My father is a funny guy. He likes to be goofy and tease. I called him the other day and he answered the phone, “Hello Tonto. This is the Lone Ranger.” “Dad” I replied, “You know that you are the cause of my weirdness.” Because I enjoyed my Dad’s humor as a child and connected with him through it, it became a part of my life as well. And by the time I married my wife, I had mastered the Funny Arts and received an advanced degree in Sarcasm. While my wife has a good sense of humor and enjoys most of my humor, she is a literal-minded thinker and she has never really appreciated my sarcasm. She doesn’t get and she doesn’t like it. And, if I’m honest, I have to admit that it has always been a little disappointing that one of my favorite persons in the world couldn’t appreciate one of my most developed talents. Even my daughter, by eight years of age, had learned to recognize and laugh at my sarcasm (as a little girl, she called it “my lying voice”). As a young woman, she has come to recognize sarcasm as the sixth love language and I’m confident that she has included it as a trait that she hopes to find in a mate. Unfortunately for me, even the added social pressure of being “the odd man out” wasn’t enough to shift my wife’s feelings about this facet of my humor. So, last week when she asked me how she looked in a new dress and I sarcastically said, “I like the color, but it makes your butt look big”, I should not have been surprised when she became upset. In an effort to defend myself I asked, “Why, after 28 years together, do you still not realize that I would never literally say such a thing to you?” To which she effectively countered, “Why after 27 years of marriage (oops - did I say 28?) do you still not recognize that I don’t like it when you’re sarcastic!” Yikes! That’s honestly a very good question. Why would I keep doing the same thing expecting a different response? Isn’t that the definition of insanity? I’ve known this for over two decades and, yet, when presented with an opportunity to be sarcastic and get a laugh from her, I almost always take it. Even more embarrassing is the recognition that, in spite of directly witnessing several thousand failed attempts at sarcasm each year, on some level I still expect that she’s going to get it this time and laugh! I am a moron. I am George Costanza.
If you are a Seinfeld fan, then you know George Costanza. George plays the role of the consummate loser. He consistently does the wrong thing and repeats the same mistakes. In one show, (www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKUvKE3bQlY) George has a flash of insight and decides that every decision that he has ever made has been wrong, and that his life is the exact opposite of what it should be. George tells this to Jerry who convinces him that, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right”. George then resolves to start doing the complete opposite of what he would do normally. The change is dramatic and he quickly goes from being the loser to being well-liked. He gains the affection of a gorgeous woman and gets a new job working for the Yankees. Eventually, he confesses to Jerry that the change is exhausting and goes back to being to his normal self.
Like George (and me), we all have an intuition that informs our interactions with others. Though a part of our design, this intuition is housed in our humanity. It is informed by our past relational experience and organized around the goal of gaining security in our relationships; it alerts us to relational threats, as well as opportunities to deepen affection or closeness with others. However, because this emotional learning is anchored in specific relationships and experiences in our past, it is not always accurate and it does not always generalize to our current relationships. In fact, there are many situations where it is exactly wrong! Thus, those very funny actions that foster a father-son connection only frustrate a husband-wife connection.
I sat with a couple recently where the husband’s primary complaint was that his wife over-reacted to little things. In defense of his conviction, he described witnessing intense conflict in his childhood home and articulated a resolve to do things differently within his own home. His conflict-riddled childhood home had sensitized him to negative emotion and taught him to intervene quickly, with a logical counterpoint and a calming tone. In subsequent conversations, his wife disclosed that she had not always been as vocal as she was in her current marriage. She was quiet as a young girl and, in her first marriage, she acquiesced to his preferences and plans. Unfortunately, in that first marriage she was mistreated and betrayed by a selfish man who exploited her quiet manner, discounted her needs and eventually betrayed her trust. Having been burned deeply in this relationship, her intuition alerted her to situations where her best interests might be overlooked and compelled her to express her “voice.” However, whenever she got emotionally charged with her current husband – energized to represent her needs, desires and opinions - her husband intuitively (and predictably) responded with reason and alternate perspectives, minimizing her emotional intensity and striving to calm her down. Unfortunately, his efforts to protect the marriage only frustrated his wife and provoked her fears. Feeling unheard and at risk for being discounted by him, her intuition predictably compelled her to escalate her intensity which, as you can imagine, further triggered her husband to calm the situation down. And round and round the mulberry bush they ran! The very intuition which might have served them well in past relationships, caused them substantial grief in their marriage.
Enter the “The George Costanza Rule”: in certain instances, your intuition is exactly wrong and it may well be best to do the opposite of what you feel inclined to do. For this husband, it meant learning to get emotionally involved with his wife - learning to not only tolerate her emotion, but to understand her, feel with her and affirm her; to believe that she was as committed to developing a harmonious relationship as he was. For her it meant learning to express her needs in a direct, but calm manner, trusting that her husband was looking out for her and desiring to know her needs and perspectives. The responses of this couple, though grounded in their unique pasts, are not uncommon. In many marriages, men intuitively withdraw and avoid their wives in those moments where their wives most need them to engage, understand and get involved. In a complimentary manner, many women intuitively become critical or demanding at those times when their husbands need them to be patient and affirming. Where in your marriage do you tend to most consistently do the wrong thing? Where might you need to apply “The George Costanza Rule”?