ome of the greatest movies of the past ten years explored what it is like to live in an illusion. “The Sixth Sense,” “Fight Club” – and, greatest of all, “The Matrix.”
Let’s start with a spoiler or two, shall we?
In “The Matrix,” a young man is awakened from a computer-generated imaginary world to find that he is enslaved by robots who are paralyzing him with the illusion of life in order to harvest his electrical energy.
This is a wonderful metaphor on many levels, and tells us an enormous amount about our “relationship” with truth and reality.
In the movie, the robots that were originally invented to serve mankind end up ruling mankind and spinning an illusory “reality” which keeps their former masters entombed in the mere appearance of a life.
My take on this metaphor is that it is really describing propaganda.
For instance, the government is an institution that was originally designed to serve citizens – “government by and for the people.”
However, as we have seen countless times, what we create to serve us ends up ruling us.
Governments that were supposedly created to keep our property safe from thieves now steal upwards of 50% of our income under the guise of “taxation.”
Governments were supposedly created to give us participation in the “democratic process” – yet if we do not agree with whatever those in the government decree, we are threatened with violence and imprisonment.
Through the endless infliction of pro-state propaganda in government schools, we grow up believing in mad illusions such as “countries,” “virtuous violence,” “participative democracy,” “voluntary taxation,” “moral murder” in the form of “armies” and so on.
In our churches, we are taught as children to believe that deranged fairy tales represent objective and absolute truth. We are expected to believe with all seriousness that we are evil because a woman made from the rib of a man listened to a talking snake. We are asked to swallow the proposition that an invisible being who drowned almost everyone in the world is the very paragon of virtue.
In our families, we are taught that our relations are virtuous and have value simply because they share some of our DNA – while at the same time being told that racism is evil.
In our relationships, we are taught that “love” can be willed, that others owe us affection, obedience and respect, and that bullying is the same as being assertive.
Standing at the border of a country, we see that the land does not change color, as indicated on maps. Gravity does not change as we step across this imaginary line; reason, physics and morality remain utterly constant.
We believe – or rather, the belief is inflicted upon us – that we owe allegiance to imaginary lines, imaginary gods, and the imaginary virtue of our tribe.
Awakening from these mad dreams is a disorienting, frightening and wonderful experience.
Philosophy is the tool that we use to undo our illusions.
Philosophy reveals to us the simple truths that are self-evident to toddlers, yearned for by teenagers – and attacked and dismissed by most adults.
Philosophy is in its essence about relationships – the relationship between a statement and its truth-value; the relationship between logic and empiricism, “self” and “other,” choice and virtue, integrity and happiness – the mind and reality.
However, most importantly, philosophy is about our relationships with each other.
Philosophy – like all knowledge – is a communal endeavour, since it cannot exist without the collective and accumulated values of language, prior thought – and our shared capacity to process sensory reality.
A man born alone on a desert island cannot practice medicine, or science – or philosophy.
Philosophy reveals the truth to us about our relations with each other, with reality, and with truth itself.
If we are free, philosophy will strengthen our wings.
If we are enslaved, philosophy will weaken our chains.
ost books about relationships will talk about your spouse, your parents, your siblings, your friends, your children and so on.
We will address all these in this book, but I have also included an analysis of your relationship to your society in terms of religion, politics and culture.
I don’t believe that it’s possible to effectively analyze and improve our interactions with others without taking into account the larger social or philosophical context that we inhabit. If we are to achieve our goals of honesty, integrity and true personal freedom, the values that were inflicted upon us as children by culture must be rigorously examined.
The directions that a passerby gives us will do us little good if our overall map is wrong.
Thus, this book will touch on your social, cultural and political relationships and the impact they have on your personal relationships. Since your emotional reactions to these issues can be as strong as anything you feel about your personal relationships, excluding them from a book designed to give you happiness and peace of mind would leave the world at best half unexamined.
s I discussed in my two previous books – “On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion,” and “Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics,” mythology is the opposite of truth, since it provides the illusion of truth and so prevents further exploration.
In this book I will argue that truth is a necessary prerequisite for intimacy.
“On Truth” was primarily about our relationship with our parents in the past. “Universally Preferable Behaviour” was primarily about our relationship with truth, reality and virtue in the present.
This book is primarily about our relationship with ourselves and others in the future.
It is a book about honesty of the most challenging and rewarding kind: honesty with – and about – yourself.
Most times in life, we do not even know that we are lying. We do not know that we are failing to process reality – both inner and outer – correctly because we are addicted to mythology, or making up stories which drug us with the illusion of truth, rather than humbly pursuing truth in reality.
In our collective past, mythology dominated our thinking – particularly in the realms of ethics, society and reality. In the realm of ethics, we constructed vast imaginary entities such as gods, nations, states, classes and so on, all of which inevitably caused us to surrender our autonomy and sense of personal control to the tall tales of madmen.
With regards to society – particularly family – we substituted blood and accidental proximity for virtue. We were – and are – trained by those who accidentally rule us biologically to submit to those who accidentally rule us geographically.
With regards to reality, we imagined that lurid, corrupt and insane tales about gods, devils and talking snakes could provide us some sort of truth about the material world.
The humility required to subject our wild and narcissistic imaginings to the twin disciplines of logic and evidence has been sorely lacking throughout human history, and it is not hard to see the effects of this lack of humility in the realms of science in the past and ethics in the present.
In the realm of our relationships, however, we remain positively medieval.
In the Middle Ages, when an eclipse was observed a myth was invented to “explain” the event. God was angry, a witch is among us, sinners abound and so on. Some senseless and brutal sacrifice was made, some hellish amalgam of torture and murder was inflicted on some hapless epileptic or imbecile, and “order” was restored – and anxiety reduced – to the temporary relief of all.
In the same way, in our personal relationships, when discomforts arise, we create stories to “explain away” our emotions.
If a man causes us anxiety, then he is “aggressive.” If a woman rejects us, then she is “cold.” If our child criticizes us, then he is “ungrateful.” If we get fired, our boss is “vindictive.” If our wife leaves us, women are “selfish.”
n the religious approach to “truth,” the priest makes a prediction – “worship my God and your harvest will be good” – and then invents “sinners” to take the blame if his prediction fails to materialize. In this way, the possibility of disproof – of personal responsibility for the priest – is eliminated.
All too often this is our default position in relationships as well.
We enter into relationships based on our predictions of how they will turn out. Who but a masochist would continue dating a woman if he knew for certain she would break his heart within six months? Would you marry a woman and have children with her if you knew that she would divorce you and take you for everything you had?
Of course not.
We make predictions about relationships – and then, when those predictions fail to come true, we invent “sinners” to take the blame.
We embark upon our relationships with the highest hopes and ambitions and then, when they crash in flames or peter out into nothing, we begin mythologizing the reasons why.
Compared to medieval priests, we are often more sophisticated in our defences nowadays. We provide quasi-enlightened reasons as to why our relationships fail, which on the surface seem to contain some aspects of personal responsibility, but which are really the same old mythologies dressed up in new psychological garb.
For instance, if my marriage fails because I work too hard and ignore my wife and children, I may openly confess that I worked too hard – but then, inevitably, self-pitying justifications will creep into my explanation…
“My wife left me because I worked most Saturdays and spent two or three days a week on the road. I definitely should have spent more time at home, but then of course she really liked the vacations on the French Riviera, and the children apparently really needed their ski lessons, and she did install that kiln in our basement for her pottery. I should have put my foot down earlier and forced her to make a decision, and not just let her desire for more and more stuff keep driving me back to the office!”
Implicit in this kind of mealy-mouthed “explanation” is the basic premise that, “My wife is a greedy materialist who wanted to have her cake and eat it too. She wanted all this great stuff, she wanted all the status that came with the big house and a nice car, but she also wanted me to be home to take care of her as well!”
You often hear the same complaint with regards to sex. For instance, a man may say:
“I’m not allowed to have an affair, because I am married – yet my wife refuses to have sex with me, so I’m totally stuck. She holds a monopoly veto on our sex life, which she uses constantly – yet I am not allowed to look outside the marriage for sex!”
Wives have similar complaints about their husbands:
“He says that he wants to help me around the house, but then he does everything so badly that I am forced to run around fixing everything up after him, so that it turns out to be more work than it’s worth!”
“He always complains that I nag him too much, but I wouldn’t have to repeat myself if he only listened to me in the first place! If he just took the garbage out when I asked him to, I wouldn’t have to keep asking him!”
“He thinks that having sex will make us close. I keep telling him that I can only have sex with him if I feel close already. That just makes him angry – and then he expects me to want to have sex with him because he’ll get pouty if I don’t!”
As we can see, conflicts in relationships so often escalate into subtle put-down exercises, wherein a frantic and insistent kind of positioning occurs: “I am right and you are wrong” – or, more accurately: “I am good and you are bad.”
How many times do we hear people complain about their relationships, basically saying, “If my partner only did the right thing, everything would be great!”
This is a mad kind of mythological fantasy – not to mention completely paralyzing.
When things go wrong we have a great tendency to avoid the pain of responsibility by making up stories that blame others, or circumstances, or fate, or God and so on.
Responsibility can be very painful, and mythology provides an instant relief for this pain. In particular, blame is a very addictive form of self-medication which helps us avoid the pain of responsibility – but also traps us in negative, difficult or even dangerous situations.
typical dysfunctional romantic relationship tends to have distinct phases.
When two people meet and are romantically interested in each other, there tends to be a phase of initial caution in which they examine each other for potential compatibility.
We will call this man “Bruce,” and this woman “Sheila.”
The more functional the individuals, the longer this phase lasts. If an insecure woman is looking for an insecure man, this phase tends to be very short. When they first meet, she looks for “markers” indicating low levels of self-esteem. These can include a lack of eye contact, a nervous laugh, tattoos, drug use, compulsive joke-telling, underachievement, pomposity, or a kind of baseless arrogance.
Once Sheila establishes that Bruce’s self-esteem is either genuinely low or artificially “high,” she immediately feels more comfortable with him.
Sheila has low self-esteem because she believes things that are not true about herself and others. She remains insecure because she is actively preferring short-term gains to long-term gains. For instance, if she has an abusive father, but stays in touch with him, then she is choosing continued abuse (long-term pain) in order to avoid the anxiety of confrontation (short-term pain).
Since Sheila has developed an “avoidance mechanism” for dealing with her anxiety, inviting a man of true moral courage and integrity into her life would be a disaster for her illusions. Such a man would immediately see that she was being abused by her father and would care enough about her to encourage her to either improve her relationship with her father or get him out of her life. (A wiser and more experienced man would know that she cannot improve her “relationship” with her abusive father, which would be even more anxiety provoking for her.)
If Sheila chose to continue her relationship with her father, a moral man would realize that she is habitually sacrificing ethics, virtue, integrity and self-esteem for the sake of immediate anxiety avoidance. This means that throughout her life, abusive people will forever control her behaviour, and she will continually sacrifice the good people around her for the sake of appeasing the evil or corrupt people.
None of us can sustain any moral decision in the absence of at least the appearance of an ethical justification. If a man of self-esteem confronts a woman who enables abusers, she will be inevitably drawn to defend her appeasement on “moral” grounds. “Family is an innate value.” “I think it’s important to be a good daughter.” “Forgiveness is a virtue.”
In other words, the woman is not just amoral, but rather anti-moral, because she just makes up “moral” justifications for her cowardly actions.
No man of genuine self-esteem could stay in a relationship with such a corrupt woman, since she uses virtuous definitions to enable her own subjugation to evil. In particular, no moral man would ever have children with such a woman, who would inevitably raise them as frightened and obedient or rebellious slaves.
Since all of this is well-known unconsciously, a woman of low self-esteem is inevitably bound to end up dating a man of low self-esteem. We can think of this relationship as essentially a mutual covenant to maintain corrupt falsehoods. “Let me believe my lies, and I’ll let you believe yours.”
Of course, like all corrupt falsehoods, it cannot last.
After the self-esteem issue has been established, the dating aspect of the relationship can begin.
In the case of insecure individuals, sexuality always makes a premature entrance. Since a woman of low self-esteem does not have any genuine virtues to offer a man, such as courage, integrity, nobility and so on, she must create value in some other manner.
Typically, the “value” that this type of woman brings to the early part of a relationship is sexual availability.
In many cults, such as Christianity, potential recruits are subjected to what is often called a “love bomb,” wherein massive amounts of artificial affection are injected into a mostly-empty soul. This tends to wash away any lingering sense of personal boundaries and judgment, triggering what psychologists call “fusion,” or the uncritical elevation of an individual to a status of near-deific perfection.
The introduction of a highly-sexualized interaction produces a biochemical form of euphoria, which typically lasts from three to six months. During this time, ego boundaries tend to dissolve, there are few if any difficult decisions to be made, there tends to be an isolation from both friends and family – and the cycle of sexual tension, desire and release tends to consume the mind and body.
At the highest point of this interaction, the couple tends to make decisions about their long-term futures.
This is akin to deciding whether or not you can fly while high on PCP.
This is when couples decide to commit in some significant manner, such as moving in together, or getting engaged, or simply planning a permanent future.
Shortly after the commitment is made, the couple begins to re-enter the world, and the sexual euphoria begins to wear off. At the same time, they begin to deal with the mundane practicalities of negotiating their living arrangements and/or potential nuptials, as well as entering as a couple into a more complex social world.
As they begin to re-enter the world, interactions with friends and family begin to influence the couple. Bruce begins to see what Sheila is really like around her mother. Sheila begins to notice that Bruce’s brother drinks to excess, and Bruce says nothing. He sees how shrill she becomes around her friends; she sees how susceptible he is to peer pressure.
As Sheila and Bruce begin to make decisions about their lives together, they notice that their lack of boundaries is beginning to cause real friction in their negotiations. Also, since they have spent so much time having sex instead of learning how to actually communicate with each other, they find that their level of commitment is far ahead of their ability to negotiate. They have bonded out of euphoria, neediness, relief and hyper-sexuality, rather than mutual respect and regard for one another.
At this point, the woman generally becomes less sexually available.
The reason for this is the underlying low self-esteem that caused the hyper-sexuality in the first place.
Since she had little intrinsic value to offer Bruce initially, Sheila substituted sex for self-worth.
As their relationship progresses, however, and the sexual euphoria wears off, she begins to feel resentment towards sex.
One way to understand this transition is to picture a rich and insecure man who dazzles his dates with extravagant outings. He flies them to Paris, takes them out on his yacht, buys them jewellery, and drapes them in fur. Naturally, they respond with “devotion” and “ardour.”
As the relationship develops, however, he begins to resent the need for constant extravagance. “Would she really love me if I didn’t buy her things?” he wonders. In order to find this out, he becomes increasingly irritable towards her desire for gifts. When she suggests a weekend away on the French Riviera, he rolls his eyes and snaps at her.
The same insecurity about his own intrinsic value that caused him to lavish gifts on her now causes him to withdraw his “generosity.” The same insecurity that prevented him from offering himself to her without “extras” now causes him to withdraw those extras, in the mad hope that she will find him valuable without gifts.
In other words, after buying her, he hopes that she is not in it for the money.
This is how it works with female sexuality after the initial phase of euphoria.
Lots of sex in the beginning means a whole lot less sex later on.
As negotiations about mutual living arrangements, sexuality and social life become more and more difficult, it also becomes more and more difficult for Sheila and Bruce to retrace their steps and figure out where they went wrong at the beginning.
For instance, as Sheila’s resentment towards sex begins to rise, she will tend to make up excuses as to why she doesn’t want sex – and those excuses are not designed to fool Bruce, but rather to fool herself.
She will claim that she is tired, or that she has to get up early. She will snap that he is only ever interested in “one thing,” or that she doesn’t feel “close enough” to have sex, or that he is doing a million and one things wrong, which is killing her sexual desire, and so on.
The truth of the matter is that she is making up stories – inventing “sinners” – in order to avoid the truth about her own growing repugnance towards sex.
If Sheila were to speak with total honesty, she would say something like this:
“Bruce, I had a lot of sex with you early on because I don’t feel like I’m worth much of anything. The fact that you were willing to have sex with me despite the fact that I was manipulating you tells me everything that I need to know about your level of integrity, and capacity to love. If you really loved me, you would not pressure me to have sex when I feel depressed. If I were really lovable, I would not have used sex to create artificial value.”
The end result of this kind of conversation, of course, is the termination of the relationship – which is why it is so studiously avoided, and a million distractions are invented in order to avoid that core reality.
As conflicts begin to rise, Bruce and Sheila enter the phase of “slow entombment.”
In this phase, conflicts which cannot be resolved generally start to be avoided. If Bruce does not like Sheila’s parents, and it upsets her when he talks about them, the “solution” becomes to simply not talk about her parents.
Similarly, if Sheila dislikes Bruce’s drinking, and it upsets him when she brings it up, they “solve” the problem either by her refraining from bringing it up, or by him beginning to drink in secret.
This process continues unabated. Bit by bit, unresolved conflicts create localized minefields that prohibit free movement and spontaneity. “Don’t go there” becomes a near-constant mantra.
Since the solution to anxiety is to control the other person’s behaviour which “causes” the anxiety, the relationship turns into a kind of “soft tyranny.” Since it is considered “wrong” to cause the other person anxiety, any behaviour which results in anxiety must be banned as immoral.
Over the next few months or years a creeping paralysis enters into the relationship, as more and more topics become “off limits.”
As spontaneity and authenticity become less and less possible and the endless regulations of behaviour pile up, inevitable resentments begin to creep in. Both Sheila and Bruce feel over-controlled, and their interactions become more and more rigid and empty. The cowardice that lies at the root of controlling each other in order to manage their own anxiety becomes more and more evident as time goes on.
Generally, there are two possibilities for this kind of endless increase in the bureaucratic hyper-regulation of the relationship. If neither party takes a “stand,” then the abusive “rules” continue to pile up until one or both parties wake up one day completely unable to breathe. An overwhelming rush of frustration – or perhaps a full-fledged panic attack – takes hold, and there is a sudden and savage breakup.
The second possibility is for the “fronts” in this subterranean war to harden. This is analogous to a guerrilla conflict turning into the frozen hell of First World War trench warfare.
In this second scenario, each party picks one or a few fixed positions and just continues to pound their partner on the basis of those. For Bruce, it might be the lack of sex. For Sheila, it might be the lack of emotional participation in the relationship, or help around the house, or some such topic.
Unconsciously, this represents a desperate attempt to stop the endless proliferation of petty rules, since both Sheila and Bruce instinctively understand the inevitable result of that process. Rather than moving on from each prior conflict, thus generating new conflicts which must be avoided by the creation of new “rules,” Sheila and Bruce start to repetitively attack each other on the grounds of just a few particular issues. This prevents the creation of new rules – thus staving off the end of the relationship – at the price of remaining trapped in endless circling conflicts.
In fact, Sheila and Bruce remain drawn to these few particular conflicts and cannot leave them alone. An unconscious “contract” is created, wherein any frustration about new problems is channeled into a replay of some agreed-upon existing conflict. This is just another way of avoiding the inevitable end of the relationship that would result from “dealing” with new problems.
This second scenario is the route most often taken by couples with children. Since the stakes of ending a relationship are far higher for parents, they tend to revert to this “broken record” form of problem avoidance rather than allow the escalation of new problems to destroy their relationship.
Earlier, we talked about how the religious approach to “truth” is to make predictions, and then invent “sinners” to take the blame when those predictions fail to come true.
After Bruce and Sheila break up, they will invariably begin the process of inventing scapegoats or “sinners” to take the blame for the failure of their relationship.
This failure was not primarily the relationship itself, but rather their own predictions about the relationship.
They entered into a relationship with each other based on the prediction that they would stay together and be happy. Early on, they openly praised each other to the skies, to themselves and their friends and family.
How, then, can they explain the dismal failure of the relationship and eventual distaste for each other?
Well, there is really only one way to explain it – see if this seems familiar.
Sheila will say: “He just ended up being a real bastard – and there was no way to predict that at the beginning.”
Bruce will say: “She seemed like a really nice girl, at first – but as it turns out, she had some real issues that she wasn’t willing to address.”
This is the “one-two” punch that is designed to bring down the truth. “I was correct when I praised her early on, and I am now also correct when I condemn her at the end.”
This mythology provides relief from anxiety in the short-term (“How could I have been so careless with my heart?”) while creating far greater anxiety in the long-term.
If a group of villagers live at the base of a volcano, and they ascribe the eruption of the volcano to the anger of the fire god, they will inevitably end up performing various rituals to “appease” this anger. Since these rituals have in fact nothing to do with the eruptions, the villagers end up staying near the mountain, imagining that they are creating some form of safety or predictability.
Imaginary answers create perpetual danger.
The moment that the villagers accept that they cannot predict or control the eruption of the volcano, they will move, thus creating real safety and predictability.
When our predictions fail to come true, we can either attempt to determine why we made such a mistake, or we can make up an imaginary answer – thus guaranteeing a repetition of the mistake.
When a relationship fails, we can either attempt to understand the dangerous clues that were embedded in our interactions from the very beginning – which doubtless existed – or we can just blame the other person for mysteriously “changing.”
If we take the route of blaming the other person, we certainly let ourselves off the hook – but we also guarantee that we will remain blind to cues that we really need to see in the future. By blaming the other person, all we do essentially is say that there is no way to predict the outcome of a relationship based on early interactions. In other words, when it comes to relationships, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope for the best.
This is why it keeps happening.
Why do these conflicts continually escalate in this manner?
One central tragedy of our lives is that we are so often raised in win/lose relationships. If our parents get offended, we are punished. If our teacher gets angry, we get detention. If we want something, someone else must give up something.
This same pattern repeats itself in all of our adult relationships.
Most lovers only know how to “get their way” through either overt aggression, or passive aggression (in general, the male and female tools, respectively).
Men say: “If I don’t get what I want, I will be angry.”
Women say: “If I don’t get what I want, I will be sad.”
These strategies generally result from a fundamentally narcissistic approach to the world. The possibility of a win-win negotiation is never considered, because it has never been taught or demonstrated.
Let’s take a more concrete example.
My wife Christina really enjoys watching a television show called “Dancing with the Stars.” I do like watching the dance routines, but have a tough time making it through all the filler and commercials. Last night, I went upstairs to get a DVD for us to watch and then when I came downstairs saw that Christina had found the show on TV and was settling in to watch it.
I would have preferred it if she had not found the show – so that we could watch the DVD – but that was sort of out of my hands at this point.
Many couples would look upon this as a win/lose situation – that Christina would watch the show and I would suffer through the filler and commercials, or that Christina would not get to watch her show, and watch the DVD I chose instead. Or, perhaps, that Christina would tape the show and watch it on her own, or some other solution.
However, although I would have preferred to watch the DVD, I sat down and happily watched the dancing show.
How is that possible?
Well, quite simply it is possible because I take an enormous amount of pleasure in my wife’s pleasure. (Shoe shopping excepted, of course – I am only a mortal man!)
I love watching the play of delight on my wife’s face and the intensity of her enjoyment. To take pleasure in the pleasure of another human being is foundational to a loving relationship. It certainly is true that I would have received 100% pleasure from watching the DVD, and 90% pleasure from watching my wife’s enjoyment of the dancing show, but I can scarcely claim to be hard done by because I had to choose between 100% pleasure and 90% pleasure!
If you cannot take pleasure in your partner’s pleasure, then win-win negotiations become impossible. If I got +100% pleasure from watching my DVD, and -100% pleasure from watching the dancing show – and if my wife faced the reverse proposition – then one of us would have to win, and the other would have to lose.
This concept of the “minor sacrifice” is something that every couple should openly discuss and work on. I very much want my wife to be happy in our marriage, because if she is not happy then I cannot be happy either. If I get exactly what I want every single time, no matter what her preferences, then it is impossible – according to the principles of Universally Preferable Behaviour – for her to remain happy.
Since my happiness depends on remaining married to her, my happiness can never in general exceed hers in the long run.
ur resistance to this kind of openhearted generosity arises out of our fear of exploitation.
We say to ourselves: “If I give her what she wants every single time, I will never get what I want. She will take advantage of my generosity, and I will end up a slave to her every whim, and never get my needs met!”
My response to this is:
If that is true, then you should know it before you get involved!
When I was younger, I went out with a woman who openly said that she expected me to pay for our outings. “A man’s generosity is financial; a woman’s generosity is composed of… other things,” she said seductively.
I was somewhat alarmed by her perspective, but I decided to give it a shot. I did pay for our outings, without complaint, and then waited for reciprocity.
It never came, and the relationship ended. I was sad, but never looked back.
To achieve true happiness and peace of mind, we must come to a resolution about each relationship in our lives – what is commonly called “closure.”
“Closure” is the achievement of self-trust in our own judgment. Fundamentally, we never really trust others, but rather only ourselves. It was not this woman that I needed to trust, but my own judgment about her proposition.
When we doubt, generosity always provides certainty.
In my 20s, I was involved in a long-term relationship with a woman who wanted to get into the filmmaking business. After watching her struggle for some time, I decided to write and fund a movie for her. We did end up making the movie, which did quite well.
A month or two after we had finished making the movie, I asked her to reread an unpublished novel of mine that she had criticized, and give me suggestions for improvements. She half-heartedly agreed to do so, but week after week went by and she never picked up the manuscript.
Eventually I confronted her on this, and explained my hurt feelings and mistrust of her capacity for reciprocity. She replied that the reason she had not read my novel was because I had not “motivated” her to do so. Naturally, I responded that she had not “motivated” me to spend a small fortune making a film to further her career, but rather I had done so out of a desire to help her!
This relationship also did not last for very long after this interaction.
I am by nature more cautious than generous, and I do find trusting others a challenge. In the above cases, though, generosity was the most liberating approach I could have conceivably taken. If I had hedged my bets in either of these relationships, and given 1% more while waiting for 1% more reciprocity, I would never have achieved certainty.
In relationships – particularly romantic relationships – generosity creates certainty. Giving 150% of yourself – even beyond your own “comfort zone” – quickly highlights any deficiencies in reciprocity from your partner.
When I first met my wife Christina, her capacity for love and devotion far outstripped my own. I had been somewhat scarred in the romantic trenches of my youth, and it took some time for my own heart to open up to match her generosity. I did openly talk about my difficulties in this area with her, however, which helped alleviate her concerns. “I am trying to open my heart as quickly as possible,” I said, “because you certainly deserve my full affections, but I am having trouble matching your openness.”
In the same way, if I owe monetary debt, but am temporarily unable to pay it, I am morally bound to inform my creditor of the situation, reaffirm my commitment to pay, and work like hell to get hold of the money.
Couples get continually stuck in the tug-of-war of conditional reciprocity – “I gave you a back rub, now you owe me sex!” – which always creates more and more resentment. Not only is such “generosity” totally undercut through the expectation of reciprocity (“I’ll take out the garbage if you do the dishes”) but the degree of mistrust that is communicated by this sort of “grudging giving” is overwhelmingly insulting at its root.
If I told you that you were my best friend, and you asked me to lend you $5,000, and I said to you: “Let’s just start with $5, and see where it goes from there,” would you feel elevated by my response?
Of course not. You would be insulted. “How can you call me your best friend, and not trust me with any sum larger than five dollars?”
“Well,” I might reply, “some people in my past never paid me back.”
Here we run into a fundamental problem, which is at the root of countless relationship discords.
e all arrive with scars, and that is not a bad thing. A boxer without scars has never fought an equal, and a lover without baggage has never risked his heart. To some degree we do learn through pain, and being on the receiving end of falsehoods and betrayal can do wonders to sharpen our criteria for trustworthiness.
However, we do run into a fundamental problem when we mistrust our lover.
Either she really is untrustworthy – in which case we chose to enter into an intimate and lengthy relationship with an untrustworthy woman – or, she is trustworthy, but we have a hard time trusting because we have been betrayed in the past.
If we have been betrayed in the past, though, we have either learned who to trust or we have not. If we have learned who to trust – primarily ourselves – then we cannot reasonably call our current partner untrustworthy.
If we have not learned to trust, then we cannot blame our current partner for being untrustworthy.
To explain what I mean by this, let us return to our “loan” example.
First I tell you that you are my best friend, and then I refuse to lend you any money because I have lent and lost money in the past.
“Well,” you say, “are you still ‘best friends’ with those who ran off with your money?”
“Of course not!” I reply indignantly.
“Thus you find untrustworthiness to be a trait unworthy of someone you call a best friend?”
“Thus anyone you call your best friend must be the opposite of the people who harmed you in the past.”
“Thus if you tell me that you are afraid that I will not pay you back, then you are telling me that I am untrustworthy. However, since you have rejected those who failed to pay you back in the past because they were untrustworthy, but you claim that I am your best friend, then you are in the illogical position of claiming that I am both trustworthy and untrustworthy at the same time. If I am trustworthy, then I surely have earned the title ‘best friend,’ and you should lend the money to me. If I am untrustworthy, then it is unjust to call me your ‘best friend,’ since you find untrustworthiness such a vile character trait.”
Thus keeping people in our lives who exhibit traits we call negative utterly prohibits us from blaming them for exhibiting those traits. If we act in opposition to our beliefs, we cannot reasonably blame other people for the results.
In the same way, when the fateful words “I love you” escape our lips, they cannot be reasonably construed as a recipe, but rather as a fully digested meal. We cannot reasonably say, “I love you, but I do not trust you.” We cannot reasonably say, “I love you, but I expect you to think and act completely differently in the future.”
But of course we use the words “I love you” for almost every purpose except what they actually mean.
“Love” is a word that is subjected to such fantastical delusions that reclaiming its right meaning seems a near-impossible task. The word is flung around to mean anything from fetishistic attachment to co-dependency to “loyalty” towards rabid delusions such as gods and countries.
There are some things, however, that we must be able to agree on if we are to come to some reasonable understanding about how to improve the quality of our relationships.
First of all, love must be a state that has at least some objective qualities. If love is a completely subjective state, then the concept of “quality” does not exist at all – and thus neither does “improvement.”
Furthermore, saying to someone “I love you” is a meaningless statement if the phrase merely represents purely internal or subjective preferences. We can say “I love jazz,” but jazz is not a conscious entity and can flow from a CD. To proclaim love for another human being, however, is to say that our internal state is elicited by another person. In other words, the “you” in “I love you” involves objectivity, since we experience each other through the medium of empirical reality.
If another person elicits our internal state, then some objectivity must be accepted.
Secondly, we must also accept that the word “love” represents something other than a merely chosen preference. We cannot pick a woman out of a crowd and command ourselves to love her. In other words, love must be somehow related to the actions of another person, and not simply willed. None of us would feel particularly flattered if someone told us they “loved” us while knowing nothing about us.
Thus “love” must be in its essence a reaction to the objective actions of another human being.
Thirdly, the feelings of affection that are elicited by the actions of another person cannot be entirely contradictory. My wife cannot tell me that she loves me because I am honest, and that she also loves my brother because he is dishonest. I cannot love a person because of his loyalty, and then claim to love another person equally because of her disloyalty.
One of the most fundamental questions in philosophy – and psychology – is the question: “Compared to what?” When I say that a proposition is “true,” then I mean that it is true compared to something else – falsehood, or inconsistency with internal logic or empirical validation.
Similarly, when we look at the question of love, clearly love is an expression of a preference. Naturally, we must then ask, “A preference – compared to what?”
If I say that I love honesty, then clearly I love it compared to dishonesty. If I say that I love virtue, then clearly I love virtue compared to vice or corruption.
Now, since we can only determine the traits of another human being through empirical observation, our experience of “love” must involve the actions of another (said actions can include words, of course). Just as our conception of “tall” is derived from the objective (i.e. measurable) characteristics of a man – and “tall” is valid relative to the average height of a human male – just so is our experience of “love” derived from the objective characteristics (words and actions) of another human being.
Thus “love” must be valid relative to an objective and external standard, which we shall work to define shortly.
The question then arises: to what degree is love valid relative to an objective and external standard?
Love cannot be completely and utterly defined by an objective and external standard, since that would mean that everyone must love the one person in the world who most completely conforms to that standard, which would be absurd. If we said that love was valid relative to height, then everyone in the world must love the tallest person, which flies in the face of the obvious variety of personal preferences the world over.
If I say that I like ice cream, then clearly I prefer ice cream to other foods that I relatively dislike. This is a largely subjective matter.
On the other hand, if I say that I prefer good health, then clearly I am expressing a desire for something that can be measured at least to some degree objectively. I cannot reasonably say that I prefer good health, and that I also prefer dying of cancer.
It is also important to differentiate between standards that can be achieved, and standards that cannot be achieved. If I say that I love good health, and then define “good health” as never getting a cold, sleeping lightly or having a headache, then clearly what I love is unattainable, and my “love” can only be measured relative to varying degrees of disappointment.
It scarcely seems required, but it is worth noting that love must be considered a pleasurable experience. This does not mean that love always entails pleasure – any more than physical health means never experiencing any pain at all – but it must be a positive experience in general.
In other words, the positive aspects of “love” must vastly outweigh the negative aspects, just as the positive aspects of “health” must vastly outweigh the negative aspects, such as eating well and exercising.
A decent rule of thumb is to expect a positive relationship to be composed of 9/10 good things, to 1/10 bad things.
To put this together, we can say that love has the following characteristics:
- It has elements of objectivity.
- It is elicited by the behaviour of another person.
- It is a favouring of certain characteristics relative to their opposites, or deficiencies thereof.
- It is pleasurable.
I’m going to put forward a tentative definition of love, which conforms to the above requirements. We shall examine this proposition in more detail below.
Love is our involuntary response to virtue.
Science has elements of objectivity, insofar as it relies to some degree on personal inspiration, but must be validated through reason and evidence.
Love also has elements of objectivity, insofar as it relies to some degree on personal preferences, but must be validated through reason and evidence.
Of course, the idea of “validating” love offends our sensibilities to some degree, since love is so often considered to be a form of divine madness or inspiration. What, then, is meant by “validating love”?
Well, in the realm of romantic relationships, we are motivated to a considerable degree by biological attraction, or raw sexual desire. In the same way, we may feel an irrational exuberance of greed when we see an overturned Brinks truck spilling banknotes into the wind. We may even seize some of these banknotes, before shaking our heads and returning our ill-gotten gains.
Philosophy is required because our instincts can lead us astray, as in the case of eating and certain phobias. We may be sexually attracted to certain characteristics such as large breasts or bald heads, but those desires lie squarely in the realm of animal reproduction, rather than what would properly be called “love.” Teenagers may get a fairly strenuous degree of sexual satisfaction from their hand, but this would scarcely be called love.
The world looks flat, but in truth it is round. Some people are sexually attractive, but that does not mean they are lovable.
Since love has elements of objectivity, the objective elements of love must be tied to universal values, the existence of which I proved in my previous book on Universally Preferable Behaviour.
Again, this does not mean that all love is identical. The concept of “health” has elements of objectivity, but is also measurable relative to a variety of standards. A “healthy” AIDS patient is quite different from a healthy athlete. The “healthiest” person in a cancer ward is not healthy relative to the majority of people.
In the same way, we can assume that there is one person in the world who is the very best person for you to be with. Does that mean that you could never be happy with anyone else?
Of course not.
As with all disciplines, we have to weigh the pros and cons of perfection versus attainability. There is also only one “perfect” job in the world for us as well, but we can quite easily starve to death looking for it.
If we look at something like “honesty” as a behavioural trait that elicits admiration, it is true that everyone has differing degrees of commitment to – and execution of – honesty, but there is still an objective difference between honesty and dishonesty.
If I value honesty – and I am honest myself – then I will value somebody who is honest 99% of the time more than somebody who is honest 90% of the time. (100% honesty can be considered an unrealistic goal, like 100% health, or being “perfectly reasonable.”)
Naturally, I would prefer to be with someone who is as honest as possible, but I will likely have to “settle” for the most honest person that I can find. The fact that I am willing to compromise my standards with regards to honesty – partly borne of a reasonable humility regarding my own capacity for honesty – does not mean that I will value a liar. If I am a mathematician, some of my proofs will doubtless fail – but that does not mean that failing to achieve perfect consistency is exactly the same as starting out to commit a fraud.
If I stand in front of a mirror weighing 300 pounds and smoking my 40th cigarette of the morning and say “I am healthy,” have I affected my health in any objective manner?
Of course not. I have merely chosen to say the words “I am healthy” rather than achieve actual health through consistent actions.
My words have not affected reality at all. I have merely put the cart before the horse. If I lose weight and quit smoking, I can reasonably stand in front of the mirror and say “I am healthy” (or at least “I am healthier”). My words thus become an accurate identification of an objective state – a state which has preceded my words and in a sense provokes them.
My words are thus a response to my empirical behaviour, measured in objective terms (weight loss, smoking cessation).
Similarly, if I stand in front of you and say “I love you,” this statement only has validity if it is a response to your behaviour. I can stand in front of the most evil and hateful human being on the planet and also say the words “I love you,” but my preference does not make that person any more lovable – any more than telling myself that I am healthy unclogs my arteries.
As I talked about in my book “On Truth,” people in general prefer – or find it far easier in the short term – to do whatever they please in the moment, and then redefine their actions as “universally virtuous.”
It is equally true that people in general prefer – or find it far easier in the short run – to date whomever they desire, and then redefine their partner as “lovable.”
Ask most young women what they are looking for in a man and you will hear various variations on the theme of tall, dark and handsome – or, if they are slightly younger, “cute and funny.”
I have asked this question of many people, and I have never heard the word “virtue” mentioned once.
Does love have anything to do with virtue?
Yes, yes and yes!
It is impossible to imagine genuine love in the absence of honesty. For love to be genuine, it must be an accurate assessment of particular traits within another human being. If the person that we claim to “love” constantly lies to us or falsifies his actions, then whatever perception we have of that person that causes us to love him are incorrect.
Since that which causes us to love is incorrect, our “love” must thus be invalid.
To analogize this, imagine that you work for me and I pay you in cash. However, when you try to spend your earnings, you discover that I have paid you with counterfeit bills. As a result, I have received value through your work, but you have not received value through my payment. My dishonesty has thus generated a false value for you, because if you knew that I was going to pay you with counterfeit money, you would not have worked for me to begin with.
Since the truth would have produced an opposite action in you – a rejection of employment, rather than an acceptance of it – your diligent behaviour was as unjustified as your interpretation of my honesty.
In the same way, if I tell you that I am courageous, and virtuous, yet hide sordid aspects of my life from you, drink in secret and so on – and you believe me – then you will feel more positive towards me than if I told you the truth.
Since our emotions are so directly dependent upon our perceptions and are so foundational to our experience of the world, someone who lies to us is fundamentally manipulating our experience of the world.
Since our emotions also alter our bodies biochemically, a liar who gets close to us manipulates our biochemistry as surely as if he were drugging us directly.
Thus our own emotional stability, which is a key part of a peaceful and happy life, requires as a bare minimum general honesty from those around us.
Fundamentally, courage is not bravery with regards to another human being, but rather with regards to moral ideals.
My wife, though wonderfully courageous in many areas, has a certain weakness when it comes to social gatherings.
For instance, she has an ex-friend who is involved in a highly dysfunctional relationship. Recently, when we were at a party, we were told that this woman had gotten married to her boyfriend. Christina exclaimed: “Oh, that’s great!”
I was somewhat surprised, to say the least, and really put my foot in it by saying to her in front of everyone: “Really? I didn’t think you were such a big fan of their relationship.”
(It’s always good to have something to talk about during the drive home.)
Of course, I was not particularly concerned with Christina’s disavowal of her true feelings in company – particularly since the woman in question showed up at the party later on. I was more concerned with the fact that she placed the perceptions of others above the truth of her own feelings – feelings which were accurate and valid. I was most concerned, however, with the fact that she did not seem conscious of her reversal of values. If she had expressed approval with her friend standing right behind her, I would have understood her caution – however, there was no compelling and immediate reason to express approval of something she did not in fact approve of.
The reason that this troubled me, of course, was that I really didn’t like the idea that Christina could betray her values – even in this minor manner – for the sake of the possible disapproval of the people we were talking to, who we see maybe once every year or two.
This also made me feel insecure, since Christina and I both hold trusting our own feelings as a high value – as well as honesty of course. I really disliked the idea that the virtues we believed in and practiced were sort of a “private world” that had nothing to do with the “real world” of everyone else.
You know that feeling you get if you are dating a woman who never wants to introduce you to her friends? You get this uneasy sensation that you are kind of “below the radar,” or something to be hidden relative to her life as a whole. You are, in fact, a sort of embarrassment, in that she obviously feels that she must be “slumming” in some manner. If she felt that you would enhance her status with her friends, she would drag you to see them against your will if she had to.
When I was 17, I worked in a day-care centre teaching a room full of kids. I became friends with a woman who was slightly older, and was just going through a divorce. Over dinner one evening, she told me about her psychic abilities. Because I was 17, my hormones and I listened attentively.
Over a departmental lunch the next day, I mentioned her psychic abilities as part of a more general conversation. She became completely red-faced, and chastised me afterwards for bringing that up.
So many of us have this kind of “private world” that we openly disavow, scorn and reject when we are in the company of others. This is a form of cowardice, since we abandon what is precious to us for fear of the disapproval or rejection of others.
In other words, we reject ourselves rather than be rejected by others.
This avoids the pain of humiliation, but also keeps us trapped in an underworld of people we know will humiliate us if we are honest.
The reason that this habit is so hard to respect or love is because it involves so many contradictions.
If a certain belief or habit is truly valuable, it does not lose its value in the presence of others. Real money does not lose its value in the presence of counterfeit currency – quite the opposite is true in fact.
Conversely, if the opinions of others is the best methodology for determining our values, then those values cannot exist except through the opinions of others – thus there should be nothing to hide in the presence of others, since no values have been accepted or practised without their prior approval.
It is hard to respect someone who wants to “have his cake and eat it too” by holding private virtues that he consistently disavows in public. We tend to shy away from these sorts of people not only because of their hypocrisy, but also because these sorts of contradictory values make raising children enormously difficult.
If you ask a woman to evaluate a particular situation and she openly says, “Oh, I have no idea, I’ll have to check with all my friends,” then there is no possibility of equality in her relationship with her friends. If all her friends hold the same values, then they will be empty echoes of endless cross-referencing, with no ideas or opinions being generated at all.
At least one of her friends must be able to generate opinions, which everyone else then references.
Thus she both prefers and dislikes opinions – she dislikes having her own for fear of disapproval, and so she must prefer that other people create her opinions for her.
Of course, you never do meet people who openly tell you that they have no opinions, but must always ask their friends – and that is why these cowardly evasions are so odious. People always claim that their opinions are both virtuous and true, that they have integrity and are willing to stand up for what they believe in, and then they generally fold at the slightest sign of pressure or disapproval.
The fact that they fold – as we all do at times – does not warn them that they are not actually living their values, and must more closely examine their companions. Since everyone has a general access to the self-medicating madness of instant mythology, all that people do when they act in a cowardly manner is redefine their actions as virtuous in some manner.
Thus a woman may say: “I know that I said that, but I didn’t want to offend people (I’m nice), and besides, people don’t change (I’m practical), and we were enjoying their hospitality (I’m not ungrateful), and the person in question was going to show up (I’m prudent) – and besides, yesterday you said X, Y and Z (you’re hypocritical).”
This is why a lack of integrity tends to make us uneasy – because it always ends up being an attack on truth in general and our integrity in particular.
Not too relaxing…
We do not call a tire “good” if it ruptures right after being installed. “Quality” has a lot to do with sustainability. A bridge is not of high quality if it collapses six minutes after being built.
In many ways, virtue is fundamentally about sustainable behaviour. Clearly, lying is not very sustainable behaviour – particularly in a long-term relationship – because reality is always opposing the words of the liar. As “intimacy” grows in a relationship and more and more people get involved in the couple’s interactions, lies become less and less sustainable.
Similarly, cowardice is also unsustainable in a relationship, since cowardice is always supported by justifications (lies) which reframe cowardice as “courage.” This creates an unstable situation where cowardly behaviour is both condemned and praised, resulting in highly inconsistent behaviour.
Integrity, of course, is all about sustainable behaviour – its opposite, conformity, is all about seeking the approval of others, which produces highly inconsistent behaviour. People inflict a need for conformity on us as children by attacking us for independent thought and evaluation, because any such thought reveals their hypocrisy. Thus conformist habits always stem from the desire of those who hold power over us to blind us to their inconsistent and hypocritical actions. This is why conformity and integrity are so fundamentally opposed.
If we love certain characteristics or virtues, then clearly our love will stabilize and increase to the degree to which those characteristics or virtues are stable, and increase.
Security is an essential ingredient for intimacy. Security results from a feeling of predictability and safety, which in turn arises from consistent benevolence on the part of others. If we are randomly attacked by our lover, we can never feel safe or secure. If we have to use a rickety old footbridge to cross a chasm, each wobbly step will be a fearful nightmare.
Why do we stay in relationships where we do not feel safe and secure? One central reason is that we have a habit of listening to people’s words, rather than regarding their actions. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” has fallen out of favour in our modern age, but it is essential for evaluating potential relationships of any kind.
Abusive behaviour always results from a lack of integrity.
If, on a first date, a woman tells you openly that she will attack you whenever she feels insecure, angry or vulnerable – and promises to blame you when you get upset about being attacked – you would be very unlikely to continue dating her.
No, people always tell you that they are acting virtuously, even if their actions completely contradict their stated values. If a woman has a habit of attacking others when she feels anxious, that behaviour can only be maintained if she redefines her abuse as virtuous in some manner. She will say that she is only defending herself, or that she has been patient for a long time but “enough is enough,” or that the other party started the conflict, and so on.
If her culpability can be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, she then reverts to the secondary defence of abusers, which is to say that it is ignoble to point fingers and play “the blame game,” that “forgiveness is a virtue,” and “we need to move on now.”
In other words, she will openly state that unjustly attacking others is wrong, and then will unjustly attack others.
This lack of integrity ensures that no one around her will ever feel a consistent sense of security or safety. (In fact, that is exactly what it is designed to do, since destabilizing people is an essential prerequisite for controlling them.)
If we accept that integrity to virtue creates security – and that security is a necessary prerequisite for love – then we can understand why it is so important to have values in a relationship that both parties can refer to.
If an agreement can be reached that raised voices and name-calling are inappropriate to a loving relationship, then if one person yells or name-calls, the other person can object to that behaviour based on values that both parties have accepted.
It is impossible to have security – or integrity – without shared and objective values.
If I hand you $1,000 and think it is a loan, but you see it as a gift, then I will not perceive you to be acting with integrity if you never pay the “loan” back – just as you will never perceive me to be acting with integrity if I demand my “gift” back.
Similarly, if a woman holds “keeping others happy” as a core “value,” then she will view any emotional confrontation or uncomfortable honesty as “rude.”
On the other hand, if she holds “honesty” as a core value, then she will view a consistent avoidance of necessary confrontations or honesty as “cowardice.”
If a man believes that verbal abuse is “assertiveness,” then asking him to refrain from verbal abuse is the same as asking him to be a coward – which will never happen, since few if any people will ever voluntarily pursue an action they define as immoral or ignoble.
If a woman believes that nagging is necessary to get what she wants, then asking her to give up nagging would be like asking her to give up having any needs or preferences, which will never happen.
Following our above methodology, when considering integrity, we must next ask: “Integrity to what?”
aving integrity is acting in accordance with rational values. This is an enormously hard thing to achieve, both because most of the “values” we were given – or rather which were inflicted upon us – are so ridiculously self-contradictory, and also because living with integrity actively eliminates a goodly number of people from your life.
Women often say that they dislike nagging, but don’t know any other way to get their needs met.
This is a prime example of not living with integrity.
If my wife has to nag me to meet her needs, then she is basically telling me that I do not care about her, and that I will never lift a finger to meet her needs unless she constantly complains that I am not meeting her needs.
In the movie “The Breakup,” Jennifer Aniston tells Vince Vaughn that she wants him to want to do the dishes with her.
What she means by this is that she wants him to want to help her, to make the job of entertaining easier, and to place her needs above his own, at least temporarily.
The reason that this kind of behaviour is so corrupt is that it is so fundamentally self-contradictory.
If Jennifer has to constantly nag Vince to meet her needs, then clearly she believes that he does not voluntarily want to meet her needs in the first place. He does not respect what she wants, or does not care that she wants it – either way, he is treating her entirely disrespectfully.
She feels frustrated because she does not feel visible to him – as women so often say: “If he only knew how important this was to me, he would not hesitate to provide it.” Thus Jennifer gets stuck in a “broken record” loop of attempting to become visible to Vince, so that he will give her what she wants.
Fundamentally, then, she is nagging him because she feels invisible to him – because she feels that he is rejecting who she really is.
This is entirely hypocritical.
Obviously, what Vince wants is to not be nagged. Over and over, he complains that she keeps nagging him. He also does not seem to enjoy entertaining – and Jennifer’s obsessive perfectionism appears particularly odious to him.
It is thus ridiculous for Jennifer to chastise him for not meeting her needs, when by that very chastisement she is failing to meet his need, which is to not be chastised.
The tragic irony is that Jennifer feels rejected, and so rejects the man that she chose because he is rejecting her.
This is exactly like saying: “I need a form of transportation,” then spending years testing various makes of cars and researching all the alternatives, and then finally purchasing a car – and then, when you get it home, standing in front of it and exclaiming: “Excellent, now I’m going to turn this thing into a boat!”
Men always resist being turned into “boats” – while women experience men’s resistance at being transformed into something they are not as a rejection of themselves. They will openly say to a man they have chosen: “Change!” and then feel genuinely rejected when he does not change.
Of course, asking someone to change is rejecting him, at least as he is. To choose a man, and then reject a man, and then complain that you feel rejected, is quite mad.
If the innocent car in the woman’s garage could speak, surely it would say: “If you wanted a boat, why on earth did you buy a car?”
he reason that couples so strenuously avoid this elemental conversation is that if you have bought a car when you really want a boat, the point is not to nag the car into becoming a boat, but to take the car back and get a boat instead.
You cannot claim to love someone, and then want him to change.
If you’re looking for a painting and spend years finding just the right one, you don’t then bring it home and start painting over it – particularly if you’re not even a painter!
Clearly, since no one is forcing you to go looking for a painting, you should just buy the right painting and be content with what you have.
If you are not a mental health professional or a well-versed philosopher, then when you try to change people, you are like someone who has no idea how to paint attempting to “improve” a painting.
If you are a mental health professional or a philosopher, then you are wise enough to know that people do not change, and so you will never buy a painting that you have to “paint over.”
Most economists accept that any attempt by a coercive monopoly such as the state to interfere with the natural flow of voluntary trade will create ever-growing distortions in the marketplace.
In the same way, any attempt to interfere with a person’s natural personality through any kind of aggression or rejection will create ever-growing distortions in his character. Nagging, for example, leads to an excess of fear, irritation and passive aggression, which in turn leads to increased nagging…
If we attempt to “correct” a painting because just a small part of it is “wrong,” we will inexpertly daub a blob of paint and then stand back to review our handiwork.
Naturally, because we lack knowledge and skill, we will have inevitably made the painting less pleasing than it was before.
Logically, we should then sigh and say: “Well, since I am obviously not a painter, I will now stop trying to ‘fix’ this painting – and the fact that I have now made the painting less attractive will serve as my perpetual warning about trying to ‘fix’ paintings again in the future.”
Surely, if the painting were sentient, we should also apologize to it for making it uglier.
Ahh, if only we were that logical!
Sadly, what people actually do is continue to try and “fix” the painting, making it uglier and uglier, and less and less suited to their purposes.
As things get worse and worse they get more and more angry, and throw more and more paint at the painting, and get more and more frustrated, and blame the painting, and blame the paint, and blame the paintbrush – everything but themselves!
And we all know where that leads in the end.
At some point, they stand back from the painting – now completely unrecognizable from what they originally bought – which lies buried and unrecoverable under mountains of ugly and clashing colors.
They stare at that mess and say to themselves: “I really can’t believe that I ever liked this painting – it is the ugliest thing I have ever seen, and I’m going to throw it out!”
Then, they go shopping for a new painting that they can take home and “improve,” and the whole cycle begins again.
The final tragedy is that if people genuinely accepted that they cannot “improve” a painting, they would be far more careful about the paintings they bought, and would not accept imperfections or ugliness, knowing that they cannot improve it after they get it home.
In other words, the final ugliness of the painting is actually brought about by believing that the painting can be made less ugly.
Without the fantasy that a painting can be made more beautiful, true beauty could in fact be achieved.
The belief that we can reshape the personalities of other people creates a deep and inescapable polarization within a relationship, which is captured for comic effect in the statement: “I love you, you’re perfect, now change!”
In our minds, we all generally know the basic principle that we cannot change others – but this does not seem to fit with the reality that we expect to improve within a relationship.
If two human beings do not change at all in proximity to each other, then what is the point of a relationship? When we go to university, we have a relationship of sorts with our professors, and we expect to change based on that relationship. We expect to grow in knowledge and wisdom, or technical skill, or mental agility, based on having them as professors.
In the same way, if we sign up at a dojo to learn jujitsu, we expect to change – to improve – based on our relationship with our instructor.
If love is our involuntary response to virtue, then if a relationship results in an increase in virtue, then surely it will result in an increase in love – something to be ardently desired, it would seem.
How can this seeming paradox be resolved – that we must not strive to change people, but that the best relationships result in improvements for both participants?
Let us return to our painting metaphor to see if we cannot unravel this knot.
Imagine that you and I are not consumers of art, but creators of art.
Both our paintings are accepted by a gallery, and when we show up to have a look at them, we are immediately drawn to the beauty of each other’s work.
While conversing with each other, we find that we have very similar goals as artists – to ennoble people by drawing their attention to the beauty of the world they live in.
As reasonable artists, we know that objective feedback on our own work will help us achieve our goals. Thus the next time I am working on a painting, I call you when I am halfway through and ask you to have a look and let me know what you think.
You arrive, look over my painting with great attention, ask me what it is that I am trying to achieve, and then give me objective and valuable feedback on how to shape the light, colour and composition to more completely achieve my objective.
This process goes back and forth for several months – and then, since our mutual feedback is truly helping us achieve our artistic goals, and bringing us even greater joy as artists, we decide to rent a studio together and paint in the same room.
As we work together, our paintings become more and more beautiful and our trust in our own and each other’s artistic judgment grows. I learn from your feedback and you learn from mine – we internalize the principles that we provide each other, and then as we improve, we help each other surmount the new obstacles that always arise from increased excellence.
We have our disagreements, of course – but sometimes it seems that we learn even more from our disagreements! Our conflicts are resolved patiently, positively and productively, thus affirming the strength of our relationship and allowing our mutual trust to grow even stronger.
We can all understand that this kind of relationship is mutually beneficial, and results in great improvements in both skill and joy for both parties.
How is this different from a desire to change someone?
Well, the difference is that we are both helping each other achieve noble goals that we arrived at the relationship already committed to pursuing.
I am not trying to turn you from a plumber into a painter, and you are not trying to turn me from a painter into an accountant. If you want to paint beautiful portraits, I am not trying to turn you into Jackson Pollock. If you enjoy dribbling paint in semi-random patterns, I am not trying to turn you into Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. If you want to make a living as a painter, I do not try to downgrade your ambitions and turn you into a hobbyist.
The difference is that I am not setting your goals – which really means, in essence, that I am not attempting to alter your values, but rather help you achieve them.
In the above example of the conflict between Jennifer and Vince, we can see that Jennifer’s fundamental error – the mistake that makes the relationship inevitably doomed – is that she is attempting to alter his values.
“I want you to want to help me do the dishes!” she exclaims in frustration – thus revealing that what she really wants is for his values to be the opposite of what they are. Clearly, he doesn’t want to help her do the dishes – what she demands from him is the complete opposite of that existing desire.
This would be like me approaching you as you regard your painting in an art gallery, and attempting to turn you into the opposite of a painter.
We can surely picture the absurdity of an Olympic coach marching up to some overweight chain-smoking stranger lounging on a park bench and snarling at him to become more motivated, dammit, to get his ass off that park bench and start taking his training seriously!
The smoker would doubtless stare up in bewilderment, wondering what on earth could motivate someone to march up to him out of nowhere, and expect him to act in complete opposition to his clearly-expressed existing preferences.
On the other hand, if I desperately want to win an Olympic medal, and I have the ability and drive to train and diet endlessly, then a coach is essential to help me achieve my goal.
In the first example, the coach is not attempting to facilitate the goals of the chain-smoking stranger, but rather to set his goals in direct opposition to all available evidence! (Also known as: imposing your own goals on others.)
In the second example, the coach is not attempting to set goals for the motivated athlete, but rather facilitate the achievement of those goals in accordance with all available evidence.
When we treat people as objects to be fixed – like paintings we can paint over – it is not about them, but about us. When we attempt to “correct” a painting, we are fundamentally the only person in the room.
When we treat people not as objects, but as complementary souls – not as paintings, but painters – we can truly merge our lives in trust, love and beauty, because there are in fact two people in the room.
This is the difference between changing people and helping people.
This is the difference between control and love.
In relationships, this is the difference between dismal failure and joyous success.
Acceptance is the opposite of rejection. It is logically impossible to both accept and reject something at the same time, just as it is impossible for a rock to fall both up and down at the same time.
Why, then, are we so drawn to attempt to “improve” the people that we claim to love?
Well, because it is far less uncomfortable to attempt to improve others than to actually improve ourselves.
How can we justify the fundamental contradiction that we both love someone and want her to change in significant ways?
The first thing to understand is that we don’t actually want to change someone else.
This may sound startling, but it is easily provable.
If I spend years shopping for a home, and then finally buy a small condominium, and then demand that, in order to complete the sale, the condo must be converted into a four bedroom house, my real estate agent would regard me as largely insane.
“If you want a four bedroom house, then you should shop for a four bedroom house!” she would say – and quite rightly too!
If I buy the condominium, and move in, and then constantly complain to everyone that my condominium is not a four bedroom house, then clearly I have bought the condominium not because I want a four bedroom house, but rather because I want to complain about not having a four bedroom house.
This is a very important distinction, which Edward Albee writes about in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” George and Martha have a demonically abusive marriage, and George complains about it endlessly, until Martha finally screams at him that he married her in order to be abused.
Why on earth would somebody enter into a relationship in order to complain about that relationship?
It does seem rather counterintuitive, but it makes sense logically when you look at the root causes.
f I act in a cowardly manner, but I redefine my cowardice as “courage,” then I am turning morality completely upside down by converting a vice into a “virtue.”
If I am a doctor, and redefine “cancer” as “health” (and vice versa), then everything that I do will be the opposite of good medicine. I will inject cancer cells into healthy people, tell them to smoke and refrain from using sunscreen, and I will attempt to hasten the progress of cancer in sick people.
By redefining that which is unhealthy as that which is healthy, I have reversed the cause and effect in everything I do.
I have in fact become a kind of cancer.
In the same way, if I redefine my cowardice as a virtue – a cowardly action in and of itself – then I reverse the cause and effect of all my relationships.
Let us say that I fear my parents because they are abusive, either overtly or covertly.
It is not cowardice to openly admit that I am afraid of my parents.
It is also not cowardice to submit to my parents’ will as long as I openly admit my fear. If they want me to come to dinner and I go, I am not necessarily a coward.
How can that be possible – to submit to bullying without being cowardly?
The first prerequisite for virtue is honesty. With honesty comes at least the possibility of integrity, which can survive a temporary surrender to bullying, just as your liver can survive a glass of wine or two.
If I openly say to my wife: “We must go to my parents’ house for Sunday dinner, although I hate and fear them, because I am too afraid to either confront or avoid them,” then my wife has at least an accurate understanding of the reality of the situation.
She clearly understands that my true desire is not to go to my parents’ house, and that my barrier is my fear of my parents.
Armed with that knowledge, my wife can then help me to get what I really want by talking me through the fear that blocks me from achieving it.
This is analogous to one painter helping another painter overcome his fear of submitting his work to a gallery – something that he desperately and openly desires.
On the other hand, if I claim that I “love” my parents when I really hate and fear them, then an inevitable and terrible sequence of events is set into motion.
If I say that I love my parents, then I must define obedience to their wishes as obedience to virtue.
This may sound confusing, so let us look at it in a little more detail.
If I say that I completely respect my doctor, then obedience to his instructions is obedience to the objective principles of health. If I say that I completely trust my financial advisor, then obedience to his wishes is obedience to sound principles of financial management.
In the same way, if I say that I love my parents, then they must be good and virtuous people, and so naturally it follows that they must also love me – since if I were not a good person, I would not be able to love them for their virtue.
If we love each other, then obviously we take pleasure in each other’s company and have each other’s best interests at heart, and contact can only enhance the pleasure, integrity and virtue of our lives.
If I trust my doctor, and contact with my doctor always enhances my health, then anyone who tells me to avoid my doctor must ipso facto have the goal of harming my health. If my financial advisor is always right, then only a corrupt con man would tell me to fire my financial advisor.
Thus if I reframe my fear and hatred of my parents as “love,” anyone who tells me to avoid my parents must be an evil person who only wishes me harm.
Do you see the horrors that we set in motion when we lie about virtue?
Since obedience to my parents’ wishes is also obedience to “virtue,” when my parents ask me to come over for an intermittent Sunday dinner, refusing to attend is the equivalent of refusing to be virtuous – in fact, committing a moral crime.
This reversal of values creates endless catastrophes in our relationships.
If we have redefined our cowardice as a virtue, then we will inevitably perceive certain traits in those around us as dangerous and negative.
If I my stockbroker is corrupt and is busily robbing me blind, then any competent stockbroker who comes across me will see that immediately, and say:
“This stockbroker that you think is very good is actually corrupt, and is violating most if not all professional ethics, and is taking you to the cleaners, and will leave you penniless. For instance, the degree of ‘churning’ that he is performing on your account is utterly unsustainable – you would require returns of 20-30% to break even, given the commissions he is generating for himself by buying and selling stocks in your account…”
This competent stockbroker would then give you objective reasons as to why you should no longer trust your existing stockbroker, but rather fire him immediately.
Naturally, if you have defined obedience to your corrupt stockbroker as obedience to financial responsibility, having this obedience revealed as conformity to financial irresponsibility would create enormous anxiety within you.
If you claim that you want to be healthy – and genuinely do want to be healthy – and you take up chain-smoking as a result of the advice of a corrupt doctor, hearing your doctor debunked will make you very upset.
Realizing that we have conned ourselves puts us in a state of excruciating vulnerability, since it reveals so much about our own family histories, and how we were exploited and rendered “easy prey” by our parents.
Some people, of course, are able to handle this upset if they are in fact dedicated to being healthy. They will survive their own shame, humiliation and anxiety, fire their corrupt doctor, and reform their habits.
However, the majority of people will simply shoot the messenger.
Clearly, people who redefine their vices as virtues have already demonstrated their preference for avoiding their own anxiety by making up stories.
Since the best predictor of future behaviour is relevant past behaviour, what do you think that these people’s response will be to a situation that increases their anxiety?
Why, they’re just going to make up another angry story to “explain away” their “mistake.”
Health is not a moral attribute, and so the preceding medical analogies are far less emotionally charged than the reality of redefining vices as virtues.
If my parents are corrupt or evil, then obedience to their wishes is obedience to corruption or evil.
In essence, if I obey corrupt or evil principles, I am in fact corrupt or evil.
Nothing is more emotionally volatile than labeling someone “corrupt” or “evil.”
“Evil” is obedience to evil principles or evil people.
“Corruption” is redefining that evil as “the good.”
No sane human being can look in the mirror and say: “I am evil.” Even a monster such as Hitler portrayed himself to himself as the saviour of Germany, the liberator of the Aryan race, and so on.
The moment that a human being looks in the mirror and says, “I am evil,” he must change.
This is a central reason why people would rather redefine “evil” as “the good” – since if they cannot, they are revealed as evil and must immediately start to change.
Thus if I invert rational values and redefine my cowardice as courage, I must inevitably banish everyone from my life who has even a hint of the following characteristics:
- Genuine courage
- Moral perceptiveness
- A true capacity to love
- …and so on.
f I am a counterfeiter, I need to keep people away from me who can easily detect false currency. If I am a drug dealer, I am unlikely to befriend “drug enforcement” agents. If I am a liar, people with a strong ability to detect falsehoods – and the courage to confront liars – will be anathema to me. If I am a con man, I must prey upon the weak and gullible. Strong and perceptive souls will always be safe from me, since I will avoid them like the plague.
In the same way, when I pervert rational values by redefining my vices as virtues, I am inevitably drawn to reject and revile strong and virtuous people – and inevitably drawn towards weak and corrupt people who will not challenge my own corruption.
In other words, reversing virtue reverses love. Instead of being drawn towards virtue for the sake of happiness, you are drawn towards vice for the sake of avoiding pain.
Claiming that you are virtuous when you are not inevitably draws you to “love” people who are unlovable.
If you “love” yourself for your vices, you will inevitably be drawn to “love” others for their vices – and, as inevitably, to hate and fear other people for their virtues, just as you hate and fear true virtue in yourself.
n this way, we are drawn to bond with people that we fundamentally dislike. We are drawn to them by the inescapable logic of our own premises – however, the hypocritical falsehoods of those premises also causes us to recoil from those we desire.
This form of attachment is basically a kind of self-destructive addiction rather than any form of benevolent love. A man who has redefined his vices as virtues has the same relationship with those that he claims to “love” that a heroin addict has to his heroin in the later stages of his addiction. He needs it because it relieves his anxiety, but he hates it because it is destroying his life.
In the same way, my partner is a mirror of myself – her virtues are my virtues, her vices are my vices.
Her capacity for honesty is my capacity for honesty.
Her integrity is my integrity.
To take a minor example of how this looks in practice, imagine a woman who has gained a few pounds struggling into her clothing, which has just returned from the dry cleaners. A mature person will first go and weigh herself, to see if she has gained any weight. An immature person will blame the dry cleaners for shrinking her clothing, or, if she finds out that she has gained weight, will blame her boyfriend for buying potato chips, or not telling her that she has gained weight, or society as a whole for “demanding” that women remain thin.
Of course, if I know that I am a coward but redefine my cowardice as “courage,” I do not eliminate my knowledge of my cowardice. If I am fat and redefine fat as “healthy,” I do not eliminate my knowledge of my obesity. If I steal a car, I do not suddenly believe that I actually bought it.
How, then, can I evade or ignore my knowledge of my own cowardice?
Well, the most common mechanism is a devilish psychological defence called “projection.”
Projection is the habit of ascribing our own negative qualities to other people.
The most common example of this is passive aggression.
Let us return to our troubled couple, Sheila and Bruce.
If Bruce is frustrated but does not, cannot or will not openly express his frustration, then he will begin to cause problems for other people: either through tangential complaints, snappy comments, stony silence, or surly stomping.
Sheila will then ask him: “What’s wrong?”
Naturally, Bruce will reply: “Nothing!”
Of course, Sheila knows that this is not the case, and will ask him again. Again and again, Bruce will deny that anything is wrong, thus causing her intense frustration.
It is in this manner that the frustration passes from Bruce to Sheila.
As Sheila becomes increasingly frustrated by Bruce’s provocation and subsequent stonewalling, Bruce begins to express increasing exasperation towards her.
He claims to be irritated by her persistent questioning – which allows him to unload his original frustration, but blame it on her actions instead of his own thinking.
o a far greater degree, we can see the same mechanism at work in the realm of geopolitics.
Let us take a little spin back to 2001.
George Bush wants to invade Iraq, but he cannot openly express that he wants to invade Iraq – so he must make up reasons that place the ownership for his decision squarely on the shoulders of Saddam Hussein. Thus he can “legitimately” turn from an initiator to a reactor, from an aggressor to a leader acting in “self-defence.”
Thus he continually repeats the mantra that Saddam Hussein is an aggressor who wants to attack the United States – thus “legitimizing” his own aggression, which is the true source of the conflict.
In the same way, our parents will often tell us that we are “selfish” for not wanting to drop by for another boring or unsettling Sunday dinner. “You are selfish,” they will say, “because you are ignoring the feelings and needs of other people, and only thinking of what you want!”
However, it is clear that they are failing their own definition of “virtue” by ignoring our desire not to attend Sunday dinner, and only thinking of what they want. They selfishly want us to be there despite the fact that it goes against our desires – but then they get angry at us for not wanting to be there because it goes against their desires.
Thus we can see that projection is a mechanism for self-avoidance, or for actively rejecting knowledge of our own motivations.
If we are angry at our wife, but provoke her into anger instead of expressing our own anger and then release our anger based on the fact that she is angry, all that we have done is set an elaborate trap which allows us to abusively “release” our feelings without ever learning their cause.
Of course, the reason that we do not want to learn the cause of our actions is that we know deep down that our actions are unjustified – and most likely cravenly aggressive.
If I buy a stereo from a guy in a van, I will be reluctant to ask for a receipt, since I will want to avoid the knowledge that it is stolen. It is not the receipt that I am avoiding, but rather the knowledge that I am profiting from crime, and thus enabling criminals.
t would almost seem that, as a species, we are utterly addicted to changing others’ behaviour rather than examining our own.
There is something so elementally seductive about playing the “know it all” card and lecturing others on their deficiencies. When problems arise, for all too many people this is the default position.
If they have a near-miss in a car, their first impulse is to blame other drivers.
If they become irritated with someone, their starting position is always that the other person’s deficiencies are causing that irritation. If their children misbehave or develop bad habits, it is always the selfishness of the child, the influence of the peer group, or the tyranny of the media that is to blame.
Why is it that we are so drawn to blaming others and inevitably and endlessly attempting to correct them, rather than examining our own motives and ideas for the causes of our problems?
The obvious answer is that we prefer the short-term gain of self-righteousness to the long-term gain of actual growth and improvement in our habits – yet that does not explain very much, since we diet, exercise, go to work and see our dentists, and do all other sorts of things which sacrifice short-term gains for long-term gains.
Thus we can see that human beings certainly do have the capacity to defer immediate gratification for the sake of long-term advantage. Why is this so rarely the case in one of the most important aspects of our lives – our personal relationships?
irst of all, other people can be manipulated in a way that, say, our teeth cannot. We can convince another person that he alone is to blame for the problems in our relationship, but we cannot “convince” a tooth that it is not infected when it is. We can bully another person into believing that he is responsible for our overeating; we cannot bully the fat off our bellies.
Secondly, the general lack of integrity in those around us positively enables the kind of “blame game” that goes on in relationships. People who are raised badly, who end up with weak wills, weak characters and manipulative habits, can be easily blamed and controlled.
If we could only achieve the kind of integrity that, say, a tooth has, we would do an enormous service to the mental health and happiness of the world.
Allowing other people to treat us badly is a subtle form of aggression against them.
It arises from a fairly primitive time in our species, when slavery and hyper-control dominated our interactions.
If a slave hates his master – as deep down he surely does – but cannot retaliate against him in any violent or assertive manner, what are his options?
Well, when you want somebody dead, but you cannot kill him openly, your best option is to exacerbate his unhealthy habits.
In other words, a slave can eventually take vengeance on his master by continually bringing him a drink, sitting with him while he drinks, and endlessly offering to refill his glass.
On a psychological level, the slave can effectively re-create his own misery in the mind of his master by both provoking and submitting to bullying.
Every time the master beats the slave, the misery and self-loathing of the master increases. Every time the master screams at the slave, the soul of the master dies a little more. Every whip of the lash kills the master’s capacity for love, contentment and peace of mind.
This, of course, is Nietzsche’s “slave morality,” in which the slave takes a form of masochistic satisfaction and dark glee in the spiritual destruction of his master. The passive-aggressive “moral superiority” of the slave is the only satisfaction that such a beaten-down creature can hope for.
The problem, however, is that by continually pursuing the insidious satisfaction of passive-aggressive masochism, the slave often becomes dangerously addicted to this form of vengeance.
In other words, the slave becomes addicted to having a master and finds life without this form of underhanded revenge entirely lacking in stimulation and satisfaction.
Now, since most of us are raised as virtual slaves within our families and schools, it is all too common for us to become addicted to having masters – and thus attempting to “master” our rulers through self-pitying moral superiority and the enabling, or supporting, of self-destructive behaviours on the part of those who command us.
If left unexamined, this drive to destroy those who control us inevitably leads us to seek out those who will control us, and then endlessly attempt to destroy them.
As mentioned earlier, the weapon of the slave is “moral superiority,” or beatific self-righteousness. To really undo his master, the slave must set up a standard of “forgiveness,” and “unconditional love,” by which he tortures the infected conscience of his master.
The way that this paradigm translates itself into modern relationships – particularly romantic, but also parental – is that both parties intermittently take on the roles of master and slave, or persecutor and persecuted, or “unjust attacker” and “self-righteous victim.” Since their lives are based on attack, condemnation, self-righteous vengeance and frustrated control, they remain in a continual state of provocation, attack, withdrawal and moral pomposity, creating an endless closed loop of ever-increasing frustration, bitterness, fear and resentment.
On a more overt level, we can see this kind of interaction occurring in the typical cycle of an abusive marriage. Let’s be stereotypical and talk about the husband as the abuser.
Over a few weeks, Bruce becomes increasingly tense and snappy. In turn, Sheila responds to his growing aggression through provocation, either in the form of complete obsequience – which irritates him – or endless questions and nagging defiance, which inflames him. Bruce then asserts his dominance and releases his tension by attacking Sheila in a titanic blow-up either physical or verbal in nature.
However, since Bruce has asserted his dominance in such a hysterical and abusive manner, the power in the relationship now passes from Bruce to Sheila.
Since Bruce has acted so obviously unjustly, Sheila now gains control of the moral narrative of their relationship, and uses it to bully Bruce.
After his attack, she threatens to leave him. He comes crawling back, apologizing and begging for forgiveness – now playing the part of the slave instead of the master. Sheila withholds her “forgiveness,” enjoying the new power that she has over him, and abusing him in turn, both by torturing him morally and staying in the relationship.
When we disapprove of someone morally but remain in an intimate and supporting relationship with him, we are acting entirely immorally ourselves.
If I work for a corrupt boss, and am fully aware that he is stealing from his customers but continue to work for him, I am enabling his corruption as surely as if I were performing it myself. I may attempt to assuage my conscience by nagging at my boss to be a “better” man, or tentatively bringing up my “objections” in meetings, but as time goes on, and I do not quit, everyone understands that my nagging is just a ritual designed to enable me to continue to take money from a corrupt person or organization while continuing to pretend to myself that I am moral.
By continuing to work for this corrupt man – while professing my own devotion to moral principles – I am clearly communicating to him that morality is simply a tool for self-deception, and that ethical exhortation is merely self-medicating hypocrisy. This “enables” his corruption even more so than the customers he steals from, who would doubtless flee his predation if they discovered it.
Thus remaining in relationships with immoral people while complaining that they are immoral is one of the most subtle forms of abuse in the world. It is revoltingly hypocritical, insofar as it uses ethics to enable and justify corruption.
This is the difference between the mugger who steals from you because he wants to buy a drink, and the socialist who steals from you because she wants to “help the poor.”
When you look closely for this kind of interaction in the relationships of those around you – or your own relationships, for that matter – it becomes blindingly obvious and virtually omnipresent.
A man “persecutes” his wife for her lack of sexual desire, and then plays the victim when he is criticized for not helping around the house. When the woman is attacked for her lack of sexual interest, she responds with a passive aggressive “moral” argument: “I do not feel like having sex because you are not emotionally available, or we are not close enough, or you yelled at me yesterday, or I am worried about finances, or I am stressed out because I have too much housework, or you don’t help enough with the kids etc etc etc.”
If we break down the man’s moral argument, he is basically saying: “I agreed to pursue a monogamous relationship with you, giving up sex with all other women. This creates an implicit obligation on your part to have sex with me since you hold a monopoly on sexual interactions. By continually refusing to have sex with me, you are setting a terrible and unjust trap wherein I will be tempted to pursue an affair, which will result in my personal and financial destruction. Since you are using sex to punish and control me in our relationship, but I am not allowed to pursue sex outside of this relationship, you are putting me up against the wall, which is a most hateful and unloving thing to do.”
His wife, on the other hand, is saying something like: “I do not feel close to you, because you are not emotionally available, which is a failure of your duties as a husband. You also yelled at me yesterday, which is abusive, and also a failure on your part as a husband. I complain about finances because you do not make enough money. I’m stressed about housework because you do not help enough. The kids are driving me crazy because I always have to be the disciplinarian, while you get to be the ‘fun’ dad who just plays with them. Thus, you are cold, lazy, unambitious and abusive. In fact, asking for sex when you know that I feel this way is further evidence of your coldness and abusive tendencies!”
As we can see, if we look closely, what is really going on here is a not-too-subtle tug of war over the moral narrative of the relationship, which is essentially a revolving slave-to-master interaction.
Deep down, we all know that if we can get someone to admit that a certain behaviour is morally wrong, he can in no way continue to defend that behaviour, and must change.
As I have argued from the very beginning of my podcast series, morality is the most powerful tool in the arsenal of mankind.
Whoever controls “morality” controls the relationship.
We all understand this instinctively, and so continually use stories and mythologies to attempt to gain control of the moral narrative of a relationship.
The reason that we never fully succeed is that we are perpetually creating “rules” for our partner that we do not follow ourselves.
We are all perfectly aware of this kind of hypocrisy in others when we read about priests who molest children, anti-homosexual Congressman who solicit gay sex in bathroom stalls, or people like Oprah who continually talk about feminism and “woman power” while simultaneously presenting an endless cavalcade of fear-mongering stories about attacks on women. Dr. Phil is another example of this kind of phenomenon. He continually attacks those who use violence to resolve their problems while praising soldiers to the skies.
There are several common mythologies at work in romantic relationships, which we would be wise to learn by heart.
The first and most common moral mythology – particularly for women – is the essential criticism: “You lack empathy.”
The criticism of “selfishness” is so common that it can be hard to hear after a while.
Many, many women truly believe that if their husbands were genuinely empathetic, their marriages would be enormously improved, and their needs would be met.
The simple truth of the fact, though, is that most people are happy to talk about what they think and feel if they meet with genuine acceptance and respect.
What women are really saying when they complain that their husbands “lack empathy” is that their husbands are not thinking and feeling what their wives want them to think and feel.
Let’s look at a common example.
A fairly constant complaint from women is that their husbands seem supernaturally resistant to initiating chores.
“Why oh why is it that I have to ask him a dozen times to take out the garbage? It’s not like garbage day magically changes from week to week! Why can he not get it through his head that I don’t want to have to manage him like some sort of mother? And if he’s not going to take out the garbage, why doesn’t he just tell me so I can do it myself, instead of just continually promising that he’s going to do it ‘in a few minutes’?”
This is a clear example of “moral positioning.” Here is a translation of the subtext:
“You’re sooo not going to get laid!”
“He does not respect my needs, he is not pulling his weight in this household, he is just manipulating me by appeasing me in the moment, while having no intention of doing what I ask. He is passive-aggressively frustrating me – he is selfish and lazy, and is turning me into a nag, so that I end up looking like the bad person when he’s the one who’s not doing his chores!”
On the surface, this seems like a seductively appealing narrative. Who could fail to sympathize with such a hard done by and put upon woman, struggling to maintain a household while her husband lazes and obfuscates on the couch?
Sadly, it is all pure nonsense.
By attempting to control his behaviour through nagging repetition, this woman is bypassing the most important question she needs to ask about why he is doing what he is doing (or not doing).
In other words, she claims that he is not being empathetic towards her needs, while at the same time she is not being at all empathetic towards his needs.
Clearly, by not taking out the garbage, he is communicating to her that he does not want to take out the garbage.
By making up a story that portrays him as lazy and negligent, his wife is creating a mythology about his motivation rather than honestly attempting to understand it.
This is not science or logic or empiricism or common sense or intimacy, but religion.
Remember, when bad things happen in the world of religion, “sinners” are invented to take the blame.
In this case, the “sinner” is laziness – or the husband in general.
We may as well say, when striving to understand the cause of an illness, “Satan made me sick!” Sure, it’s a comforting story with a protagonist and antagonist and a satisfyingly vindictive moral theme.
Sadly, it just has nothing to do with reality whatsoever.
If I am genuinely “lazy,” I may possess that trait for any one of a myriad number of reasons. I may be depressed or lonely, or feel over-controlled, or sense that my life is going in the wrong direction, or have any variety of medical deficiencies or ailments, or I may believe that my life lacks meaning and purpose, or I may be worried about possible moral transgressions on my part, or I may feel that I am embedded in a corrupt or compromising work environment, or my children may be going through a certain phase that reminds me of sad times in my own childhood, or I may be worried that I no longer love my wife…
There can be 10,000 or more reasons underlying my “lack of motivation.”
A wife who does not sit down with sensitivity and empathy to ask her husband why he is unmotivated is just a bully and has no moral right whatsoever to criticize her husband for his lack of sensitivity and empathy.
She is also humiliating him in a way that can be hard to see.
If we are married to someone, we must certainly claim to love and respect him above all others. If we treat him, however, as if he is a “defective household chore robot,” then we are implicitly denigrating him in truly terrible ways.
When a wife marches up to her husband, demands that he take out the garbage, and implies that he is lazy and selfish, she is clearly communicating the following:
“I know that I promised to love and respect you for all eternity, but right now getting the garbage outside the house is infinitely more important to me than understanding your soul. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to attack your nature, ethics and initiative in order to get you to take the trash out. On my scale of values, moving the trash is an infinite plus. Understanding your soul is not even on my list!”
To see that your true personality and being is not even on the list of your wife’s priorities – and that you have been displaced by empty and trivial tasks – is unbearably humiliating.
If this humiliation were truly felt by all the spouses in the world, it would be like a neutron bomb in the world of marriage.
Marriages, like buildings, would be left standing – there would just be no people in them.
As I talked about in my book “On Truth,” morality is almost always used as a weapon of control and dominance.
When your wife marches up to you and demands in a shrill and exasperated tone for you to “PLEASE take out the garbage!” – implying that you are lazy and selfish – there are really only two possibilities.
Naturally, if you are lazy and selfish – and we assume that these pejorative terms accurately represent the entire sum of your personality – then attacking you for being lazy and selfish after voluntarily choosing you as a life partner is patently ridiculous.
If my wife could have married any man with any accent in the world, but chose me, it would seem rather strange for her to attack me for having a British accent, claiming that every man with a British accent – who is not currently residing in England – is a pretentious phony.
If I am a pretentious phony, then it is quite silly for my wife to attack me for being a pretentious phony. If I am not a pretentious phony, then my wife would only use that abusive term to hurt me – and she would only be able to hurt me with it if I was not in fact a pretentious phony, or disliked pretentious phonies myself.
If I were a pretentious phony, then clearly I would have developed that personality trait because I lacked self-esteem, and so felt a need to portray myself as wiser or smarter than I actually was in order to gain the good approval of others. (In other words, as a self-defensive “initial strike” against potential attacks.)
Now, I would only have developed this low self-esteem and dependence upon the approval of others if I had been persistently attacked and condemned by my parents when I was a child.
If, when expressing my authentic opinions, I had been dismissed as an ignorant philistine, I would then be sorely tempted to manufacture more “sophisticated” opinions in order to avoid being attacked.
In other words, I would be “pretentious” as an adult because I had been verbally abused as a child.
It is, then, entirely abusive for my wife to verbally abuse me for traits that have resulted from a history of having been verbally abused.
If you are “lazy,” it is generally because you feel a significant disconnect between your choices, your actions, and the effect you can have on your environment.
In psychological studies, when chickens or rats are given random punishments and rewards, they tend to become inert, because they cannot create any sense of rational cause and effect between their choices, their actions and their environment.
Personal energy and initiative, in other words, generally arise from a feeling of efficacy.
Depressed or inert people feel that their “locus of control” resides somewhere outside themselves. A micromanaged child will not easily develop a sense of personal initiative since his entire being is dedicated towards satisfying the endless and contradictory demands of other people.
It’s tough to plan your future when you’re dodging bullets.
I knew a woman who, when making toast, had to suffer through her mother hovering over her and constantly correcting everything she was doing. She should have brushed the breadcrumbs off the bread before putting them into the toaster, the heat was on just a little bit too high, she should not turn away from the toaster while it was in operation, in case something caught fire – and when all was said and done, she did not clean the toaster nearly well enough!
The amount of stress involved in heating two slices of bread was ridiculous. This woman had virtually no chance to develop her own methodology of thinking, of testing cause and effect, of deciding for herself how even minor goals could be best achieved.
Inevitably, she found herself largely paralyzed in the realm of major life decisions, and tended to navigate from moment to moment, based on the approval or disapproval of those around her. She wanted to achieve great things with her career, but ended up working as a secretary despite a very good education, because she had simply not developed the capacity to identify and pursue goals on her own accord, and according to own judgment – and, of course, remained hypersensitive to criticism, which crippled her ability to negotiate, and so progress in any career.
Sadly, her paralysis also invited micromanagement from others. She would proclaim her desire to achieve a certain goal, but then would take no steps towards it, while continually complaining about the difficulties of achieving it. This would invite an endless stream of people into her life who would help her set up action plans, alternative approaches, proactive time management goals and so on.
I never did see anyone actually ask what she felt when she sat down to attempt to achieve her goals.
If that question had been asked, and an honest answer had been provided, real progress could have been made.
Unfortunately, by telling her how to achieve her goals, people were in fact stepping into the role of her mother, since when we tell people what to do, we automatically denigrate their existing abilities. If I met you on the street and explained to you in great detail how to put your left foot forward, and then your right foot forward in order to walk, you would scarcely feel elevated by my opinion of your existing ability to walk.
In the same way, when a wife denigrates her husband for failing to initiate and complete chores without instruction, she is actually abusing him, denigrating him, and re-creating exactly the same circumstances – and exactly the same abuse – that prompted his inertia to begin with.
And yet, if you listen to her surface story, you will likely walk away entirely convinced that she is the victim in the interaction with her husband.
On the other hand, if you are not lazy, but your wife tells you that you are, then clearly she is using the pejorative to manipulate you.
Keep your eyes peeled. Do not be fooled.
s mentioned earlier, most relationships are founded on a war of narratives in which competing mythologies jockey for the dominant position.
How many times in relationships do we have the following interaction:
- “Hey, that really hurt me, what you just said.”
- “I had no desire to hurt you, you must be oversensitive, or must have misunderstood me. I’m sorry that you are so upset.”
The first statement is a statement of fact, the second statement is a statement of mythology.
For about six months, Christina and I had lengthy conversations about what I called “zinging.”
Christina would say something that hurt me, and I would express my surprise and upset. With total sincerity, she would apologize for the fact that I got hurt, claiming that she had no intention to hurt me, that she had no idea that it would be hurtful, and so on. To her endless credit, she did not say or imply that I was oversensitive or paranoid.
I replied that I completely believed that she did not consciously want to hurt me – since that would be sadistic, and thus would be a complete deal-breaker as far as the relationship went.
This was very confusing for her, of course, and was a great challenge to her sense of her own virtue and benevolence. As we continued to work on this problem of, “Stef gets hurt despite the fact that Christina has no desire to hurt him,” we did slowly get to the point where Christina was willing to explore her own history, and how she was never really apologized to in her own childhood, after she was hurt.
Eventually, we got to the point where we understood that Christina had been treated callously or cruelly at times in her childhood, and then when she expressed hurt everyone told her that no one had any intention to hurt her, that she was oversensitive, and so must have misunderstood the intentions of those around her. If she continued to express her upset, she was punished. When she was spanked, her mother would snap: “Why are you crying?”
The ironic thing about this all-too-typical interaction is that Christina was in fact ignoring her own hurt feelings rather than mine – and those hurt feelings existed in her past, not in my present.
Human beings are in essence pattern-making machines. In her childhood, Christina’s hurt feelings were endlessly minimized and ignored by others, and so a pattern was set up within her own mind, which was: “hurt = minimize.”
When her parents hurt her, and she expressed pain, her parents then experienced pain themselves – since no one really wants to hurt someone they claim to love. (Certainly when Christina finally understood that she was in fact causing me pain through her stinging comments, it was very painful to her – both because she did not want to cause me pain in the present, and because she then re-experienced her own childhood pain.)
Since Christina’s parents did not want to experience the pain and anxiety of having caused their child pain, they blamed her sensitivity and paranoia for causing her pain – and so, by extension, their pain.
In other words, it was fundamentally their own pain that they were minimizing – their dismissal of Christina’s criticisms was an effect of their own self rejection.
They rejected Christina because they rejected themselves.
ne of the problems that arises from this habitual interaction is the lack of feedback it creates.
In fact, it could be said that the entire point of this book is to convince you that you need to feel pain.
Pain is healthy, pain is good – pain is essential to the healthy functioning of mind and body.
If we could will away the agony of a toothache, we would become very ill and possibly die. If we did not walk gingerly on a sprained ankle, we could create chronic bone problems. If we did not reduce our use of a pulled muscle, we could tear it irretrievably.
We understand the value of pain in the physical sense – however, in the emotional realm we have access to a numbing drug called “blame” that seductively promises to eliminate our anxiety, guilt, shame and remorse in the moment.
If we understand our use of blame as a classic addiction, it becomes far easier to comprehend.
We can look at an addiction as any habit that reduces anxiety or pain in the moment at the cost of failing to address (and probably exacerbating) the underlying cause.
If I take a mood-enhancing drug because I feel sad, I am not dealing with my sadness, but just “nuking” the symptom. If I take sleeping pills because I am too stressed to sleep, I am only solving the problem of being awake, not of being stressed.
Of course, it can be highly beneficial to minimize discomfort while dealing with the real underlying issue – i.e. to use Novocain during a root canal, or take antidepressants while going to therapy – as long as the underlying issue is in fact being addressed.
In the same way, there are many ways that we can approach each other’s irrationalities which minimize defensive reactions and upsets. What is not productive, however, is temporarily eliminating anxiety by permanently ignoring the problem.
The most common way of eliminating discomfort in the moment is to create a story which eliminates responsibility.
One continual pattern in life is that people will drive around for years looking for a suitable cliff, take a running leap over the edge, and then spend decades complaining that they were unjustly pushed.
A woman will spend years dating and choosing a man, and then months or years in a relationship, and then months engaged, and then get married – and then with a completely straight face complain about her husband, saying with all sincerity that she had “no idea” about his true nature.
There are really only three possibilities when a woman says that she had “no idea” that her husband was X, Y or Z – despite having years to get to know him before marrying him.
If she is genuinely clueless about her husband, then either she is functionally retarded in her ability to judge people, or he is a truly cunning sociopath who can mask his true nature for years, with no clues whatsoever about his dangerous or dysfunctional nature – or she is lying about her ignorance of his nature.
In the first case, she may well complain about her husband, but it could be easily said that he has far more to complain about her, in that she has a negative ability to judge people and very likely needs help tying her shoes. She thought that her boyfriend was the best guy for her, and he turns out to be problematic in significant areas. That is not just a misjudgment, but rather an anti-judgment. It’s not like taking a shortcut that doesn’t work out as efficiently as you hoped: it is more like continually driving the completely wrong way while checking the map and stopping to ask for directions.
If the woman really is that foolish, then she would be too vapid to actually blame her husband for what he does, since her understanding of cause and effect would be so absent that she would be more likely to blame her unhappiness on the motion of the moon.
If she can correctly identify her husband’s dysfunctional behaviour as the “cause” of her unhappiness, then she is intelligent enough to have perceived his true nature long before they even became boyfriend and girlfriend.
If she then says that her husband is truly a cunning sociopath who fooled everyone for years, then we know that she is lying. There is no possibility that a sociopath can be so cunning that he can fool everyone for years about his true nature. If this were possible, then there would never be such a diagnosis as “sociopathic,” because such creatures would be able to avoid or mask their symptoms in all possible scenarios and tests.
Thus it can never be possible that a wife can complain first and foremost about the actions of her partner. This would be equivalent to a dermatologist blaming the sun for his sunburn.
tories are characterized by a number of common traits. The first and most obvious is the use of the words “always” and “never.”
For instance, a husband may say to his wife, “You never support me!”
His wife may retort: “You always accuse me of that!”
Other common stories include:
- “I have to do everything around here.”
- “You never take responsibility for your actions.”
- “Why don’t you ever just sit down and really talk to me?”
- “You never lift a finger around here unless I tell you what to do.”
- “You’re just so passive.”
- “You never take initiative.”
- “You’re just lazy.”
- “You’re so vain.”
- “It’s like you’re married to that computer!” (Sorry, my voice recognition software was running when my wife came into the room…)
Let’s take a look at this statement and see how we know that it is a story.
If I tell you that you never support me, then that is either true or it is abusive. In other words, any time I tell you something negative about yourself – particularly if it is an absolute statement – then either I am telling you the truth about yourself or I am lying to you in order to hurt you. (For more on this, see my book: “On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion.”)
If it is true that you have never supported me, then either you lack the capacity to support anyone, or you have the capacity to support others but choose not to support me.
If you lack the capacity to support anyone, ever, in any way whatsoever, then criticizing you for this lack is the direct equivalent of criticizing a man with no arms for his inability to play basketball, or calling a non-Greek speaker “stupid” for not being able to speak Greek.
Clearly, when we criticize someone, we can only do so with justice if he is capable of correcting his behaviour. This is why no person with any sensitivity calls a mentally retarded person “stupid,” a woman in traction “lazy,” or a man with Tourette’s syndrome “rude.”
If the behaviour cannot be corrected, then criticizing it is abusive.
Assuming that you are capable of supporting me, if I tell you that you never support me then either you have a desire to support me – but choose not to – or you do not have a desire to support me at all.
If you know how to support someone, but do not have a desire to support me at all, then clearly you believe that I am not worthy of being supported. In other words, there are people in your life that you do want to support – and do support – but I am not one of them. This must be because I am behaving poorly relative to those other people that you support, since supporting someone is an act of love.
If my bad behaviour is causing you to refrain from supporting me, even though you could, then if I attack you for your lack of support, this will only make you less likely to want to support me.
It is ridiculous for me to criticize your behaviour in such a way that I reinforce that behaviour. This is exactly like a woman giving her husband money to gamble, going with him to the casino and cheering him on, and then laying into him about his gambling habit. It certainly happens, of course, but it is quite ridiculous.
Furthermore, supporting someone must involve believing in his better nature or potential and helping him to achieve it in a positive manner. If I roundly criticize you for failing to support me, then I am saying that it would be better or nobler for you to support me. However, I am not at all helping you to achieve that “better” state in a positive manner, but rather just attacking you for failing to achieve it.
In other words, attacking you for failing to support me is the exact opposite of being supportive.
In this way, I am modeling the exact same behaviour that I condemn as unjust and unworthy in you.
Is it any wonder, then, that you hesitate to support me?
When I attack you for failing to support me, it is exactly the same as if I were a chronic liar proclaiming my honesty and demanding that you tell me the truth.
On the other hand, if you have a desire to support me, but do not, then clearly what you lack is the knowledge of how to support me.
If the only thing that you lack is a knowledge of how to support me, then the only way that I can practically get you to support me is to give you that knowledge.
If I am Chinese, and I want you to be able to talk to my parents, who do not speak English, then I would respectfully ask that you learn Mandarin.
If you agree to learn Mandarin, then the question is whether I or someone else will teach you.
If I will teach you, then obviously I must be able to speak Mandarin in order to be able to teach you. If I do not speak Mandarin, then it would be highly hypocritical of me to criticize you for your inability to speak Mandarin.
Also, at a very practical level, I would be unable to teach you the language.
If I told you that it was of great value to be able to speak to my parents in Mandarin, but I did not speak Mandarin myself, then clearly the solution would be for both of us to take classes in Mandarin.
If I did speak Mandarin and I offered to teach you the language, it would only make sense to accept my offer if I was in fact a good teacher.
If my “courses” in Mandarin consisted of me yelling at you that you just aren’t getting the language – in an incomprehensible foreign language no less – then clearly I in fact have no interest whatsoever in actually teaching you Mandarin.
Instead, I am using my knowledge of Mandarin to humiliate you, by setting up a standard called “learn Mandarin,” and then making it completely impossible for you to learn that language.
If, at some point, you found out that the incomprehensible foreign language that I was yelling at you in was not in fact Mandarin, but some sort of gibberish, and that I did not know Mandarin at all, then you would very likely become completely enraged at my hypocrisy, condescension, and manipulation.
What are the odds that you would ever respect me as a teacher, friend or companion again?
Such are the perils of manipulative storytelling.
What on earth could be the motivations for such a dysfunctional interaction? Why would I want to attack someone for not supporting me – distinctly unsupportive behaviour – when I actually could be supported if I modeled better behaviour, or chose a better partner?
In other words, if I so greatly fear being unsupported, why would I create conditions which will inevitably result in me being unsupported?
hy is it that we are so inevitably drawn to re-create that which we most fear?
To understand that, let us look at the parable of a boxer named Simon.
As a child, Simon is subjected to physical abuse. He is slapped, pushed, punched and beaten.
Since he is a child, he is helpless to resist these attacks. How, then, can he survive them?
Well, since clearly he cannot master his environment, or those who are abusing him, that leaves only one choice for poor Simon.
Simon must master himself.
He cannot master his attackers – or their attacks – he can only master his reaction to their attacks.
He has no control over the external world – he can only have control over his internal world.
All children take pleasure in exercising increasing levels of control over their environment. If control over their external environment is impossible, however, they have no choice but to start exercising increasing control over their internal environment: their thoughts and feelings.
This is all quite logical, and something that we would all wish for, as the best way to survive an impossible situation.
If we cannot get rid of the source of our pain, what we most desire is to get rid of the pain itself.
Thus Simon grows up gaining a sense of efficacy and power by controlling his own pain, fear and hatred.
The pleasure that most children get out of mastering external tasks such as tying their shoelaces, catching a ball and learning to skate, Simon gets out of “rising above” and controlling his terrifying emotions.
Can we blame Simon for this? If anaesthetic is readily available, would we want to scream through an appendectomy without it?
When Simon is young, his self-control remains relatively stable. As he gets older, though, his parents slowly begin to reduce the amount of physical abuse they inflict on him. This is particularly true during and after puberty, when he is becoming old enough to tell others about the abuse, and also because his increasing size makes it less and less possible to dominate him physically.
How does Simon feel about these decreasing physical attacks?
Two words: terrified and disoriented.
Simon’s entire sense of power and efficacy – his very identity even – has been defined by his ability to master and control his own emotions in the face of terrifying abuse.
In other words, in the absence of abuse, he has no sense of control, efficacy or power.
In addition to being taught all the wrong things, Simon has also been taught almost none of the right things. He does not know how to negotiate, he does not know how to express his emotions, he has not been taught empathy, he has not been taught sensitivity, he has not been taught win-win interactions – the words that are missing from Simon’s social vocabulary could fill a shelf of dictionaries.
Thus, in the absence of violence, not only does Simon feel powerless – since his sense of “power” arose primarily as the result of his ability to survive violence – but he is also increasingly thrust into a world of voluntarism, where sophisticated skills of self-expression and negotiation are required for success.
As he enters into his teenage years, for the first time since he was very young Simon feels excruciatingly powerless – and vulnerable.
Since vulnerability was the original state he was in before he began to repress and control his emotional responses to those around him, he unconsciously feels that he is in enormous danger. (This arises from the reality that he was in enormous danger when he was a child, but he is only now feeling it for the first time.)
The reason that he disowned his emotions in the first place was because he felt fear and hatred in the face of physical attacks. It was the reality of his vulnerability that provoked the self-defence of dissociation and “self-mastery.”
Thus for Simon, vulnerability is always followed by excruciating and self-annihilating attacks.
Having spent years mastering his responses to these attacks, he has not learned how to deal with vulnerability in a positive and self-expressed manner.
As he becomes an adult, however, Simon no longer needs to defend himself against attacks – thus undermining his sense of control – and he also moves faster and faster into a world of voluntary interactions for which he is utterly unprepared.
Simon also unconsciously knows that learning the skills necessary to flourish in this voluntary world – if that is even possible for him anymore – will take years of excruciating labour.
Simon has access to a drug that can instantly make all of his anxiety go away. This drug can restore his sense of control, eliminate his bottomless terror of voluntary interactions, and place him right back in familiar territory where he feels efficacious, powerful and in control.
That drug, of course, is violence.
Simon finds that when he leaves the world of voluntary interactions and re-enters the world of violence and abuse, his anxiety vanishes. His sense of efficacy and control returns, and he feels mastery over his own world again.
Like an army that does not want to be disbanded, in the absence of external enemies, Simon must create them.
After realizing the relative joy and serenity that he feels after getting involved in physical fights, Simon goes down to his local gym and puts on some boxing gloves.
He finds that he is very good in the ring, because where other people feel fear and caution, he, due to his years of self-mastery, feels power and control. When he is in the ring he does not feel anxious, he does not feel afraid – he does not even feel angry – he simply feels the satisfaction of being in a situation that he can control.
The endorphins released in Simon’s system by violence quickly become addictive.
True addiction requires both a highly positive reaction from taking a drug and a highly negative reaction from abstaining from it. For Simon, boxing not only restores his sense of control, but it also eliminates the crippling anxiety he feels in the absence of violence.
Sadly, familiarity breeds content…
This is the psychological story of a boxer, of course, but it can equally apply to criminals, soldiers, policemen, and others drawn to dangerous situations.
Simon was utterly terrified of violence when he was a child, so how can we understand his pursuit of boxing as a career when he becomes an adult?
When we become addicted to controlling our fears, we can no longer live without either control or fear.
Simon became addicted to controlling his responses to abuse – thus he can no longer function in the absence of abuse.
Addiction also worsens when every step down the road of repetition makes it that much harder to turn around.
This applies to Simon in many, many terrible ways.
Every time he uses the defences he developed in his childhood, he reinforces the value of violence in his adult life. Every time he avoids the anxiety of voluntary and positive interactions through the use of violence, he takes yet another step away from learning how to negotiate in a positive manner with kind and worthwhile people.
In other words, every time he “uses” the drug of violence, he makes the next “use” of violence that much more likely – and resisting the drug that much harder.
In this way, we can truly understand how a man can be drawn to endlessly repeat that which terrified him the most as a child.
In hopefully less extreme ways, Simon’s story can also help us understand why we are so drawn to repeat that which we fear the most.
Were you rejected as a child? Beware your desire for rejection.
Were you verbally abused as a child? Watch out for verbally abusive people: they will inject you with addictive endorphins.
Were you sexually abused as a child? Watch out for predators: they will tempt you with the self-medication of surviving them.
he above analogy can help us understand how someone can end up spending his whole life attempting to “master” violence.
However, at least Simon is getting into the ring with an equal. How can we understand a parent who ends up abusing his or her child?
A basic fact of human nature is that it is impossible for anyone to do anything that involves a moral choice without moral justification. George Bush could not invade Iraq without claiming that it was an act of “self-defence,” or “just punishment.” When parents talk about screaming at or hitting their children, they always justify their actions by claiming that, “We have tried everything else and gotten nowhere.” Or, they claim that their exasperated responses are generated by the misbehaviour of their children: “He just doesn’t listen; he doesn’t show us the proper respect,” etc.
It is impossible to imagine a parent standing in front of a mirror and saying: “I am abusing my innocent child.” Any parent capable of making such a statement would have recoiled in horror the first time that he yelled at or struck his child, and sought the necessary help.
Continued abuse requires continual moral justifications. In fact, the very worst aspects of the abuse that a child receives are not so much the physical fear and pain, but rather the moral corruption of the lies that are told to justify the abuse.
For a child, being beaten is terrible, but being repeatedly told that the beating is a just response to his “bad” actions is worse.
So – how could this possibly come about?
For the sake of this example, let us assume that the parent was abused in her own childhood, as is so often the case.
We will take the example of a mother named Wendy, who ends up verbally abusing her daughter Sally.
Wendy was verbally abused when she was a child. She was told that she was bad, disrespectful, disobedient, ungrateful, selfish and so on.
From Wendy’s childhood perspective, her own mother loomed like a titan in her little world. One of the amazing things about the differences in perspective between parent and child is that the parent screams and hits because the parent feels helpless. However, to the child, the parent seems virtually omnipotent.
We can assume that the Christian God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because He felt helpless to reform its inhabitants. However, from the standpoint of the city-dwellers burning alive in a sea of flames, God’s complaint that He felt helpless would be utterly incomprehensible. If God is all-powerful, as He claims, how can he claim frustrated helplessness as his motivation? If an all-powerful deity cannot reform individuals, how can those individuals, with infinitely less power, be expected to reform themselves?
If parents knew how large they loomed in their child’s world, they would use a far, far lighter touch in their discipline. When you are around somebody whose hearing is preternaturally sensitive, you only need to whisper; yelling is both unnecessary and abusive.
When Wendy was a child, her mother’s verbal abuse was utterly overwhelming. The stress of having someone five times your size, who has complete and utter power over you, yelling at you, putting you down, denigrating you, or abusing you in some other manner causes a fundamental short-circuit in a child’s neurological system. It is the equivalent of taking a man terrified of heights and constantly dangling him out the open door of an airplane. He may “acclimatize” himself to the repetitively awful stimulation, but only through extreme dissociation from his environment, which comes at a terrible personal cost. Victims of repetitive torture undergo the same “out of body” experience wherein they cease to feel, and in many ways cease to live, at least emotionally.
When a child is abused, she experiences her life as a series of fundamentally impossible situations. The capacity to abuse arises out of a lack of bonding, a lack of empathy, an absence of sensitivity towards the feelings of the child.
A child’s only security is her bond with her parent. Abuse is a deliberate severing of that bond – a “strangling with the umbilical.” Abusing a child requires that you eliminate your capacity to empathize with her. If a child perceives that she cannot rely on her bond with her mother – which is to say that her mother’s capacity to empathize with her comes and goes at best – then the child feels fundamentally insecure, because positive and empathetic treatment cannot be relied on.
When you are under the total power of someone who can treat you badly whenever she feels like it, you are placed into an impossible situation because that person will inevitably command you to show “respect” and “love” towards her.
If your abusive mother detects that you fear her, for instance, she will generally react with aggression. If at a dinner party your mother raises her hand and you cower in fear and beg her not to hit you, she will get very angry.
Thus you must pretend on the outside the opposite of what you feel on the inside. You must show “love” and/or “respect” despite feeling fear and hatred.
Thus, when Wendy’s mother verbally abused her, Wendy could not react with fear or hatred, because tha