My dad used to tell me this story about a guy who went to the doctor complaining that his eye hurt every time he drank coffee.
doctor was perplexed. After multiple visits and ongoing complaints, the
doctor ran every test imaginable and still couldn’t determine
correlation between coffee and acute eye pain.
Finally the doctor decided they had to see it to understand what was going on, and took the patient into the clinic’s break room where they directed the patient to prepare a cup of coffee, exactly as he would at home.
The doctor watched the patient go through the process of selecting a mug from the cupboard, pouring the coffee into the mug, adding sugar, and stirring it with a spoon. “Okay, this is the part where it hurts,” the patient said, and took a sip from the mug.
The doctor finally understood. “I know how to solve it,” they said. “Take the spoon out.”
As a kid, this joke make me laugh hysterically. The idea that someone would go to a doctor to complain about their eye hurting because they were trying to drink their coffee with the spoon still inside was so silly. Obviously someone would KNOW that was the problem when the spoon would hit their and would figure it out themselves, right? That once they make the connection between the spoon and their pain, they’ll know to just take the spoon out and keep enjoying their coffee?
You’d think, but I’ve noticed that in relationships, people often will leave that metaphorical spoon in even after they’ve determined the source of their pain.
For example: “My partner has started seeing someone new that is _______-er, _________-er, and ____________-er than I am, and it hurts because I think they are going to leave me since I can’t measure up.” That’s the spoon.
Every time their partner texts or goes out with the new partner, it’s painful. When they’re seen together it’s heartbreaking. There is fear and insecurity, and maybe even a little desperation as they try to hold on to any semblance of reassurance that their partner still loves them despite now having access to a shiny new partner that is decidedly not them.
Now, it’s pretty easy to take a spoon out of a mug and call it a day, but building up self-confidence? Not so easy. So, very often, what I’ll see happen is that the established partner starts making some demands (consciously or subconsciously) of their partner.
Sometimes it’s about controlling the activities that their partner can have with their new partners. Sometimes it’s about controlling the locations where those activities can happen. Sometimes it’s about controlling other things, like pet names that can be used, or length of a date – or having to know the details of where and when they’ll be meeting up, what they’ll be doing, and what time they’ll be expected home.
Sometimes they’ll demand “priority” and find reassurance in knowing that if they call during the date to say they can’t handle it, their partner will come rushing home to be by their side.
Sometimes it’s even less conspicuous. Sometimes what will happen is that this insecurity will activate some anxiety or panic attack or depressive episode, and their partner may feel responsible for this reaction or guilty for wanting what they want and they’re telling their new partner they need to hit the brakes while the established partner adjusts.
The next thing you know, the insecurity is in control not only of the established relationship, but its tendrils are reaching in and poking at the soft spots in the nascent one as well.
When it’s done unconsiously, that’s like not realizing that the spoon is still in the mug. When it’s done consciously, I call it “weaoponizing insecurities” – and from personal experience with someone who did this often, it became clear she knew what she was doing when my former metamour’s panic attacks perfectly coincided with every date our partner had with me.
That’s drinking the coffee with the spoon in the mug. This example is a person that has identified the problem (I’m insecure about his love for me), but hasn’t done the work to resolve it. The result is that they are allowing their own insecurities to affect their behavior and influence their partner’s, and when it works in their favor – they are not incentivized at all to continue the work to resolve it.
You might hear similar things from people who restrict their current partners for the sins of their exes. “My ex cheated on me with a friend, so I am not comfortable with my current partner having friends of the same gender they’re attracted to. Yes, I know this person is not that person, but I have issues and this is what make me feel safe.”
Thing is – they don’t feel safe. They are under this constant fear that their partner is going to be “stolen away” by the next attractive human that strikes up a friendly conversation, and it’s EXHAUSTING to be that vigilant all the time. Worse, they’re allowing this deeply rooted insecurity to not only control their own actions and reactions, they’re using them to exert control over others as well.
So, how do you take the spoon out, and how do you make sure that you’re not letting your (or your partner’s) insecurities drive the relationship?
It’s not easy. If you are the one with the insecurities in the driver’s seat, then it’s a matter of doing some really challenging internal work not only to unpack those feelings and understand where they’re coming from, but also to put them away so they stop affecting the way you show up in your relationship.
And if it’s your partner whose insecurities are driving the relationship, then it’s a matter of doing the really challenging work of understanding the concept of not being responsible for your partner’s emotions without turning into a total jerk about it.
It’s all well and good to say “you are not responsible for your partner’s emotions” and expect people to fully embrace that concept an move forward. People were saying that to me for years before the message finally sunk in.
First it was with my late husband. Between depression and OCD it was really difficult for me to ever talk about anything challenging, because it would send him either in to a spiral of depression or an uncontrollable secret spending spree that we couldn’t afford. And in those moments that he’d realize how much I’d been sacrificing my wants and needs for him, he’d cry and tell me he knew I’d leave him some day, to which I would always respond, “No, never. I will never leave you. I love you.”
I could barely admit to myself that I’d thought about spending a few weeks at my brother’s house just to get a break from having to manage all of my husband’s emotions, but I knew that telling him that’s what I was thinking about would make it worse. So I stayed. I always stayed.
His insecurities and mental illnesses were in control of our entire existence, and I was an accomplice.
I know now that it was an unconscious form of manipulation on his part, fueled by his mental illness and childhood trauma. I don’t blame him for it, but I understand now that our relationship was unhealthy and that I lacked the ability to set boundaries because my parents were pretty shitty at respecting boundaries themselves. I had never learned how to set or enforce them.
Not until a few years after he passed away. Now, I’m an expert in boundaries. I still have the same parents with the same upbringing and the same experience with the codependent, mentally ill husband who passed away; but once I truly recognized the pattern, I was able to break free from it.
In this example, I took the spoon out by learning how to set and enforce my own boundaries, and digging to the root of my codependent tendencies until I could easily identify when my thoughts or instincts are driven by a needed to be needed, rather than my own personal desires.
That’s the example of me letting someone else’s insecurities drive the car. How about the time I let my own insecurities drive the car?
“Of course he’s responsible for my feelings,” I’d say. “His actions are hurting me.”
“He” was my ex-boyfriend, and the action that was hurting me was his ongoing relationship with another partner that was unethical and hell bent on driving a wedge between us. The more inconsistent he became as a result of her influence, the more unstable and clingy I became trying to hold on to some semblance of a promise he’d made to me.
In the end, he told me I wasn’t acting like myself anymore – and he was right. I wasn’t. I was desperate for his attention and reassurance that he still cared about me despite the way his actions made me feel; and, after spending a few months constantly defending myself against his other partner’s lies and manipulations, I started becoming manipulative myself in order to try to “save” this relationship. I’d take pictures of him while he was texting her during dinner. I started setting a timer on his “one hour calls” to her each night, and getting more and more angry with each minute over that hour that passed. I went into a white -hot fury one night and kicked him out of the bedroom….screaming at him in spanish. I started collecting “evidence” of her lies and showing him what a bad person she was every chance I got. I started texting him incessantly when he was away, and getting upset with him when he wouldn’t respond for hours. I’d cry. A lot. All. The. Time.
I was letting my insecurities and my fears drive my behavior. And, of course now in retrospect, I know why. It’s because I refused to acknowledge two things: 1) I was right, and he wasn’t committed to our relationship, and 2) I had the option to leave. If I had really internalized both of those facts, then I would have seen that it was a really immature relationship with a whole parade of red flags, and that it was all wrong for me.
In that case, taking out the spoon meant getting out of an unhealthy and incompatible relationship dynamic. That one’s difficult, but on a different level than having to work on yourself while remaining in an established relationship that’s grown accustomed to the way things are (even if things aren’t great).
Because, while I am now a pretty confident person, I won’t pretend that I don’t still battle my insecurities from time to time in this relationship (which IS great). It comes up the most around year end, with all the holidays and schedule shifting. It comes up when I think about the programming I have around relationships being legitimized by the our families. It is tough when I can’t bring my partner to my family’s Thanksgiving Dinner (even though I now dislike the holiday). It is tough when I realize that after 4 years, I’ve never so much exchanged greeting cards with his parents or sister. I don’t even know if they know my name or what I look like (though I do know they know I exist). I’m not even sure I know what they look like. Meanwhile, I’ve met one metamour’s mom, the other metamour’s aunt and sister, and spoke with the third metamour’s mom on the phone once.
Wanna know what I do when those insecurities are screaming in my ear while he’s on a flight to visit his parents with my metamour? I ask myself, “Does this mean he doesn’t love me? Is this important enough for me to break up over?”
Invariably, the answer to those two questions are a resounding “no,” and now those insecurities can take a back seat while the more rational side of my emotions take over and send him a text that simply says “I miss you.”
Because, ultimately, that’s what’s at the root of those insecurities for me. I want to know that he loves me and confirm that I am not sacrificing my needs for this relationship the way I did in the past.
I hate asking myself those questions, but I have learned that it’s important to put things into their proper perspective. I don’t need my insecurities to have me blowing up his cell phone telling him I’m miserable and alone and feeling illegitimate because of all this stuff that is all part of the social programming I received and now reject.
Because if I think about it? Our parents don’t have the power to legitimize our relationship. Our relationship is legitimate because we say it is. That little voice in my head that tells me I’m missing out on something is basing this information on an old script.
Eleven months out of the year, none of this bothers me – so why does it bother me during those last few weeks?
That’s the key for me. That’s how I take the spoon out of my coffee. For others, it might be something different. When the insecurity is based on a past trauma, it’s really hard to let go of the instinct to let it drive, and that’s understandable.
I mean, there are “reasons” and there are “excuses,” and I think it’s important to recognize the difference. It comes up with NRE very often. When that New Relationship Smell is strong, some people find it very challenging to keep giving focus to their established dynamics, favoring the intoxicating scent of NRE.
It’s a reason, yes. But it’s not an excuse. Just like enjoying one too many drinks might be a reason for you to be late to class or work the next morning, but does not excuse your tardiness.
So if you’re saying “I’m like this because ___________________,” and you know that “this” is not the way you want to be, then you *do* have the power to start dismantling the power that _______________ has over your actions.
It takes time. It might take therapy or counseling or support groups, and it takes a lot of courage and strength – but it is possible to do it.
And that’s when you’ve learned to take the spoon out and enjoy your coffee.