A key choice theory axiom, maybe THE choice theory axiom, states that the only person we can control is ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we don’t try to control others. We very often do, and in ways that are so subtle that we aren’t aware of it, even as we are in the midst of doing it. Today’s blog will attempt to pull back the curtain of our behavior and give examples of just how powerful this process is, a process that has everything to do with our quality world pictures.
When it comes to axiom #1 it would be more accurate to say that we are controlling for our perceptions, rather than controlling our own or another’s behavior. In other words, the only person’s perceptions we can control is our own. Let me give you an example that Mike (not his real name) shared with me recently –
The other day I am out shopping with my wife, each of us with a list of items to find, and while working on my list I notice her further down the same aisle I am in. I see her and for some reason I want to go to her and express my affection for her, to touch her, you know, to “look lovingly into her eyes” kind of thing. So I’m thinking about that as I’m standing there in the bread section. Some of you may be thinking, “What are you waiting for? Go tell her you love her!” But it’s not exactly that simple. We’re working through some stuff. We’re doing good, but anyway . . .
For some reason the question occurs to me, there in the bread section, am I wanting to express my affection to her because I just want to give her affection, or am I wanting to express affection so that she will give me affection in return? Am I wanting to touch her because she would then touch me, too? As I thought about it, I realized that what I really wanted was for her to want me, for her to express affection for me, and for her to touch me. I did feel affection toward her, but more importantly, I was fishing for something from her. My gift was not so much a gift, as much as it was a prompt, maybe even a bit of a trap.
I must admit I was stopped in my tracks at that moment. What you had been saying in the Soul Shapers class kind of just flashed into me. I had this picture in my mind of how I wanted my wife and I to be, how I wanted her to treat me, and there I was trying to create it, trying to turn my picture into a reality. I was stunned at how subtle, yet how real, the process was in my thinking. I was further stunned by how many years I had been behaving this way. My “affection” was really a form of manipulation.
Mike realized that his “love” had strings attached. He was giving, but it was giving to get something in return. When his giving wasn’t responded to in a way that matched his expectations he became frustrated and hurt, and then went about creating another behavior to try to get what he wanted. Maybe this new behavior would be another “loving” action; maybe it would be a punishing action like the silent treatment.
Spouses face this process every day. So does a teacher with his/her students. People have antennae that discern the strings that are attached to gifts. Love with strings attached really isn’t love. Let’s be clear, though. The problem isn’t that we have expectations, at least if the expectations are reasonable and healthy, the problem occurs when we manipulate or coerce to get what we want. It is actually relationship-strengthening to state your expectation and then, using the caring habits, discuss and negotiate the ways in which that expectation can happen.
—— “Love with strings attached really isn’t love.” ——
On a deeper and more important level, I think this process reveals something about what the presence of sin has brought to our little planet. Jeremiah wrote about our righteousness being like filthy rags, or in other words, even our love seems to involve selfishness. I think the process also reveals one of choice theory’s limitations – that being that choice theory can give us insights into our behavior, but it cannot change the heart. Only the Holy Spirit can give us a perfect love that doesn’t care about strings. Stringless love. That would be powerful.
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Jim, I benefited by your clear presentation of this concept. We sometimes talk of “unconditional love” and I see this as related, but significantly different. “Unconditional” love is so sweeping as to make it almost incomprehensible (when taken to its logical ends.) But to offer love without strings attached accomplishes nearly the same thing, is more nearly within our grasp, and still quite rare. Often when a teachers says, “I just LOVE my kids,” what I actually see is a person needing to BE loved by her kids. And I have been guilty of exactly what “Mike” describes in your post. Thank you for your treatment of this topic.
Really good to hear from you, Jim. I have been meaning to let you know about the blog, but you beat me to it. Welcome. I hope you will enter your email address and click on the Follow link. Better yet, sign up on WordPress.
Thank you for weighing in on this.