I’ve been reading Murray Bowen’s work on differentiation within one’s family of origin. I’ve also been reading Charlotte Kasl’s book on spiritual relationships (Zen and the Art of Falling in Love).
Parenthetically, I’ve also been listening to a lot of Closure in Moscow, but that’s neither here nor there.
It was about three or four years ago, not long after I broke up with my last serious girlfriend, that I woke up in the middle of the night to a sunken, miserable figure standing at the end of my bed, eyeing me with longing. He was jauntily dressed (think Elizabethan court finery), but seemed to be a much taller man collapsed in on himself. Like Violator, that demonic clown from Spawn. I fell back asleep almost immediately after the initial shock (you know what it’s like seeing ghosts), but over the next few days/weeks I started to understand what he was. I realised he was the displaced embodiment of my spousal mask. He was the facade I wore in my relationship and now that my partner had flown the coop he was starved and needed love. At the time he hung around for a while, sighing pathetically and lurking in shadows, and I just drank, watched TV, etc, in order to lose consciousness and not have to deal with him. If I knew then what I know now, I would have hugged him into oblivion. Where, in my public schooling and what I learned from my family, did we ever cover how to deal with disembodied spousal masks craving love?
Bowen talks about differentiation as a psychological panacea. He believes that we have an immutable basic self, which contains our core values, what we will and won’t do; we also have a pseudo-self, which is negotiable. We barter and trade our pseudo-self in relationships, this is where and how we compromise who we are to fuse into the relationship with the other person. The overlap between Kasl’s work (quoting Maggie Scarf) and Bowen’s would suggest that this fusion hearkens back to our earliest days where we merged with our mother, attached to the breast, totally unified emotionally, spiritually, phyiscally.
Low differentiation, Bowen maintains, leads to conflict, dysfunction, illness – through expending so much energy negotiating oneself in the relationship, one opens oneself up to these things. Plus, throwing in a thought of my own, presumably you begin to resent people for whom you trade so much of yourself just in order to maintain a thin veneer of equilibrium.
It’s important to note that intelligence, socio-economic status, etc, has no bearing on one’s level of differentiation.
On nice guys
What are nice guys? I think it’s something of a misnomer. I am a nice guy. I’ve always been a nice guy. And I think when we say ‘nice guy’ we’re talking about guys who fuse too heavily. I’m not talking about Bunny Boilers here, I’m talking about disproportionately large pseudo-selves. I was trained from early on to do others bidding, I am incredibly empathetic, I “get” people and what they want, and I thought this was being nice. My role in the family (the fact that we even have defined roles in my family is cause for concern) was to provide emotional and financial support for everyone else. I have three siblings, one mother, and I am the youngest. Not that this matters, but it shows the extremity of the situation.
When it came to relationships, I have always done what I did in my family of origin: bent over backwards, sold my soul, call it what you will. Sought partners who were emotionally closed (or whose emotional connection I could not understand, bringing it to the same thing) who were pathological enough that they did very little for me, but for whom I could do everything. I subverted a number of people into their part in my dance – women who wanted to do things for me were not to be trusted.
Since accelerating on my path (merely a turn of phrase, we’re all moving just as fast as we can) the last couple of years, I have been questioning my methods of attachment. I have gone through a long period of mistrust – mostly of myself (I cannot be trusted to select an appropriate partner, now that I know what kind of things I am drawn to), but especially of women. I think the mistrust of women is borne mostly of sheer exhaustion and responsibility burn-out. I simply haven’t had the energy to do everything for someone else.
I have noticed, casting my present perspective back over my history, that those times where I dealt completely honestly, even what I thought that the time was arrogantly or harshly (stating my mind, openly, clearly and without hesitation for how it might be received), women have really responded positively. This scared me (I wasn’t being nice) so I didn’t keep it up. I told myself I have too much respect for women. So I continued wearing masks.
My hypothesis, then: that “nice guys” are undifferentiated guys. And, with societal white noise causing all this confusion around selecting a partner (i.e. interrupting and corrupting our internal mechanisms for assessing a mate, like ‘listening to our heart’ [read: intuition]), “assholes” (who can be mistaken as differentiated, merely because they are dancing to their own tune without a care for anyone else) are getting much more airtime. So what if we start to look deeper than “nice” or “asshole” (subjective labels anyway) and consider being genuine; honest; true to oneself and not wearing a mask when trying to connect with people? As with all things in life, walking the balance of the middle ground sounds like the goal.