Friday, June 22 , 2018, 6:03 pm | Partly Cloudy 65º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 122) — E Is for Early Experience

Oblique Divorce Strategy #18 — SEE the origin of overly emotional reaction: E is for Early Experience.

SEE is an acronym that generates explanations for why a person has had an emotional overreaction to another person or event. The overreaction may be either positive or negative. The acronym doesn’t supply a definition for “emotional overreaction,” so whether an emotional response is excessive is determined by the person who is having it.

The acronym is a heuristic or rule of thumb that can jump-start rational thought for someone in the grip of emotion. The metaphor of the restraining grip is particularly apt for describing extreme emotion.

The acronym comes from David Richo, a teacher, psychologist, former Roman Catholic Priest, original thinker and prolific writer (Amazon's list of his publications shows just how prolific he is).

What follows is my understanding of a small fraction of Richo’s teaching. It is offered as a pragmatic suggestion for suffering less and learning more during the course of divorce.

No basis in science is claimed; it either helps you or it doesn’t. The term “Richoean” is used to designate my probably incomplete and possibly incorrect understanding of what Richo has said or written.

SEE represents these three possible causes of excess emotionality:

» In the Jungian sense, shadow is based on the notion that there are important human characteristics that exist in opposing pairs, in which one half is dominant and the weaker part is the shadow.

The most familiar pair is extraversion and introversion. A strong extravert has some introverted tendencies as part of their shadow. The recognition and realization of shadow potential contributes to mental health, personal growth and wholeness.

» Ego is a slippery word that demands definition whenever it’s used. Here, ego is who you think you are right now. It is different from your self, which is who you really are.

Part of the ego is consistent with the self and part of the ego is not consistent with the self. For clarity, we can refer to the true ego (consistent with self) and the false ego (in opposition to self).

The false ego is part of who you think you are, but it’s the phony in everyman and everywoman. The false self fights dirty for its own survival, and it’s a source of personal mischief.

» Early experience means just what it says. It is something from early childhood that messes with our emotional reactions and renders them excessive and unreliable.

Each of these three potential causes of emotional excess will be presented as a separate Oblique Divorce Strategy, beginning below with E is for Early Experience. Mom is the usual, but not the only, suspect.

Rob Loves Mary: So Much and So Fast, Too Much and Too Fast

Rob and Mary, both in their late twenties, came to me for help with a prenuptial agreement (PNA). When I asked Rob to tell me what he thought I should know about him, Mary and their relationship, his first words were: “I found a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad.”

I recognized the clever statement as a lyric from an old song, and it turned out to be an apt summary of the way he understood Mary and their relationship.

Rob said, for him, it was “love at first sight,” and that Mary reminded him of his mother, Marian, in many ways, including her physical resemblance to Marian at the same age.

Marian died two years before and left a substantial estate. Rob received two-thirds; his brother and sister received the other third. Rob was the favored child, and he had plenty of money to live very comfortably for the rest of his life. Work would always be optional.

Rob and Mary have been together for three months. The PNA is his idea. Mary was proud to be self-supporting and had not yet accumulated a significant estate of her own. Rob was proud that he and Mary got each other so well.

Although I met with them more often than most couples, they did not complete the PNA. (I estimate that about 50 percent of the couples who start work on a PNA actually complete it.) It appeared to me that with each meeting Rob and Mary got each other less and less.

The tipping point was propagation. Mary assumed they would procreate, and she didn’t seem to notice Rob’s evasions every time the subject came up.

A PNA must directly address the question of existing and possible future children. The agreements I draft state the facts and expectations with respect to children in the introductory Recitals on page one or two.

Over time I brought the conversation around to the subject of children multiple times before Mary saw through her own assumptions to Rob’s evasions and demanded a clear expression of his intent. She didn’t get one, and to her credit she said, “I’m not going to live with that.” It was how our last meeting concluded.

When Rob sent me a check he included a note that said, “She wasn’t the person I thought she was.”

It must have been a painful and confusing experience for him (and for Mary). He’s left asking himself: What happened? Will it happen again? and What can I do to prevent it?

The hypothesis suggested by the acronym is that his early experience with his mother is causing an emotional short circuit in the present, resulting in his mistaking a living woman for his dead mother.

This issue isn’t about whether it’s good or bad to marry “a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad” or whether a woman should take on that role.

The issue is the projection of an identity onto a stranger and falling in love with that projection rather than a person you know, always imperfectly, on the basis of evidence, including what she says about herself, over a sufficient period of time.

He’s Your Boss, Not Your Father!

More than twenty years ago, I had a single conversation with Johan, a Norwegian mathematician. He said two things that were so memorable that I can reconstruct the rest of the conversation around them. The first line was, “I didn’t become a man until I was 57 and had to bathe my own father.”

Johan explained that when a boy grows up in the presence of his much bigger and much more powerful father, the patterns of behavior they create serve as templates the son has for dealing with other men for the rest of his life.

Over time the son will adapt his templates to work with personalities different from his father. He may even be able to make major modifications to the templates so they take into account that the boy has become a man. If he can’t make these adjustments, he might be able to plug along in his dealings with other men by using his relationship with his father as his only model.

Johan did this for most of his adult life. He took it a step further, and it was in the wrong direction.

When he treated a man of his father’s generation as he treated his father, he expected a fatherly response. He rarely got it, so he’d be hurt and disappointed.

Because these aren’t “masculine emotions,” he converted them to anger and resentment and behaved accordingly. “I was always feuding with guys older than and senior to me. Men I wanted as mentors wanted nothing to do with me.”

The circumstances leading up to the bath are not significant. The father was old and sick; he needed to be bathed and Johan was the only person available. He and his father spoke very little during the bath, and they never spoke of it again. He met with his father once more before his father died a year after the bath.

Johan said that he thinks that after the bath he and his father were at peace with each other even though they never had an emotional or personal conversation. After the bath, Johan treated all men differently and his career got something of a kick-start.

The second line I recall was Johan’s determination to experience the same deep peace with his own sons, which he hoped to accomplish without the bath.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #19 — SEE the cause of your overly emotional reaction to a person or event: E is for ego.

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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