Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"Want to learn how to succeed in life? Ask a loser."

I take it that it's pretty obvious that is bad advice. At least it is when you put it baldly like that. And yet, the formulation is so tempting:
Want great marriage advice? Ask a divorced person.
That's the opening of a piece by Elizabeth Bernstein in The Wall Street Journal. And it's just strange. Maybe because it's in the WSJ it acquires a weight it wouldn't otherwise have. I don't know. We could put it differently: "See that bitter, unhappy person over there? She failed at marriage and she could teach you a lot about how to make yours work."

Bernstein's argument, which she takes from Terri Orbuch, "a psychologist, research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research", is that divorced people sit down and analyze their experience in an attempt to learn from their mistakes and we can all learn from paying attention to what they have to say.

Some of what she has to say is, in fact, good advice. And some is not. But I think there is a deeper problem here and that it is that she focuses on changing behaviours rather than changing who you are.

It's an open question whether anybody learns much from their mistakes but the first reservation I have is that I am especially doubtful that divorced people learn much from their mistakes. (As a group that is; there will, of course, be individual exceptions.) The divorce rate for second marriages is much higher than the divorce rate for first marriages. And you would think that if there were lessons to be learned from observing marriage failures that the children of divorced parents would know them but children of divorced parents are much more likely to divorce than children of parents who did not divorce.

All of which says that if you really want to succeed at marriage, or anything else, your best bet is to find someone who succeeded and model yourself on them.

But we don't want to do that do we? These days we tell ourselves that we want to succeed at things but we want to do it on our own terms. We want the marriage but we don't want to be like the people who have the successful marriage.  The problem was well put by Leslie Loftis: "The old advice focused on how to be a good woman. The new advice, however, focuses on how not to be a bad person." Tell someone that they have to model themselves on successful role model and you are telling them they have to change who and what they are. No one wants to do that, so we prefer to seek out advice about how to simply replace our bad habits with good habits.

To get back to my main point, how can you put advice such as the following into practice:
Communication style is the No. 1 thing the study's divorced individuals said they would change in the next relationship (41% said they would communicate differently). 
Notice first how the scope has been narrowed down by the expression "communication style". The implication is quite clear: "You don't have to change yourself, you just have to change the way you say things". That's not completely crazy because the way to change yourself is begin by changing the things you do. But it needs to be clear right from the start that we are aiming to change ourselves.

There is a huge difference between, "I want to stop acting like a bitch," and "I want to stop being a bitch". To embrace the first is to effectively say, "I think I am just fine, I just want to change a few things about how this otherwise fine person behaves" The second starts with a profound self accusation.

The outward behaviour that goes with the two approaches will look pretty similar. To stick with my example, the person who doesn't want to be a bitch doesn't click her heels together three times and think how much she wants it. She begins by acting the part of what she wants to be. Fake it until you make it. But the goal is different and that is important.

More to come ...

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