by John Lightner
When we endeavor to heal from any major crisis or trauma, the power is most definitely in the process of that journey. This week we will dissect three differing approaches we tend to utilize in our efforts.
Identify which character you MOST relate to. You may even notice all three tendencies in you or your spouse. Remember, if we can’t take ownership and accept where we are, we’ll never get where we want to go.
Am I inept at having a healthy relationship? Not at all, but my own defects of character certainly sabotaged my efforts. Mastery of anything, whether it’s a musical instrument, an athletic sport, a professional skill or a relationship takes time, patience and a willingness to stick to our goal even when the rewards don’t seem to come. Learning anything takes ongoing effort and practice even when you’re on a plateau where it seems nothing is happening.
In George Leonard’s book “Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment” he suggests the reason we tend to fail is our resistance to continuing on when our efforts don’t produce the immediate results we desire. We fail to recognize that mastery isn’t getting it right or having finally arrived, rather mastery is about the process or the journey. It’s about a willingness to get on the path and stick with it, even when it feels as if no progress is being made. In a culture of quick fixes and immediate gratification, the process of mastery is counter to what we’ve been taught to expect. Quick fixes and immediate gratification actually prevent us from developing the necessary skills for a solid relationship and threaten the stability of our families.
I spent far more time trying to master my guitar than I ever did trying to master my relationship with Stephanie. It was normal for me to spend at least an hour a day practicing scales and learning new music. Had I spent as much time developing relational skills, I can only imagine the profound impact it would’ve had on my marriage. What would’ve happened if Stephanie and I spent an hour a day practicing heartfelt listening or learning how to communicate concern and compassion during difficult conversations? What if we practiced the skill of communicating respect as we spoke with one another? Instead we assumed things would just work out and falsely believed that if they didn’t it was a failure on my mate’s part, not mine. I had yet to learn that my mate is never my problem; my mate only reveals the problem in me.
Leonard points out that growth is not a simple linear progression. As we try to master anything such as the guitar, a sport, or recovery from infidelity there are always plateaus where it seems no progress is being made. Learning occurs in stages and time is required for new knowledge to be integrated into our belief system. We’d love to be able to snap our fingers and have our spouse instantly get it, but it just doesn’t work that way. It’s not until we’ve practiced each new skill for months before it begins to feel natural. For mastery you have to continue intentionally practicing that new skill, working at perfecting your style, if you ever want to master it. If ground is to be gained, you must view the plateaus, not as a sign that you’re stuck, but as a necessary step to long-term change and integration. For mastery you have to practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice rather than getting frustrated while on a plateau. Leonard identifies three characters whom struggle with the road to mastery: the dabbler, the obsessive, and the hacker, who go through life and in our case here, recovery, their own way rather than choosing a course of mastery. See if you identify with any of these characters.
“The Dabbler” approaches each new sport, career, or relationship with enthusiasm and loves the first stage of starting something new. When they see spurts of progress or reward they are thrilled and can’t wait to show friends and family what they’ve accomplished. They’re the ones who can’t wait for the next lesson to continue their progress. The fall from that initial peak of growth shocks and disorients them. The plateaus of growth are unacceptable. For the dabbler, if you are not being rewarded by continued progress your enthusiasm will wane and boredom will set in. The dabbler specializes in the honeymoon stage and loves the feelings generated as they share their life story and the ensuing validation from their partner. When the excitement generated by first experiences begins to cool they begin looking around for something else. They are like an eternal kid, always looking for the next adventure or novelty, but though partners change they still remain the same.
“The Obsessive” is a bottom-line type of person who refuses to be second best. What’s important are quick results, and they’re constantly looking for the validation of how well they’ve done. In the beginning they are always reading books and attending seminars trying to achieve perfection at record pace. When the obsessive hits the inevitable plateau they simply redouble their efforts and may even be tempted to take shortcuts to get the desired results. Unlike the dabbler, when the passion in their marriage begins to cool they don’t look elsewhere, rather they try to maintain the passion at whatever the cost: extravagant gifts, romantic rendezvous, or erotic escalation. They see little reason for the plateau, and so the relationship swings back and forth between ecstasy and tragedy. The inevitable breakup results in a great deal of pain for both parties but does little in the way of learning and personal growth. When the obsessive is unable to maintain continual forward progress, the ensuing failure leaves them as well as their families hurt and ashamed that their efforts couldn’t save the relationship.
“The Hacker” has a different perspective. This person doesn’t mind the plateau; in fact they’re willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely. They lack the necessary drive to achieve mastery through long term dedication. They don’t mind skipping the necessary steps for mastery. Their interest lies in hanging out with other hackers. “Good enough” is their motto. They are the teachers and professionals who don’t bother with professional meetings because they’re just interested in getting by. At work they do the minimum requirements, always leaving on time and taking all of their breaks and they’re confused as to why they don’t get promoted. In marriage they tend to be content with living as roommates. They are willing to settle for static monogamy, an arrangement in which both partners have clearly defined and unchanging roles, and in which marriage is primarily an economic and domestic institution. While that may serve as an ideal situation in their mind, rarely do they marry someone who’s satisfied with that arrangement.
Lifelong commitments are never truly mastered in a lifetime. It’s not a matter of how well we’re doing, it’s a matter of how well we’re working at what we’re doing. The dabbler, the obsessive and the hacker have to learn life isn’t about getting it right. The real goal is to stay focused on doing it right and to commit to continually practice the process of relating to one another. The dabblers, along with the obsessives, need realistic expectations. Life isn’t about a continual series of peaks; there are always valleys and plateaus on the journey. In fact, there would be no peak without the valley. Mastery in marriage is about continuing to intentionally do the work even when it seems nothing is changing. Refusing to accept mediocrity is essential for the hacker. A great relationship is an outcome, not a goal. To develop a great relationship you have to practice the process. It’s about practicing the behavior of respect, communicating concern, and developing empathy for each other.
Of course one person rarely fits any one stereotype perfectly, and it’s possible to exhibit characteristics of all three. However for the sake of personal growth these categories can help you identify what may stand in the way on your path to personal or marital recovery. Hopefully, your goal is to figure out how to move down your own path with new momentum and new resolve for the process of healing.