Paying Attention To The Data

I remind people often when getting into relationships or starting to date someone new to ‘look for the data’. That is, particularly as people know more about themselves and the mistakes they’ve tended to make interpersonally, including in the selection process – i.e., the kinds of people they keep choosing –  it’s critical to pay attention to these features.

Attending to the data affords you the ability to create a sort of ‘stop-action’ such that you can identify, review and assess what’s going on and then make decisions as to how you want to deal with it. And attending to what the other person is giving off is only part of it; it’s worth looking at what we’re doing as well. These are truly powerful tools. So, e.g., you can look at something that just happened and think, “Ugh, when she seemed uninterested, I started posturing in order to look more interesting, but I don’t want to do that – I’ve got to see whether the next woman can like me without me showing what a big shot I am”… or “Wow, he keeps telling me about his ex; maybe I should be aware that there’s really no room for another love interest yet”, or “Oh, here I go again coming onto this woman so strongly even though I know I’ll get scared and run later…maybe I can figure this out first before I do the same thing again”. And so on.

The following case involves Sydney, an emotionally knowledgeable woman who’s worked a good deal on these things in therapy to the extent that she’s adept at seeing and adjusting her emotions and perceptions and then making appropriate behavior changes. She’d been a whip-smart and highly attractive child who had been sexually abused and developed a number of defense mechanisms to cope, among them the feeling (and acting out) of knowing she could walk away from any man whenever she wanted. The man, Derek, is someone who grew up with two heroin-addicted parents; he was the idealized child of the father who left, and became the caretaker of the highly disturbed mother who he’d find splayed on the floor each day in a drug-induced, depressed stupor. As the oldest of four children, he also took over the raising of the other three. His defense mechanisms (projection in this case) made him believe that the women he was with were either crazy or incapable (just like his mother). And though he believed most women left him, he’d likely engage in ambivalent behavior which caused them to feel unloved, and hence, the leaving. In the case of his ex-wife, he  became the sole nurturer of the the children –  the one role in which he felt strong and confident.

Sydney met Derek online, and although she noticed that he didn’t ask very much about her by phone or in the first meeting – even though she had a pretty interesting life and career – she was taken by him; by his rugged attractiveness, his apparently deep interest in having a more ‘conscious’ relationship, and the fact that he seemed mesmerized by her. So she ignored some of his self-involvement and ignored as well the fact that he’d told her early on that he wanted no conflict. Sydney had responded that conflict was part of being human and thus had to exist in any relationship; it was simply a matter of how they worked it through that mattered. But he didn’t really respond and Sydney never revisited it throughout their time together (Data point: Sydney’s ignoring of this was key because the moment there emerged a conflict between them, Derek ended it, telling her he couldn’t trust her and had to protect himself).

He was very expressive of how excited he was by her, and it fueled her belief that he must be caring. (Data point:having someone super interested in us early on might simply be more about his need to ‘invest in’ a highly attractive person who could also be a positive reflection of him).

Derek would try to see Sydney often at first, but then wouldn’t necessarily make a definite plan whenever they were leaving each other. She’d wanted to let him lead in this arena, as she’d all too often been with men who awaited her decisions about meeting up and were dependent on her every move. (Data point: he was developing some anxiety about the attachment he was making). In fact, Sydney had some friends also doing online dating and they’d tell her that they noticed he was online at times even while he was apparently dating her exclusively. And although this isn’t uncommon at the beginning, it was something she couldn’t ignore and it frequently concerned her, especially given that they’d become sexual. (Data point: Sydney thought about addressing the issue of not wanting to be sexual until they were only dating each other, but she avoided doing so, rationalizing that it was still too early and felt it migh put pressure on him; but it was truly just a rationalization to avoid doing what felt scary). Some part of her was wary of frightening him off (Data point: If you’re afraid that an appropriate and calmly-stated question about the current nature of things between you might abort the relationship, you’re on shaky territory).

From early on, Derek spoke about ‘old tapes’ he’d play in his head that used to make him leave other relationships precipitously, but that he wasn’t doing that with her. And he did tell her often that she was different, that he felt deeply for her on a number of important levels – more than he had in a long time. Because Sydney was, for good reason, so comfortable with herself, she did believe him when he described how he was trying out some very new behavior, and that he was motivated to do so with her (Data point: this part did seem fully accurate to her because he’d make himself highly vulnerable in talking openly about who he’d been and ways he’d avoided letting people know him earlier on).

But Sydney began to notice that whenever they’d become very close or when he’d have been particularly expressive of his feelings toward her, he’d add “but I’m still working on (eschewing) my old tapes” . Data point: Unwittingly, he was made anxious by his desire to get close to Sydney and would thus give her conflicting cues akin to: ‘I want to be close to you, but I kind of have to undo it each time.’ Hence, the frequent reference to ‘avoiding the old tapes’. It started to feel to her more like a morality tale; that is, “don’t mess with me; I’m too stuck in old ways – or too vulnerable”; or both.

Two more pieces of data: Derek rarely wanted to talk about old relationships, saying it was better to let past relationships remain in the past; and when he did talk about them he’d dismiss each of his past women as “projects” he’d taken on. That is, each woman was somehow an emotional mess or incapable of a real relationship, and yet he’d ‘take them on anyway’. Thus, his first wife “was just too incapable of handling their children”, his second wife ‘just wanted to get pregnant and needed him for his ‘good stock’, and the few others were variously categorized as ‘causing too much conflict’ or ‘too angry’ (see Post on Conflict Avoiders being the very ones that elicit most of the conflict to begin with).

Thus, Derek attributed all problems in relationships to the person he was with; he seemed to have little ability to look at his own contributions. Data Point: Sydney, so perspicacious when it comes to interpersonal relating, did acknowledge that information at various points and understood how important it was, but continued with Derek nonetheless; and she didn’t talk to him about how his attributing all negative emotions to the woman he’d be with could likely undermine their own relationship as well. Without discussing these things, Sydney gave herself no opportunity to see more clearly how he’d talk about and manage the issues and two, avert the kind of thing that ultimately happened.

He also did say that he thought he’d never really been in love…because he’d left the few women for whom he’d felt that strongly. (Data point: utterly self-evident – he’d already told her that he felt vulnerable by how strongly he felt for Sydney at first).

As Sydney was recognizing and piecing all of these data together, Derek was about to leave on a trip, but before he did he expressed unabashedly how deeply he felt, and how he didn’t want to leave her – even for the long weekend. When she told him how happy she was to hear that, he again ‘undid’ it a bit by reminding her “and I’m still aware of my old tapes”.

Though he specified some elaborate plans on how he’d be in contact with Sydney immediately (even though she didn’t expect it given the early nature of the relationship) he never did call her. Compounding that, he sent her a few filler/throwaway texts in the days following – instead of more honestly telling her that he was feeling a little frightened by the emerging intimacy and, therefore, his having failed to call her – which she’d have so much more appreciated

She understood that this was important data indeed, but by this point she was feeling anxiety to the extent that her own defense mechanisms started coming into play. In the process, while he was still away, she moved into her ‘I can leave him if I need to’ mode and wrote him an email that was fairly cool, telling him that she sensed he was ambivalent about them and that, “though they’d had a pretty nice time together, she wasn’t at all invested in the outcome” – and that they should just decide whether to keep going or end it. It was an unkind email, and rife with defensiveness. When he wrote her back a day later, he was clearly annoyed and told her he no longer knew where they were anymore. Shortly after that, he became more angrily resolute, telling her that she must be like his other girlfriends who took psychiatric medications – and must not have taken her meds the day she wrote the email (pretty shocking for Sydney to hear this given that he really did know on a deep level how emotionally mature she was).

Shortly thereafter, Derek ended the relationship without being willing to talk through the events; this despite Sydney’s quick apology, realizing how defensively she’d reacted. She’d requested that they at least take a look at what happened, whatever he had to decide in the end, but he refused. In so doing, Derek never had to deal with the conflict in him of wanting real closeness with Sydney while at the same time struggling with the discomfort that desire caused. Worse, he never came to understand that the very reason Sydney pulled back defensively in the first place was due to his own inability to deal more honestly and openly with the struggle – something that Sydney, in her strong ability to understand these things, could have helped him with. Hence, the recent statement that people who most fear conflict are often the ones most likely to create it.

In moving through the hurt and sadness this caused, Sydney saw that she’d ignored or not acted upon data that she should have – and made sure she would use that information going forward. Most people, in fact, when talking about their relationships post hoc do come to recognize that they’d seen a lot of the data early on.


More thoughts imminently on what to do with the data once you see it…


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