Sunday, October 28, 2007

Further Reflections on the Question of Power vs Preference: Or How to Deal with Bartleby's Syndrome

Herman Melville's story "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" is about a clerk in the period before Xerox machines and typewriters whose job it is to copy legal documents by hand. Though Bartleby is initially a diligent copyist, he is unwilling to run errands or work in groups to check for errors. This does not win him any good will. "Imagine my surprise," his employer says incredulously, recounting Bartleby's response to his request for assistance, "nay, my consternation, when . . . Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

"I would prefer not to" may also be the response, though more likely delivered as passive resistance, when one member of a couple moves from power to preference. It's rare to find a couple that starts so mismatched, since we are usually drawn to partners at a similar level of consciousness. But sometimes, through therapy, one person can change, and then then as they say, "Let the games begin."

If it's the other way round, and you play the power game, there's really nothing new of any substance to discuss. As always, you'll be trying to get your partner to agree. You'll assume that only one of you can be right in any conflict. That the one who is right will be the only one who is normal. And that that person will have a corner on the sanity market. The other one will be wrong, abnormal, and crazy. Same book. New cover. Disturbing and familiar.

However, if you're the one who prefers to prefer, and if you love your partner enough to want to stick around, how do you handle the pressure to duke it out? The answer essentially is to refuse to engage. You can't fight a war if no one shows up. Or so they said during the Vietnam conflict.

But refusing to engage is only the shorthand. The longhand is that it's necessary to hold onto your experience in the face of tremendous pressure from your partner to have theirs. That to hold onto your experience you must have strong and clear boundaries. That to have strong and clear boundaries you must accept difference from your partner. That to accept difference from your partner you must tolerate being separate. And that to tolerate being separate you must handle loneliness, doubt, and fear -- the terrifying feelings that come with having a distinct body, the state of existential aloneness from which no one escapes.

Few of us, if any, manage all this consistently. But even understanding this disengagement conceptually can help you circumvent the habitual clashes that destroy the integrity of so many relationships. It can help you determine when your partner is scared and is trying to merge to find emotional shelter. It can help you determine when you're overwhelmed and are tempted to merge to find any shred of safety. And it can help you begin to do the invaluable work of developing the capacity to sit with your feelings -- which is the real hope for internal and interpersonal change.

If you're lucky, your partner will benefit from your efforts and will discover that they also can survive on their own without demanding that the two of you pretend to be one. Hopefully, they'll find their way to a compassionate therapist who can help them start to build a more robust sense of self. And if possible, the two of you will begin couples counseling and have a chance to view your relationship through the eyes of a professional. Being able to deal with separateness can make it possible to come together as two distinct people in search of common ground. And there's no telling how close two such people can be.

If you're unlucky, however, your partner will feel abandoned and will be unable to sustain the connection between you. They'll refuse to seek help individually or as a couple, not because they're immoral but because they're afraid. In this instance you may find that no choice is appealing. To leave can be gut wrenching, but to stay can be deadening. Either way, it may be time to start asking tough questions. Because as challenging as it is to deal with existential aloneness it's even more challenging to deal with the loneliness of a relationship in which there's no one with whom to share the utter terror of being separate.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Power vs Preference: A Matter of Choice

I once had a relationship in which the big conflict was the window. My girlfriend liked it open because she ran hot. I liked it closed because I ran cold.

What was challenging about this conflict was how personal it became. My girlfriend was convinced that there was something wrong with me. I didn't have enough body fat and I didn't have enough hair. Her solution was that I should bundle up and wear a hat to bed. This made me feel like a character out of Dickens. I was convinced that there was something wrong with her. She had too much body fat, and her thermostat was off. My solution was that she should lose weight and see a doctor.

Both of us, in other words, accused the other of being wrong. One of us had to be normal and the other abnormal. There was no room in our relationship for both of us to be normal. There was no room in our relationship for us both to be right.

As a result, we entered into a sustained power struggle. I fought to keep the window closed because I wanted to feel normal. My girlfriend fought to keep it open because she wanted to feel normal. If I allowed the window to be open I tacitly acknowledged that I was defective. If my girlfriend allowed the window to be closed she tacitly acknowledged that she was defective.

In this way, the conflict over the window became a fight for self-esteem. I fought to keep the window closed because I needed to protect my sense of self. Secretly I was afraid that there was something wrong with me. My girlfriend fought to keep the window open because she needed to protect her sense of self. Secretly she was afraid that there was something wrong with her.

On an even deeper level, this was a conflict over sanity. If she was right, I couldn't trust my experience of the world. Maybe I didn't have a right to feel cold. Maybe I didn't feel cold, I just thought I was cold. If I was right, my girlfriend couldn't trust her experience of the world. Maybe she didn't have a right to feel hot. Maybe she didn't feel hot, she just thought she was hot.

Without knowing it we had become players in a zero sum game. One of us had to be right, to be normal, to be sane. The other had to be wrong, to be abnormal, to be crazy. With our sanity on the line, it's no wonder we fought so hard. The consequence of capitulating meant admitting you were mad.

Needless to say, that relationship eventually failed. It's amazing how many windows you can find if you need to. Every choice can be turned into a referendum on your sanity. Every difference can be twisted into a matter of right and wrong.

Years later I had a chance to revisit this issue. I was dating a smoker who yearned for fresh air. I was all for fresh air, but I didn't like the cold. And so the old battle lines reappeared.

This girlfriend, however, refused to engage. She had been there and wasn't interested in playing the power game. For her, the window question was a matter of preference. She preferred it to be open. I preferred it to be closed. Why we had these preferences was not on the table. It was enough to acknowledge that we were different in certain ways. The challenge was to figure out a workable compromise, not to demonstrate that the other person was wrong.

As simple as this may sound, it was a revelation for me. By thinking in terms of preference rather than in terms of power I was freed from having to justify what I liked and who I was. It was as if my girlfriend were saying, I accept you as you are with all your particular tastes and desires. I may not share each of them or even understand why they're there. But there's room for both of us to be different and normal. We just have to figure out some workable solutions.

I can't stress enough what a relief this was for me. For the first time in my life I didn't have to be right, my sanity wasn't on the line, and winning wasn't an issue. I could have my own preferences, and she could have hers. I could be curious about her experience, and she could be curious about mine. I could imagine accommodating her preferences without losing my sense of self. And she could imagine accommodating my preferences without losing her sense of self. It became a practical matter of compromise instead of a personal matter of victory. Instead of thinking about winning I could think about co-existing.

It also freed me up to think about broader differences in new terms. Differences between individuals, communities, religions, and nations. I could conceive that in some way and within certain constraints most of the world is both different and normal. Allowing this to be possible at least temporarily shifts the focus. It enables us to stop asking who's right, normal, and sane, and it encourages us to start asking how we can manage to live together -- without having to destroy those whom we don't understand.