We all crave “the answer”.
What made a relationship with a friend end? What made a relationship with a significant other end? Why did (someone we know but don’t particularly like) end up with such a great partner? Why is school so hard? Why am I always the one who gets in trouble? Why don’t you ever yell at (insert sibling name here)? Why did I – or someone I care about – wind up with a chronic or terminal illness? Why am I alone? Why can’t people leave me alone? Why am I unhappy? Why don’t people believe in climate change?
So, what is the issue we need to consider? It is that there is no the; there is no one factor that could account for the event in question. The answer really rests in accepting that we must seek out answers.
Let’s start with a fun one. Why am I always the one who gets in trouble? We have all either said that as a child or heard a child say it. From the child’s point of view, it is a fact that he is the only one who gets in trouble. The reason he will give for that fact is that the parent favors the other sibling. Of course, parents see it very differently. Parents will say, “Yes, I do reprimand ________ more often because he/she is older, knows or should know better, is the one who takes it to an extreme, is the instigator…” In other words, the parent is considering multiple reasons. Why? Again, one might be tempted to give one reason, but I can think of a multitude of reasons: the parent has a broader view of the situation, the parent is older/wiser/more experienced, the parent is trying to justify their unfair practice. Yes, that last one is a bit of a game changer. It opens up an entirely different path of possible reasons for why something is happening.
Let’s consider another. What made a relationship with a significant other end? Over the years, I have had countless clients grapple with this question. Again, the search begins with a quest for the thing that went wrong. I was too pushy. They were selfish. They cheated. I was young. Drugs/alcohol. I wasn’t ready. The timing was off. Finances. He didn’t give me flowers. She gained a lot of weight. The sex wasn’t the same. I lost interest. We had kids. Monogamy isn’t natural.
Each one, at first glance, seems like a reasonable explanation. Once we consider the reason as reasonable, our search for understanding comes to a close. However, when we decide to examine the answer in greater depth, we quickly see that, once again, many paths emerge. For example, “I was pushy” leads to another question: Why were you pushy? The answer to that one can be: my needs were not being met; I felt like I was not a priority; our energy levels were very different; we enjoyed different things; we had different goals; I thought he/she was unmotivated. Each of these answers lead to further questions such as: Why would you want to be with someone who did not meet your needs? Or did it make you happy to be with someone who had a different energy level? What does it mean that they were unmotivated? Each question represents different problems and different categories of issues that would have had to be addressed in order to keep the relationship alive or justify its end. The questions represent the futility of looking for the reason.
I will add a little psychological science here too: correlations are a common tool used in the social sciences. A correlation represents an association between two variables/events. For example, there is a relationship between number of hours one studies and success on an exam. However, that is all we can say. We cannot say that number of hours studying causes success on an exam. It is tempting, but it is not what a correlation allows us to do. After all, a person can spend hours studying the wrong material and therefore do poorly. Or someone can spend hours studying, then become so anxious that one’s memory is negatively impacted and therefore performs poorly. Or a person can have an eidetic memory, not have to study at all, and do very well. It is far more productive to search for the multiple factors associated with success on an exam because causation is more likely to rest in the grouping of factors.
Why am I going on about this? Well, in part, because it demonstrates our desire for simplicity over complexity and for causation rather than association. To bring it back to our earlier examples, a child associates getting in trouble with a parent favoring a sibling and then comes to see that as the cause because the child is unable to understand that is a combination of factors – none of which have to do with favoritism. A person hurt by the end of a relationship associates “I was pushy” with the breakup, attributing causation to that single factor of pushiness, rather than looking at the whole picture.
So, when we are tempted to find the answer, let’s remember that real life is not based on multiple choice and the identification of a single correct answer. Let’s remember that even sophisticated multiple choice tests give us options – you know those answer options we so dislike such as “all of the above”, “only B and D”, or “none of the above”. The fact is: life is more like that. Even more so, it is like an essay question where we choose the facts to consider and present and with those choices, we select a path for our response, a path for our future. So, embrace the question, generate even more questions, and have fun finding the answers that will bring you satisfaction, acceptance, and, hopefully, a joy-filled future.
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