This blog post is an excerpt from the free bonus you will receive for ordering True Companions by Friday, February 12th at 5pmCST. See the end of this post for details about how to get the bonus before it goes away!
We fought all the way through our first Valentine’s dinner as a married couple.
My wife and I were penny-pinched clinical psychology graduate students at the time, and we’d decided to spend a month’s worth of grocery money on one dinner at a romantic little restaurant on the outskirts of campus. Our doctoral studies were immersing us in new concepts and theories, and she’d embraced cognitive-behavioral interventions as the most effective methods for therapeutic growth and change. I’d just taken a course on psychodynamics and, with the fervor of a religious convert, I scoffed at her, claiming that cognitive-behavioral theory barely scratched the surface of human problems and potential.
My wife has never and will never suffer a scoffing quietly.
She doubled down on her defense of cognitive-behavioral theory, this time with some fire in her eyes. In response, I doubled the magnitude of my scoff, lecturing her about the naïveté of overlooking our deep-seated drives and dreams. By the time the server delivered the stuffed mushrooms appetizer, our Valentine’s Day dinner more closely resembled a Valentine’s Day massacre.
I suppose you could write off that fight as the unfortunate consequence of mixing two nerds with some intoxicating ideas and a couple glasses of Cabernet. However, over the years—as a couples therapist and a companion of various kinds—I’ve realized there was something more significant at work that night. Specifically, we all have a part of us, deep down, that wants to be connected, but the rest of us just wants to be protected. We came into the world wired for true companionship, we got hurt, and so we developed ways of protecting ourselves from the additional hurt our companions might inflict upon us. And one of our most common forms of protection is competition.
In True Companions, I write, “Competition and connection—like anger and fear—are mutually exclusive intentions. You can’t be competitive and connective in the same moment. This truth isn’t always obvious. For instance, when Quinn’s soccer team is playing a game, they will quickly take a knee when a player on the field gets injured, a generous show of compassion. However, in the moment they take a knee, they quit competing. When play resumes, if they remain compassionate, they will be uncompetitive.” By its very nature, competition protects us from the risks—and rewards—of true connection.
And one of the most common forms of competition is arguing about who is right and who is wrong.
This morning, I was reading Matthew McConaughey’s memoir, Greenlights, in which he tells a story about touring Africa. He was sitting in a cafe with two African acquaintances when they began to discuss a complicated moral issue. At the first break in the conversation, McConaughey chimed in with his opinion about which one of them was right, and why. The man with whom he had agreed turned on him and admonished him, saying, “It is not about right or wrong, it is about, do you understand?” The man with whom he had disagreed then looked at him intensely and said, “Do you understand that?”
Do we understand that true companionship is almost never about who is right and who is wrong but about, do we understand each other?
McConaughey’s story made me think about Jesus. It seems much of the Old Testament was about right and wrong. Which foods you can and can’t eat. Which things you can and can’t do on the Sabbath. And of course those ten ultimate commandments, amongst other things. Then, the entire New Testament is about, do you understand? Does God understand? Does the Divine understand what it’s like to live in human skin, to hunger and to thirst, to be beloved and to be betrayed, to be exalted and to be shamed, to gather together with your companions and experience one of the most simple and sacred of human moments, the breaking of bread together?
This afternoon, we received Quinn’s remote learning grades for the second quarter. The kid usually gets As, and there wasn’t a single one to be found on the report card. I immediately got worried, about him, about his future, about my role or lack thereof in his poor performance. Then, I got angry, because for two months he’d left us with the impression he was doing all of his work. I wanted to tell him what he’d done wrong, and what was right.
Fortunately, McConaughey’s story and the Jesus story were still on my mind.
I asked Quinn to go for a walk and talk, instead. By the time we reached the end of the driveway, he was in full protection mode, expecting a debate about right and wrong and a competition about the severity of his consequences. Instead, I asked him to help me understand what happened. Eventually, as he began to trust my intentions, he opened up. He confessed to taking the easy route at times. He admitted to being overwhelmed by the digital deluge. He realized he’d gotten caught up in groupthink about which remote assignments were worth doing and which weren’t. By the end of the night, I understood him better, and he understood himself better.
On the verge of another Valentine’s Day, Quinn and I both traded protection for connection. As a result, he lost some of his screen privileges until his grades are improved, but he understands why and he understands what to do about it. And I understand my son a little more, which is like the good kind of arrow right through my heart. No Valentine’s Day massacre in our family this year.
Just truer companionship.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.