The Drama Review (June 23, 2017)

Dear I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it drama participants,

I travel around the country conducting a seminar on manipulators, that fetching group we refer to in this weekly letter as “drama people.” I tell my audiences the same things I’ve explained here—that we’re all flawed, that our flaws show up most clearly in close relationships, and that drama people lack the abilities to do the right things with personal wrongness.  I tell them that if you’re unclear about your shortcomings, get married.  Because in the closeness of that contact, your flaws become most evident.  The person you marry is like a full-length mirror in which you catch reflections of your positive and negative attributes. It’s like having no idea there’s glump of spinach on your front teeth until you look in the mirror.  Marriage—as are other close relationships—is that mirror.

Just this week, an attendee came up to me this week during a break and asked if I’d ever heard this:

Getting married is like putting Miracle Grow on your character flaws.

She said I could use that quote so here I am using it, probably sooner than she thought. Thanks, friend.

This week and next, we’re looking at the fifth of the abilities that reasonable, normally-wired people use to make their relationships work well.  These abilities are like muscles that get stronger with use.  Drama people have atrophied reason muscles. The reliability muscle enables the stance: when I’m wrong, I’ll change.  But the drama person, having an atrophied reliability muscle, takes the stance: I’ll not change because I’m not wrong.

I’d like to cite once again that legendary sage of Sixties sitcoms, Ward Cleaver. (If you read The Drama Review from May 26th, this will sound familiar to you). Drama person, Eddie Haskel, had been doing what Eddie did so well—driving Wally crazy with his manipulative ways. Attempting to provide Wally with a workable alternative to assault and battery, Ward says, “Wally, do you really think beating Eddie up will change him?

Wally: No.  But gee, Dad. What is going to change him?

Ward: You take a guy like Eddie and the kind of attitude he has and it seems like nothing’s ever going to change him.  And then, just when you’re about to give up on him, he wakes up one morning and just can’t stand himself any longer.  That’s when he starts to change.

Wally: Does that always happen?

Ward: No, it doesn’t always happen, Wally.  And that’s the tragedy of it.  But, for Eddie’s sake, we need to hope that it happens.

I know, I know. It’s a dumb TV show.  But it does capture so very well an important distinction between normal people and drama people. Normal people see their flaws, are bothered by them, and become motivated to change.  Drama people overlook their flaws, are therefore unbothered by them, and stay tragically the same.

A normal person looks in the mirror, sees the spinach on his teeth, and removes it.  A drama person refuses to look in the mirror so the spinach stays in place.

A concept I’ve learned from one of my officemates is that of the distinction between first-order change and second-order change.  Stated simply, first order change means that you change because you’re made to. Second-order change means that you change because you want to.

The motivations for first-order change are external.  Things from the outside causes the change to occur and if those external factors were to be removed, the change would disappear.  The motivations for second-order change, on the other hand, have become internalized so that the change remains even after the external factors are removed.  First-order change is fleeting. Second-order change is enduring.

The normally-wired person wakes up and just can’t stand himself any longer and, as Ward Cleaver said, “that’s when he starts to change.”  But the drama person experiences no such internal motivation.  He may change temporarily if he gets in trouble (an external factor) but goes right back to the previous misbehavior once he’s no longer in trouble.

I have a good friend who was once bilked out of a significant amount of money by a shyster, a wolf who carefully concealed himself under sheep’s clothing. When my friend discovered the scam, he confronted the shyster who then broke down and wept like a baby, promising to make amends for the offence.  Guess what happened.  The shyster went out the very next day and ran exactly the same scam on someone else.  When this came to light, my friend made a succinct observation: he repents and repeats.  When the pressure was on, he repented.  When the pressure eased up, he repeated.  That’s first order change.

There’s statement I often hear that drips with first-order change sentiment: “If Mom ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.”  I talked about that in my ebook, Marriage Myths:

Another version of this myth is, “Happy wife, happy life.”  The assumption underlying this clichéd chestnut is that if a guy can simply crack the code for what it takes to keep his wife content—you know, that wife who perpetually teeters on the brink of discontent—then they’ll have a great marriage. 
It expresses a view that’s cynical and quite condescending: “Just figure out what she wants and do it. That way she’ll shut up and stop her griping. And if she’s not griping, we’re all happy.”  
I had a man in my office once whose wife had insisted he talk to someone about his marital muteness.  He was quite chatty about most things, but when it came to personal, relational subjects, he was wordless.  That was my experience with him as well.  Talk about pulling teeth. I’m not sure he would have opened up more if I had water-boarded him.
I asked him to tell me what happened when he had problems with his wife—like differences of opinion, misunderstandings, etc. Here’s what he said: “Hey, I’ve just learned that if Mom ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” 
That sounds noble, like he’s being driven by genuine concern for his wife’s emotional well-being.  But it’s actually a self-serving way to chicken out of facing conflict.  He’s thinking less about her and more about his own need to avoid potentially difficult conversations. 
This way of relating is predicated upon the erroneous assumption that the absence of arguing leads to relational harmony. The less said, the better, the thinking goes.  But this husband’s conflict avoidance stance had precisely the opposite effect—it created disharmony and diminished the marital warmth. They never worked anything out. He simply ran up the white flag of surrender every time they hit a snag, figuring it’s better to just go along to get along.  But that didn’t make her happy; it made her frustrated.  And, by the way, he wasn’t exactly wracked with jocularity about it either.

Next week, I’ll explain how first-order change morphs into second-order change. How externally-based ideas become internalized.  How beliefs become convictions.  How one moves from believing something simply because other people believe it to the personal owning of those ideas.

I think (hope) you’ll find it quite interesting.  See you then.