On dating men with “potential”

At age 49 and a half I would have saved your essay, printed it out, and put it on the fridge. At that time I was in a marriage with a person I loved beyond anything. But he was not fulfilling his potential in any way. He made me miserable. Although he actively tried to change for 2 decades, he simply could not.

At age 49 years and 11 months, we threw in the towel. Lawyers were called, divorce proceedings initiated.

Then the strangest thing happened. I observed my capable 5th grade student with special needs solve a problem from beginning to end. My student’s solution caused him to engage in what psychologists call oppositional defiant behavior, a classic potential sapper.

But I realized this boy, who was ALWAYS in trouble at school, was not being oppositional or defiant in the least, even though he broke school rules to manifest his solution. This boy was simply managing the information at hand in the ways he was cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally able to do so. I realized at that time his behaviors did not do anything and could not be the point around which I judged him. His behaviors were simply involuntary responses to the decisions he worked out in his head in the ways his kind of intelligence and past experiences allowed him to.

Suddenly, I had a new definition for what it meant to be a human being and I had a new definition for the term potential. I decided potential is a word I will only in the future use for inanimate objects. Like, what is the potential a Toyota will get better gas mileage than a Ford?

I stopped judging my students according to their alleged potential, something I could never validly comment upon from the vantage point of my personal brain. I decided referring to people in terms of their potential, or their unfulfilled potential, was a violation of their personal rights.

I realized then I had been commented upon my whole life in terms of how others perceived my personal potential from the vantage point of their personal brains. And I realized how violating this had been to me.

After watching my student make sense of information in the ways he was ABLE to, and how differently he made sense of information than I did, because of how different a thinker he was than me, I realized the ways in which we comment on the decisions of other people is confusing, nonsensical, and damaging because we all make sense of information so uniquely. My brain is wired to make sense of information optimally for my senses, my physical capacities, my intelligence level, my size, weight, depth perception, eye hand coordination, visual acuity, short and long term memory capacities, processing speed, etc. My brain is not wired to know about the potential that allegedly does or does not exist inside the brains and bodies of other people.

But I was raised to believe I should have more to know and say about the potential of others than about myself. I was raised to understand the mechanics of my own brain backwards of what I should have. I realized after observing my student that I had only ever learned to understand my own personal thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and decisions in terms of how they would impact other people. Therefore, I only learned to understand other people in terms of how their personal thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and decisions impacted me.

I called my then estranged husband the night after I made these intellectual connections. Within 48 hours our acrimonious 27 year marriage of misery and fighting was repaired. After I started talking about our brain mechanics and how we had been taught to misperceive how our brains actually should be working, he totally got what I was talking about and we have been a blissful couple for 4 straight years at this point. Because of our backwards wiring, for 27 years I was processing what my husband said and did as if I said and did it and vice versa.

In the past, when I discussed my husband not fulfilling his potential, I was really saying, here is how your personal decision making strategies are not fulfilling for me. I was equating how I wanted him to behave with what his personal potential actually was.

It took me about a year to relearn how to interpret information from my own perspective. I had to unlearn the habit of constantly trying to figure out how I believed other people were expecting me to interpret information in order to fulfill their expectations. I also had to unlearn the habit of expecting other people to interpret information in the ways I was expecting them to. Thinking back on how I used to fixate on how my husband should behave now seems creepy and extremely distorted to me.

Now I understand that all people are completely separate from me and my personal brain, so much so that commenting on the personal thoughts, emotions, or behaviors of others feels like a violation to their human rights. Because of these ideas, I am much less affected by comments other people make about me. A friend might say something like, “Karen, you really need to wear tighter clothes. It seems you are hiding behind baggy clothes because you lack self esteem.” Such a comment might have made me defensive, upset, angry, or filled with self-doubt in the past. Today, such a comment wouldn’t even register in my brain. Understanding my own brain mechanics has made me treat judgements from others as meaningless white noise. I am not immune by any means, but I am much, much less impacted by commentary from others.

I also started to notice when we don’t understand how personal our brain mechanics are, we parent each other like crazy. It is not just women who had immature addicts for parents who parent and over-nurture. It is everyone.

We all parent others because our brains are little dictators. Whatever we think is right, we have fiercely important reasons for thinking so. I have never met a human who takes his or her own opinions lightly. Our brain is wired to protect, defend, and promote its opinions because that is how we orient safely and sanely in space and time. Understanding how much of a dictatorial bossy pants my brain is has helped me manage my brain better. I try to manage myself instead of others and I don’t let others manage me any more.

We women especially have been TAUGHT that our need to parent is due to some psychological weirdness in us due to dysfunctional childhoods. We are made to feel inadequate for being ‘over nurturing’ and men are made to feel inadequate for not not fulfilling their potential.

If we simply reframe how we understand our own brains, then the words we used to describe our decision making will become less punitive and diminishing and our strategies for being in relationships will change. Also, when relationships don’t work, instead of figuring our which psychological problems one or both partners have, we will have the option to just say, we no longer wanted to be together and leave it at that.

One in four to five people suffer a mental illness each year. I believe this is largely due to the application of misinformation perpetuated by the field of psychology. Nonetheless, it is near impossible to enter relationships with people who are issue free. Instead of blaming ourselves for being misguided for being in relationships with people we judge defective after the fact, we can instead treat ourselves and others with more human dignity by accepting our humanity with humility rather than righteousness.

Understanding my brain mechanics without the punitive and demeaning narrative psychology has provided has helped me reframe how I understand everything about myself and other people. As a result, my own personal life and my relationships have become more fulfilling. Psychological misinformation wreaked havoc on my own personal happiness until I was 50 years old. Figuring our how to weed out the misinformation was the best thing I ever did.