I willingly acquiesce. This sucks up the oxygen from other quarters; I do not seem to mind. There are new relationships now, ones demanding their own special species of nurturance.

This is a familiar, middle-aged lament. I’ve heard variants of it before; now, it’s my turn to join the chorus. This is not a wholly unfamiliar place to be; I’ve experienced variants of it before, at my life’s previous ‘stages.’ If there is a novelty to the precinct I have now entered, it is because my current melancholia–and I suspect that of others who make observations similar to mine–is infected with intimations of mortality. There might be no time for ‘reconciliation,’ for ‘rebuilding’; perhaps the changes we have observed in our relationships are irrevocable. It was a pleasant fantasy of years gone by that mistakes and catastrophes could always be put right somehow, that there was time and energy aplenty at hand. That illusion is no longer sustainable; our bodies have sent many intimations informing us of their lack of fidelity to our avowed goals; time has speeded up alarmingly; we now know that many of the farewells we will bid others will be final ones. (I suspect some of the notes I strike here might be a little overwrought; I am, after all, not confined to a retirement home or a hospice. Still.)

If there is a consolation in this state of affairs, it is the joy of new friendships; they do not replace the older ones, but fill my life in other ways. They address my changing person; they inform me of what I am becoming. And what I’m leaving behind.

Political Pathology And The Inability To Accept Love

In a post on ‘the underestimation of the capacity to love‘ I wrote of its converse, ‘the inability to accept love’:

That inability, that lowered view of oneself, the judgment that one is unworthy of the love, caring and commitment that is sent our way by our lovers, parents, children, and friends, leads many to reject the intimacy and caring of long-term relationships, the kind that require sacrifice and commitment. It causes the pushing away of partners, the cringing from their touch, the turning away. Those who do so suffer from impostor syndrome: If only the truth about me were to be known, no one would love me, least of all the ones professing their undying love for me.

This inability has a political dimension to it, which is alluded to in my original post: those suffering from it–that is, most of us–render themselves susceptible to political pathology. We cannot imagine ourselves the subjects of a state underwritten by benevolence; we do not imagine ourselves worthy of such an arrangement, part of a community founded on the desire to work toward a common, shared good; instead, we cast ourselves adrift, sometimes seeking the fool’s gold of ‘liberal’ political goods like ‘self-determination,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘independence,’ and ‘autonomy.’ Because we think we are unworthy of care and affection directed at us by others, we valorize instead the solitary, turning a self-imposed necessity into a virtue.

And because we imagine ourselves unworthy of ‘political love’ we are afraid to ask for what is our due; we accept all too readily the abuse of those who govern us. We imagine we deserve no better; we are sinners, always begging for forgiveness; we dare not ask–or fight–for our rights. We accept the handouts sent our way, the grudging political pittances that we imagine are our actual dues. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are sometimes surprised by the ready acquiescence of those they seek to rule; their rule is underwritten and facilitated by this kind of ready acceptance of their peremptory commands.  Rule us; for we are unworthy of anything else. We will not even ask for the satisfaction of our most basic human wants: a roof over our heads, clothing, shelter, and care of us when we are sick and infirm. The political subject who imagines himself unworthy of the love of his fellow citizens is all too ready to be possessed of a vengeful, retributive, spirit; he is all too ready to believe tales of the wickedness that surrounds him. I am fallen among the fallen; do with what you will; like me, they are unworthy of love, of giving or receiving it. The political self-abnegation here is complete.

Note: The political and psychological phenomena described above are exceedingly familiar. Humanist criticism of religion and the state begins from such standpoint; it urges us to view ourselves in a more kindly light, to accept ourselves more readily as a preliminary to letting our fellow political and social subjects into our homes and hearts.

William H. Gass On The Dialectical Nature Of Love

In Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translations (Perseus Books, New York, 1999, pp. 13) William H. Gass writes:

During childhood, contradiction paves every avenue of feeling, and we grow up in bewilderment like a bird in a ballroom, with all that space and none meant for flying, a wide shining floor and nowhere to light. So out of the lies and confusions of every day the child constructs a way to cope, part of which will comprise a general manner of being in, and making love. Thus from the contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life is born a dream of what this pain, this passion, this obsession, this belief, this relation, ought to be.

The model that Gass presents here for understanding how we construct our evaluative and operational apparatus of love is notable for its straightforwardly dialectical nature: the child learns to love and be loved and to expect love through a synthesis of the various opposing theses presented to him about the nature of love. It is through these endlessly revisable bringings together and reconciliations that the lover and his or her love emerges. This dialectical origin is reflected in love itself: it is painful and delightful; it is enlivening and deadening (the rest of the world may come alive through the reflected glory of the love, it may appear drab and colorless in contrast, and so on); it reminds us of our unique, individual subjectivities even as we lose ourselves in someone else; it may make us find reason to live, it may give us reason to die. Most of all, love turns out to be something we find resistant to facile reductive analyses, even as we elevate it to foundational principle in philosophies of life and living.

Gass’ model is relentlessly dialectic for the theses presented to the child about the nature of love find their origin, of course, in others similarly reared on such dialectical ‘confusions’; others who, in their own upbringing, confronted the same ‘contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life.’ Moreover, the child has only constructed a ‘dream’ with normative flavor; this dream itself, as noted, is ‘endlessly revisable,’ revisions forced upon it through these encounters with others’ dreams of what love ought to be.

The complex encounter of subjectivities that we call a ‘romantic human relationship’ poses such challenges for our understanding because of this collision: each lover brings to the meeting a lifetime’s worth of painfully constructed notions of love, one devised and drawn up without the consultation of their lover. These are not geared for smooth operation with those of others; they cannot be. As battle plans do not survive their first encounter with actual conflict, so do these notions not survive their first encounter with the ostensible subject and target and dispenser of love.

Note: Gass writes the above paragraph in transitioning from a description of Rilke‘s childhood and his relationship with his mother, to an accounting of his relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé.

Schopenhauer On Disillusioned Lovers

In On Human Nature: Essays Partly Posthumous in Ethics and Politics (1896:1957, Allen and Unwin, London, pp. 14), Schopenhauer writes

Every human perfection is allied to a defect into which it threatens to pass; but it is also true that every defect is allied to a perfection. Hence it is that if, as often happens, we make a mistake about a man, it is because at the beginning of our acquaintance with him we confound his defects with the kinds of perfection to which they are allied. The cautious man seems to us a coward; the economical man, a miser; the spendthrift seems liberal; the rude fellow, downright and sincere; the foolhardy person looks as if he were going to work with a noble self-confidence; and so on in many other cases.

And then there is the converse of this uneasy co-existence of the sublime and the sordid that Schopenhauer refers to. One that is painfully familiar to disillusioned lovers, to that pair of humans whose crossed stars are just their psychological dispositions.

For as those whose relationships flounder know all too well, the very qualities that first attracted us to those who subsequently repel us are the ones that have now morphed into their ‘allied defects.’ The gay, carefree, quick to laugh social raconteur now strikes us as impossibly frivolous, incapable of entertaining a solitary serious thought; the blunt and refreshingly straightforward shooter from the hip comes across as a tactless boor; the affectionate dispenser of physical touches makes us cringe from their cloying, overpowering invasion of our private spaces. There is a reason why the mutual hatred and fury and anger of a pair of humans engaged in the deconstruction of their former love is quite as appalling as it is, both on the inside and the outside: the disappointment and shock at the transformation of the previously beautiful into the ugly is among the most acute sensations we will ever experience. We are betrayed; we have been cheated; our most precious illusion has been shattered; the ramparts of this most sturdy fort we had built against the advances of this world have been breached by the most insidious Trojan horse of all.

It was there all along, that snake that raised its head and bit you as you trod on it; it’s tempting to think that you just ‘mistook’ it for something else. But it was what it was, the ‘same thing,’ now understood and experienced differently. For the partners in the relationship are now different; their lives and circumstances and dispositions changed (often in response to the presence of ‘the other one’, the ‘significant other.’) Many are the rueful words written by former lovers that speak of how they ‘knew it all along’, how they were ‘blind’ to ‘not see this coming’ when ‘it was there all along.’ And, of course, of how they went on and on, blithely ignoring the warning klaxons, hoping the rocks rising out the waters, looming above them, would simply sink beneath the waves.

Force Majeure: Sauve Qui Peut, All The Way

The problem with Tomas, the now-disgraced husband and father who ran away from approaching danger and abandoned his family in Ruben Östlund‘s Force Majeure, is not that he was scared. Everyone was scared; his wife, Ebba, his children, Vera and Harry, were all scared. They were panic-stricken and terrified; they all reacted in instinctive, unthinking ways. Everyone ran for cover. Tomas’ instincts didn’t include taking care of his family, of course, but that is not an unforgivable crime. Perhaps that ‘instinct’ could still be instilled in him. After all, many a military leader has found that the men he commands are petrified of bullets and run around like headless chickens when shots first ring out; bravery does not come naturally to us; we have to be trained to be instinctively brave.

No, the problem with Tomas is that the selfishness on display in that act of running away from his family appears to be persistent and fundamental.

In the aftermath of his sauve qui peut moment, Tomas resolutely refuses to face up to the fact that his wife experienced his abandonment as, er, abandonment, that he left her alone with their two terrified children, that his actions might have been experienced as painful, disappointing and distrust-inducing. Instead, he is defensive and obfuscatory; he speaks of alternative interpretations of the same event; he suggests his wife’s reactions are misplaced; he does not address his children’s felt needs; he meets his wife’s disappointment and anger with a pushback of his own. He does not realize his wife is ready to forgive him if only he would admit that he had hurt her and their children.

Everything, you see, is about Tomas.

Nothing confirms this quite as well as his tearful, hysterical breakdown during which he admits his guilt to his wife and descends into a paroxysm of crying and self-flagellation. For as he sobs and sobs, plaintively and painfully, you realize, along with Ebba, that he has turned the disaster that has befallen their family into solely a personal disaster. He is upset; he is scared; he has lost the carefully constructed aura of masculine strength and patriarchal togetherness that was previously his. But he is still too selfish to tend to his family, even in this moment. Instead, he now turns all the attention to himself with his bawling. His tears are manipulative; they are meant to stop Ebba’s anger and her dismay and turn them into forgiveness for himself, without him ever having faced up to the consequences of his actions. Soon, his children come running into the room, hearing their father crying. They are stunned and appalled; they instinctively turn to comfort him. Tomas is inconsolable and remains so; the children want their mother–who has figured out the manipulation under way in front of her–to join them. As her children call to her to join them in their comforting of their father, Ebba resists; she knows that the spotlight has been turned, away from their reactions to the incident, to Tomas, who having never addressed them, has made his running away from the avalanche all about himself, his pain, and his suffering.

That is the final insult added to injury.

Praising One Partner, Dissing The Other

Sometimes, on Facebook, an innocent will post a photograph of himself and his female partner, and be greeted with a slew of admiring comments and ‘likes’. These will often be things like ‘you guys look great together’ or ‘fabulous couple!’ Sometimes there are  comments about the wife or girlfriend’s looks: ‘X is beautiful’ or ‘X is so lovely.’ And sometimes, some comments make the same point while taking a dig at their male friend: ‘Dude, she is so above your pay grade’ or ‘you are batting well above your average here’. Or something like that. These are all friendly enough, I suppose, but I must admit to feeling a little uncomfortable about the last cluster. (Perhaps people make these kinds of remarks in face-to-face settings as well, but this behavior is more easily and often observed on social media.)

The folks making that last kind of remark are indulging, of course, in some good-natured joshing: man, you really lucked out. This commentary–which women also direct at their male friends–is a sub-species of that special way that men have of expressing affection for each other wherein they call each other vaguely derogatory names as a sign of affection. Still, I wonder, don’t these kinds of comments also ‘good-naturedly’ tell the woman she is slumming it with her partner? You know: Hey, you’re being charitable here, dispensing your favors to our ‘plain’ friend? That she could have, you know, done better? Are the folks making this kind of joke, one directed at their male friends, also as comfortable making this kind of implied remark about the woman? (Note: this kind of commentary is almost never directed at women by their female friends. No one ever, as far as I can tell, tells a woman that she has really gotten lucky by ‘snagging’ such a hottie who is so clearly deserving of someone better looking than her.) I know the folks making this kind of remark are complimenting the woman’s looks–but in an odd sort of way, really, because they also seem to be suggesting she has lost out in the ‘looks stakes.’ Despite being blessed with an abundance of good looks. So not only is she unlucky, but she also lacks judgment.

I wonder if the discomfort that I’m expressing has as its root, an acute discomfort at the idea that people ‘snag’ or ‘catch’ partners, that there is some ‘physical matching’ involved between people, so that folks with similar rankings on our scale of aesthetic appreciation should be paired off with each other, and that thus, a ‘mismatch’ in looks is notable. In a way. I get that physical attraction has a great deal to do with the initial expression of romantic interest but still, we know enough about what makes relationships work to know that there is a great deal beyond the initial ‘flush.’ Most of which has to do with our complex personalities and the way our partner addresses our most felt needs. Which only emerge, more often than not, once the initial stage of courtship is over, and are rarely known to those outside the intimate circle partners create for each other.

I don’t mean to be a pedant here, or a killjoy. I’m just curious about whether the folks who talk like this have thought about some of the possible implications of their seemingly innocent remarks.

Note: On reading a draft of this post, my wife remarked:

I feel like you touch on but don’t explicitly say something that seems the most problematic about such comments. I think the reason that the same thing would not be said to a woman is because society believes a woman’s looks to be the most important thing about her whereas they are only a minor component of a man’s overall status. You can insult a man’s looks without insulting a man, but you can’t do the same to a woman.

She’s right.