Facebook Like


Friday, January 13, 2012

Progress Not Perfection

This might be a spoiler if you didn’t see last Sunday’s Desperate Housewives.

We’ve been watching Tom and Lynette fight for years, and now that Tom is successful in advertising, he’s leaving her. He has found the perfect woman, someone who doesn't criticize him, who thinks he’s marvelous, and loves him just the way he is.

And she's a doctor, no less.

The couple is separated for several months, and a crisis brings Tom home. He helps Lynette through it and it is clear that the two of them are getting along, even seem happy together. Tom suggests he bring home a pizza and a DVD, that the family does pizza and TV night like they used to do in the past. Lynette jumps on the opportunity to be a family again. The children aren’t thrilled with his educational DVDs, but they go along.

The pizza is ripped open. Lynette makes a face. She doesn’t eat deep dish. She’s been telling him for years that she likes thin crust. He hasn’t been listening to her and she tells him as much. He tells her that this is exactly what he’s talking about, that nothing he does is good enough, he shouldn’t have even tried. She responds by saying that by now, after so many years, it wouldn't kill him to actually listen to her. She needs validation, too. He could care about what she wants. It would be a nice change.

He hands her the point, says he’ll try harder to do that.

An "Ah ha" moment. And she doesn't even have to get to the source, the reason why he ignores things she says, why he doesn't attend to her needs. But this is progress.


That’s television. In reality, people have reasons for not listening and it's nice to bring the unconscious to consciousness. That's called psychological growth, or insight.

The reason I like most is that not listening is associated with narcissism, being unable to see beyond what we want, seeing our needs as primary. For example, in any addiction (and you could say we all have one) the addict is dysfunctional because he disregards the needs and wants of everyone else in order to get his drugs, his drink, sex, whatever. It doesn’t matter, the promises. What matters is satisfying a craving.

Immature? Narcissistic? Sick? The 12-Step programs probably go with sick and selfish. Older 12-Steppers, people who have been sober for years, bop new addicts over the head, tell them, Grow up, be a human being. It works sometime.

The addiction metaphor is only good because addicts are selfish by definition. It can be true in mental illness, too. People don’t have to be, and that’s what recovery is all about. Rising above all that self-absorption and pain.

But take someone like Tom Savo, the guy who doesn't think to keep his wife’s preferences in mind, even when the two seem to be reconciling, a guy who isn’t an addict. I want to say that in his excitement, coming home, bringing home the pizza that makes him happy (and we can assume the children, too) he simply forgets to have her in mind. Oh yes, and a few slices of thin crust for my wife. He missed it, the opportunity.

If that is all it is, being excited, forgetting, it isn't even that dysfunctional. What is dysfunctional is when her needs are never important. When it is systematic, when forgetting his wife is a regular problem. He takes her for granted, doesn't bring home the thin crust because she hasn't made a big enough issue out of it. And even if she does, complaining makes him feel rejected, unloved, and angry, so it is likely to trigger defensiveness and an argument.

The real dysfunction is not when one partner forgets what the other wants, it is when the other's wants are dismissed. Lynette is never really in the picture. Without empathy, without feeling her sense of rejection, he can't address it.

Our relationships go to garbage without empathy.

How does a person get this way? Why are some people more empathetic, more considerate than others? You could say breeding, surely, and you would be half right. Parents can teach children to share, to care about others. It's more important than teaching them to be sure to flush, although that's a two for one. But self-centeredness is functional might help us accomplish things, meet our goals, sometimes. Being goal oriented, keeping our eyes on the prize (or just winning a game) to the exception of all else, others (who distract), we get more done. Or so it seems. There's surely loss, however, when others feel excluded, a social price.

So it could be nature, survival of the fittest. Selfishness could be something Darwin talks about. I haven’t read enough to know, but that makes sense to me.

Take a different example. A guy’s parents are very controlling. He grows up and is determined to run his own life, to finally have it his way. He marries a woman who is giving and selfless, reinforcing his need to put himself first. Except that she does have needs, and when she asserts, he ignores her.

But it depends upon the need, whether or not he ignores her. If it is for something permanent, perhaps a new dress, something she will look at in the future and think, Oh, he gave that to me, what a wonderful husband, it’s a go. He buys it for her. But if it’s something temporary, like a vacation, something intangible, he forgets. He learns that some memories are permanent. It is why we take pictures.

This couple frequently winds up in therapy, and beyond going back to childhood to determine the roots of selfishness, some of us push that 12-Step adage, Progress Not Perfection, because frankly, if we strive for perfection we we're going to be frustrated. We might even give up.

therapydoc

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, you hit it head on! I am the woman you described in the couple at the end of your article. My needs are ignored and his behavior is due to a controlling parents. His mantra is that no one will ever control him or tell him what to do.The odd thing is that he completely denies his disfunctional childhood. We are in marriage counceling and this denial makes it impossible for him to recognize his behavior as being selfish and destructive to our relationship. What now?

therapydoc said...

Unbelievably common. This type of person wants approval so badly, that saying something negative about mom or dad isn't even in their vocab.

I know it sounds ridiculous. Remind me to blog on the denial of dysfunction in families of origin. (I can't believe I haven't, but it's worth a second look).

It has to do with stigma, but also loyalty. We call it invisible loyalty.

Therapists throw it into the resistance bucket.

Adrian said...

When two people are no longer listening to each other, their relationship is pretty much over. Tom could have vailadted Lynette's feelings but dismissed her because he has moved on with his life. It is his loss. He will get everything that he wants but at very huge personal costs. Lynette also has to accept equal responsibility for matriomonial failures since she elected not listen to Tom. They are both at fault.

therapydoc said...

Thanks Adrian, remains to be seen if he gets what he wants. I tell people it ain't over until the last signature is signed.

shaya g said...

1. nitpicking - scavo, not savo.

2. "and now that Tom is successful in advertising, he’s leaving her". I take issue with this summary. He isn't leaving NOW that he is successful. Now that he is successfull, lynette became even more jealous of his growing independence and made life even more intolerable for tom so he left. The way you worded it made him sound like a typical callous man who leaves one wife for another when he became successful. the story though was that lynette couldn't handle his success and grew jealous and therefor more critical and controlling - see episode where she decorates his office - and so he finally had the ability to leave. YET, he drops everything to come "home" and help when there is a crisis.

just my take on the show and your description.

therapydoc said...

I'm sure you're right, don't watch these shows carefully and miss a lot of dialogue because the treadmill is really loud. I'm pretty sure he comes home to help because he loves her and assumes she'll appreciate him for being there. Oh, we should talk more about this. There's the whole ACOA thing we haven't even touched!

Kris said...

I watched the show regularly. Tom relied on Lynette running the show for decades. There were advantages to her desire to run the show that he enjoyed. She was the strong rock who could be counted on to have his back when he chased a dream and could keep it together for the family if he failed. She was the bad cop who could tell the kids no when needed so he didn't have to be the bad guy. Even the fact he's successful the credit she deserved for that isn't there. Never once was it mentioned he appreciated the fact he was discovered in her old job and it could have just as easily been her.

Kris said...

I watched the show regularly. Tom relied on Lynette running the show for decades. There were advantages to her desire to run the show that he enjoyed. She was the strong rock who could be counted on to have his back when he chased a dream and could keep it together for the family if he failed. She was the bad cop who could tell the kids no when needed so he didn't have to be the bad guy. Even the fact he's successful the credit she deserved for that isn't there. Never once was it mentioned he appreciated the fact he was discovered in her old job and it could have just as easily been her.

Kris said...

Thing is Tom wasn't very independent previously. The character Lynette did have a controling personality, but her tv hubby relied on it for decades and even benefited from it. Many times she was there to run the show and have his back when he went after his dream(s). She could catch him if he fell. She also was there to take care of the yucky stuff he didn't care to deal with and be the bad cop. Yes, he went through changes, but Lynette went through a lot with him getting to that place and deserved some patience adjusting to them as well. You don't just snap your fingers and change a trait that has actually been helpful quite a few times that carried you through 2 decades.

Anonymous said...

I think Lynette might have had a better reaction to Tom's success if
1. He wasn't so pompus about it.
2. He recognized and appreciated her for her role in making it possible. (Being by his side through the less successful times for 2 decades. The fact that it literally could have just as easily been her because he was in the right place at the right time in her old job she didn't take back after their last baby was born.) None of that was acknowledged.

therapydoc said...

See, I always thought so, too. I loved her character, how she sucked it up, mainly, did all of the dirty work and let him be her happy hubby. Not that he wasn't capable, or even smarter in some ways, but she got her hands dirty while he chased dreams (pizza, anyone?).

Anyway, we're all glad they worked it out, aren't we?