when *isn’t* it about you?

“And how did this suddenly become about you?” Though when Phil says it, by now, he no longer bothers with the “suddenly” bit, relying on the pruned version: “How is this about you?” I know it’s said as a dig, but I rarely take offense. Well, wait. I do take offense because I then go on the defensive, hoping to explain why my personal bend on it is worth exploring. An example would serve well here.

The other day, Phil asked me for advice. A woman from his childhood turned up via Facebook and began to confide in him, he explained, revealing very personal admissions about her marriage. [A flag raised immediately in my mind. A personal flag. I said nothing but thought to myself, and why is she confiding these things in you? What have you revealed to make her feel so at ease in sharing these confessions?] She wanted to know what he thought she should do given the fact that while her husband was a good man, and she had a loving family of two children with him, she believes she’s in love with another man, a man at work. Phil asked me what he should tell her. So really, advice for him and for her.

Now. How can anyone hear this story told by her own spouse and not think of her own life, not even once, not even to question the flag, before answering? Actually, I’m sure most people can. I am not one of these people. I put everything into a personal context when I deliberate. I asked if the children still lived in the home, were they minors? Yes, he said. They are.

“And she says her husband is a good father, a fine man, just love is dead?”
“Right,” he says. “She says she’s in love with the guy at work.”
“And she’s asking your advice why exactly?”
“I don’t know!” He defends, seeing my raising of the flag. “I swear, I don’t even know her well. I wasn’t even that close to her when I did know her!”

I look at my own personal experience, and I receive plenty of communication from people sharing their lives, especially when they feel pained or desperate, needy for confirmation or justification. So, the flag begins to lower, but not before making it clear that I think it’s inappropriate. “Not because she’s a woman sharing this with you but because it’s out of the blue over Facebook and you’re not even friends. That’s weird. She sounds desperate and willing to latch onto anyone who’ll give her attention.”

I go about living my life by drawing comparisons to what I know and with what I’ve experienced personally. A lot of my sentences begin with “I.” So, this next bit comes as no surprise to Phil. “I would tell her that every time she thinks of this other man from work, every time she has a sexual thought, every time she wants to share an intimate thought or to feel affection, she should channel every last drop of it into her husband. Fake it to make it. Redirect the shit out of those feelings.” I know because I’ve done it myself. There have been times in my marriage where I have disliked Phil, not as a wonderful father, but as a loving companion, and of course there have been other men who have been quick with the compliments and adoration, an easy escape. I’ve never taken the escape route, mind you. Because the fact is that I’ve made a commitment not just to a man but to a family. It’s not always black and white, but from the limited details she has provided, and from the ones I know of my own marriage, I know that temptation seems like an enticing escape, a promise of the right path, the one you’ve meant to be living this whole time. But, I’d argue instead that what you’re meant to be doing now is refocusing your energy toward the life to which you’re already committed.

“You don’t think that sounds judgmental?” Phil asks me.

“I don’t care if it does. It’s an opinion, which is what she’s asking for, no? This isn’t mightier than thou territory. Believe me, if you weren’t such a good father, if we didn’t have minors in our house, I might’ve been out of here a long time ago. You’ve been a total–”

“How is this about you now?” This is it. The phrase Phil uses, methodically to pivot. To indicate that he won’t go there. Back to the task at hand. He’s not playing this game. I hear this phrase most often when we watch TV. [Insert scene of a man who breaks up with a woman who has just lost her arm. Would you break up with me? “How is this about you now?”… actually, he’d say, “Depends, which arm?”]

Clearly she’s hungry for attention and input (reaching out to near strangers with intimate details – not impartial advice columnists but old Facebook friends), hungry for male attention – the man at work. My advice would be to redirect every impulse and to act “as if” she has those feelings for her husband, given that belief follows behavior, her brain will eventually get the message and begin to believe these things truly, and that she should get some hobbies, broaden her Body of Work.* Invest in herself, in her own story, put her energy into herself, broadening who she is, breathing more life into what brings her joy. Perhaps it’s even something she can do with one of her kids.

Body of Work by Pam SlimHOW *IS* THIS ABOUT YOU NOW?
To be clear, I am preoccupied with myself and my own affairs, but not to the detriment of my relationships or to the demise of learning. I won’t, for example, listen to someone else’s story without asking questions, without offering some feedback, and instead responding with a story about myself to match. Not because I know it’s impolite but because I have genuine curiosity about others. Besides, I already know my stories and prefer to hear what others have to say. However…

When I watch a film or hear of a story, I inject myself in it, hoping to determine how I feel about it. I imagine we all do this, no? Put ourselves in the others’ shoes as best we can, then try looking out. What’s so wrong in making it, at least partly, about you?

Also, for any of us hoping to figure out our life’s story, hoping to build our body of work, trying to figure out our next move in career, now that the kids are off at school, out of the home, now that we’re at retirement… or even when it comes to love, given the timeliness of Valentine’s Day, I don’t just highly recommend Pamela Slim’s BODY OF WORK, I deeply recommend it. The information is universal without being generic, specific and applicable to all of us, no matter what stage we’re at in the game. The book is personal, insightful, instructional, and you’ll find yourself in its pages, much the way I find myself in everything. So there.

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  1. As storytellers, of course we put ourselves in everyone else’s shoes – how else can we relate? Is it as storytellers or mothers or women or compassionate humans? I’m not sure.

    For what it’s worth, I think your advice is spot on – she should definitely focus within, get her own head on straight before she goes wrecking the family she built. if he were abusive or criminal, that’s different, but if he’s just pancakes instead of crepes suzette – she needs to get over it.

    Great to ‘hear’ your voice again in your writing, missed you!

  2. Inappropriate indeed! So so weird on many levels that she would ask someone she barely knows such a personal question on FB. I like your answer, but I would have been tempted to respond with: ‘You should probably ask someone who knows you and your situation better than I do. Good luck.’

  3. Anyone else think there’s no guy at “the office?” Or have I just had too many rounds of LIfetime Television Movie of the Week?
    Skylar’s suggested response is spot-on, except I’d follow it up by limiting the woman’s access to my Facebook content.

  4. I LOVE the ‘advice’/sharing part of your blog. It’s the meaty part haha. I think Phil *is* a good guy. You might clash and argue about differences in how you appraoch things but I think it’s admirable he asked you to weigh in on this situation. If he didn’t bother it would show he didn’t value your input (he clearly does) and also is a ‘face value’ what you see is what you get person. I have been married 8 years and still wonder if my husband would even tell me or I did not know another woman was soliciting such personal advice on her love life from my husband. It just feels too intimate. I even got weirded out when a new acquaintance called me asking if my husband could give her a ride (her car was being worked on) and pick her up at work on his way home downtown. Innocent enough but then she unloaded ALL of her personal problems and just rambled about herself the whole time. While no overtures were made whatsoever It grossed me out. I am big on personal boundaries. Sharing intimate details like that can lead to intimacy is my motto.

    See how I did that? I inserted myself too! Yes it is human nature perhaps unless one is a sociopath; they have no desire or ability to do that, to empathize. I often am influenced more deeply by a movie or book because I do that very thing- indentify with someone in the script or story. It might seem a hindrance to some but I think it makes life much more rich and authentic. My husband also uses ‘it’s always about you’ when he doesn’t want to continue the conversation. I now see it as a bland phrase I just ignore as it’s often a wall or defense mechanism.

    I will say this: I have had mutual facebook friends I have never met, friends of friends say who have added me or only ‘liked’ a comment I have written write me personal messages (out of the blue) unloading a big issue and asking for advice. The first few times it happened I was floored (a few male fb acquaintances, single, not being solicitious) but I tried to help as much as possible. I think people cross paths in whichever way often for a reason. Your thoughts or input, often made more valuable BECAUSE you are using personal experience can mean a great deal to someone. I try and keep this in mind. I also make sure that the person writing to me understands I will not be a free therapist for serious stuff (i.e. get swallowed up in any attendant ‘drama’) and eventually they need to act on their own and take responsibility for their lives. So.

    Re: your advice on this woman’s conundrum I agree . Minors still living in the home changes everything. If the kids were out of the nest? Totally different ball game. Phil is a standup guy for sharing this with you. Happy valentine’s day to you both.

  5. I agree, entirely, with your advice. It does seems bizarre that she’d reach out to someone she didn’t know well for advice. I am certain she has at least a couple of girlfriends she either cold confide in or has, so reaching out to Phil in the scenario he described would raise a red flag for me, too. When I got to the point that it was about being in love with another man at work I was surprised because this is a ploy a woman uses sometimes to get the attention of a man she’s interested in.

    In a situation like that, the only response that makes sense is that “I have no idea what you should do–but I wish you luck!” Your advice was good, but him giving it only entangles him with her more and opens the door to more interaction on this topic. Unless he wants to become a marital therapist, he should steer clear.

  6. I agree with your advice. But I don’t think this is the really issue of the post — I think you are asking if projecting yourself into a situation is normal or not.

    Honestly, I don’t think it really matters if it is normal or not. I think what does matter is you and Phil working out a communication style that works for the two of you. Knowing what you do (that he doesn’t like this projection as a knee jerk reaction), would you consider dialing it down for some conversations?

    I’ll admit fully, this conversation is loaded and perhaps this is not the best time to shy away from instincts. But for other, less important or emotionally difficult conversations, would you be willing to take his opinion into consideration when you craft your response? Likewise, of course, would Phil be willing to admit that you communicate this way most of the time and he should respect that?

    I think that you are black on the issue and Phil is white, but there is a lot of gray area in between.

  7. She did the relationship equivalent of the would-be robber casing out someone’s house: on the pretext of innocence to see what the response was. Maybe she was hoping your hubby would respond with the “gosh, me too” of marital woes. You were right for your flag to be raised. She managed to insert herself into hubby’s mind and now in between you two, just a teensy bit, with her casting about behavior. It’s good that you and your sweetie have solid communication and you can talk about this but if I were him, I would not respond with warmth or detail to the woman.

    Here’s a good article on how Facebook can threaten relationships: http://www.lovesciencemedia.com/love-science-media/why-not-to-look-up-that-old-flame-on-facebook-or-how-to-wrec-1.html

    And one good thing to keep in mind is that the biggest risk for men cheating is opportunity: http://www.lovesciencemedia.com/love-science-media/keeping-him-faithful-10-five-guys-to-watch-out-for.html

    I believe that woman is building her backup supply by reaching out. She’s already shown she can focus outside her marriage so she isn’t showing respect for other people’s commitment now either. I don’t mean to sound so harsh — it could be innocent in that she doesn’t understand boundaries & what it means to relate in a healthy way to other people. But I still think your hubby should steer clear because it sounds like trouble.

    1. By “innocent” I meant that she may not be fully aware of her own motivations and intentions. It doesn’t mean she’s *without* them, just that she may not be self-aware enough to realize why she’s doing what she’s doing.

      1. pps. It’s NOT innocent even if she doesn’t realize what she’s doing.

        I just needed to emphasize that — so good on you for raising those hackles.

  8. Man, I do think that’s really really inappropriate….I could understand if she and phil had been old friends or so, I would get that, but to reach out to someone you barely know and unload?
    Good advice though for sure.

    I have a partner who will pull the “Don’t make this about you” stuff as well….which, you know, how the hell am I supposed to talk about something and not use the word “I”. We are working on that ;)

  9. I agree with YOU: “Fake it till you make it.” Too much is at stake. Also… these FB people cannot tell their usual friends their secrets for obvious reasons, so of course they go to the furthest reaches on the interweb. Phil got caught listening. :-)

  10. I think your advice was good and that her actions are suspect; however, I think she confided in Phil because he’s NOT a close friend. It’s like when strangers at a bus stop or coffee shop confides details of their lives that seem rather personal. Or maybe that only happens to me. Either way, it’s easier to tell a relative stranger that you may want to leave your husband because you’re not worried about their judgment whereas you’d be afraid of telling close friends and/or family.

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