When I write these columns I work to a formula. It goes something like this. Think about something, for example, a stupid thing I have done, and admit it. Then think of a smart-alec psychological excuse for it, and write that down. Then promise never to do it again, then file it. The various bits of process in my life are rendered harmless in this way. It is a kind of psychic enema, a twenty-first century confessional.
However, the more astute amongst you (which is all of you, because you can use a computer) will have guessed that behind this simple formula, I have dug myself into a bit of a hole. This trap boils down to the fact that I have unwisely entered into a number of legal entanglements that require me to be mildly irritating to people who are close to me and who have done me no harm. Being irritating as such has never been hard for me, hence a string of angry ex-partners, parents who woefully shake their head, and so on.
Those of you with training in family therapy will also realise that I have made, in my opinion, both a rather clever move and, indeed, a stout rod for my own back. In the first place, any piece of ignorance I now dream up will be artistically necessary for the furtherance of my column, and therefore not my fault. In the second place, by having a legal obligation to be a pain I have entered the netherworld of the “be spontaneous paradox” (BSP).
As a psychologist, nature and nurture have conspired to make me unable to answer any question given to me with a simple yes or no (I have to go around the houses). Secondly it is in the collective nature of psychologists to announce the obvious to the world with scientific gravitas:
“Research shows that children do not like being smacked.”
“Research shows that most women sometimes have aggressive feelings towards irritating partners.”
Thirdly, having named a process we often render it as initials (three-letter abbreviations, TLAs). By compressing it thus, it is easier to throw around at scientific meetings; think of it as a linguistic paperball.
The BSP is a very useful idea, not just in the heady world of therapeutics, but in the real world of relationships. The BSP happens when person number one, who is the person in charge (PIC) requests of person number two, who is the underdog (TUD) that they display an emotion or behaviour which should typically be displayed spontaneously. I know you would like an example. Suppose my partner who may (purely for the sake of argument) feel a tad insecure, temporarily doubts my deep affection for her. She might say something like “Show me that you love me”; innocent enough. Except that all kinds of neural pathways in my brain now go into gridlock. The display of love is something that arises from within my soul like a great tidal wave, sweeping me up in passion and excitement. When asked to be spontaneous, my responses lack the emotional resonance that are needed to be truly convincing; sometimes I weakly say, “Of course I love you, darling.” This, sadly, reinforces any lingering insecurities that PIC might have; she may perceive my response as evidence that I am considering becoming team psychologist to the Icelandic women’s beach volleyball team or some such.
When faced with this situation I find that a quick explanation of the BSP to partner usually does the trick. If, that is, the trick is to make things far worse.
Experience has the edge on psychology and it has proved to be far better to be theatrical. I rush over arms outstretched: “That you could ever doubt my love! Oh kitten lamb!” (she likes cats and sheep). This is not about being insincere, but about interpreting meanings and displaying a reassuring response. When she says:
“Look at the state of my bum!”
I interpret this as:
“I am insecure and need to be reassured.”
Bad replies to this question include things like:
“Gosh yes, I see what you mean!” or “Liposuction has become inexpensive now, you know.”
Better replies include:
“I don’t think it is your bum, it’s those trousers.”
But overkill never works. In any case the ability to be an effective embarrassment is premised on the maintenance of a safe secure domestic environment. Calls from Reykjavik are not forthcoming nor, indeed, welcome in these parts.
Have you ever had a problem finding the right thing to say to your partner? Why not comment and tell us about it?