Monica Packer: I'm so honored to have Jennifer back. If you don't know her, well, hang tight. You're going to have your mind blown so much. This is who Jennifer is.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: I'm Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife. I am a psychotherapist that works primarily with couples and individuals around relationship and sexuality issues. I also do a lot of teaching, both online courses and also in workshops around the country. I also do a lot of podcasting and public speaking.
Monica Packer: And my version of your intro is that you changed my life and I think you've changed thousands of lives. I'm sure it's creeping up to millions and more. We're so honored to have you back. This is your sixth time. We're going to talk about something that you specialize in. You came in January to talk about how women need to be in touch with who they are by knowing what they want and this is a continuation of that discussion. We will also discuss how someone can be happier with the life they have already chosen. There's a lot to untangle here, and this is something I have learned a lot from you and I know many others have.
So let's set the scene here a little bit. In your courses, your workshops, your speaking, and in your therapy, you talk a lot about helping women get in touch with their desires to feel alive in their lives and to feel whole and to be happier, which is our topic this month. But a lot of times women aren't feeling very happy with the choices they have made--and these are big choices. Perhaps they got married and had kids when they felt they were supposed to, or perhaps they got into a career or a job track they're not happy with, or maybe a whole combination of those, and these aren't easy to undo. Perhaps they're not even sure they want to undo it, but they don't feel content or happy with the choices they have made. So first, how do you help someone who's looking at you and saying, "I don't love my life and I can't choose otherwise?"
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: So, while I believe in the fundamental reality that we always have choices, what is also true is that we don't always have the choices that we want. You have to live in the consequences of your choices, whether or not you agree with the choices you once made. So for some people, their choices come down to what corner of their prison cell do they want to sit in today? We clearly don't always have the choices that we want, that is to say, we're always choosing within a context. And I think a lot of us spend time thinking about what we would do if we could go back in time and redo things. And while I think that there's value in thinking about what you've learned through your experiences or what you would do differently if you could go back in time, the reality is, of course, that we don't get that choice. We can't go back in time. And so we are better served focusing on “What do I choose now in the current context or the current reality of my life?” So, for example, if you have five children and you're not sure that you would have chosen this if you could go back in time, I think that the reality that you have to deal with is that you have five children--whether you give them up for adoption, neglect them until they're 18, or invest in being the best parent you know how to be--the fact that you will always be those five children's mother will not change. The only thing that changes is what you can live with and feel good about and feel at peace about, given the context of your choices. I think there's often a lot for people to grieve--either because of the consequences of their own choices or other people's choices, or things they can't control--and I certainly think that's fair and important. Or even the anger we may have if we felt pressured into choices. But the way to be free is to not construct yourself as a powerless entity within your life. Ask yourself, “What am I going to do given where my life is currently?”
Monica Packer: Well, that last bit, I think, is the key to all of this. Did you describe that as, "You are an empowered entity?"
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Exactly. We have a lot of power to shape our lives and affect our lives, and I think a lot of us give that power up in place of resentment and a kind of passivity about our lives. But it doesn't mean we have perfect power--we only have power over who we're going to be in our circumstances. But that is still a very important power.
Monica Packer: I want to talk mostly to those women who have the life they always wanted in terms of a family and children, and feel a lack of contentment. But first, can we talk about some more extreme examples, just so people can be able to differentiate? Because I don't want some woman who is listening here, who is in an emotionally abusive marriage or even physically abusive to think, “Well, I need to choose my choice and stick it out and I can't go back.” So if it's more extreme, let's say there is an abusive marriage or even kids with disabilities--those are two things that came to my mind as I was thinking of other extremes--how can someone view this whole construct we're talking about, about feeling empowered and making choices?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: I think it's even more important in the context that you're talking about, because I'm certainly not saying you should choose your marriage or you should choose your children, because I really think people have to determine what they really can live with. I remember watching the movie Matilda. I love that movie because my kids think I'm such a great parent while we're watching it. The parents are just disasters. And at the end, the narrator says something like "And Matilda's parents did the one unselfish thing they'd ever done, which is they gave her up for adoption." So I know I'm speaking of extremes right now, but I'm not saying that you should always be doing what other people think you should be doing. You really have to decide what you actually think is decent, fair, and right. And if you're with somebody who is abusive, there's a very good chance that staying with them is not the right choice. And that the actual right choice would take an enormous amount of courage, which is to extricate yourself from that situation. So I just want to be clear--I'm not saying that if you go through this process, you're going to always come down in the way that somebody on the outside thinks would look the right way.
Monica Packer: Meaning that some people won't approve of your choice.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Yes. And I think when we are running our lives by asking what other people want from us, that's when we don't feel that we have real choices, because we want other people's approval. And when we really want or need other people's approval, it makes us feel like we don't really have choices. For example, we may want our spouse to be happy with us, but not want to grow in the ways that would make our spouse happier, and we can't really have both. And so we might be upset that we can't have both, “I just want to be as I am and have you be perfectly happy with me.” But ultimately, it comes down to “Which discomfort do I choose, the discomfort of having my spouse be unhappy with me, or the discomfort of growing and pushing myself in ways that are hard for me?” If I want to live a life that I respect, I have to live in a way that I really feel is right and decent.
I think ultimately, as human beings, that’s something we can't escape, and I think a lot of us try to. But I do think that integrity, and by integrity I mean that you're lined up internally, that you're not acting in contradiction to your own sense of what's fair or decent. And so the hard question in an abusive situation is “What's the most right thing to do?” Because maybe I have children or maybe I depend on this person economically. But then again, my children are watching me be harmed and they're learning about relationships and what it is to be a woman by watching this kind of humiliation happen, and I'm being weakened by being in this relationship. And so what is it to really do what's fair and right by my children and in this situation? And I'm not here to say I know what that is for every person in every situation, but often it's the thing that terrifies us the most. And so when we're reaching for what we believe is most right, it often is stretching us into areas that are hard and finding a strength and courage within us that we don't necessarily know about ourselves yet. And so often it means leaving the familiarity of a relationship because it undermines you and it undermines your children. And you're willing to deal with that, even though it terrifies you.
As human beings, we have both the gift of agency and the terrifying reality of it. We're responsible for who we choose to be within the context of our choices, within the reality of the choices we have, which are not perfect choices. You may leave an abusive spouse and then they just want to make your life miserable and you can't really control that they're going to try to do that, even though you've divorced them. So you don't have a choice about fully being free, but you have a choice about who you're going to be in that reality. Or with a special needs child, there's only so much one parent can do or a human being can do, what do I think is fair and right within my resources? What do I think I really can offer? What do I think I may need to get help or support around this? How do I need to advocate for more funding or more support from school or community? They're hard questions. I wish life were fair. It's not about some idea that if everybody just owns their choices, everybody will be happy. But I think that's often where we throw our power away, and if we're going to make the world a better place, we have to claim that power, as frightening as it may be.
Monica Packer: Let's talk now about people who might have the family they always wanted and the marriage they always wanted, and yet just don't feel like themselves, they feel lost in their choice. Does that happen a lot within your own practice and the woman that you work with?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Yes, it's pretty common. I think that one of the reasons that it happens is, especially where there's a cultural or religious ideal around family life, that women can often enter into that and absolutely want it and desire it and not want it to be any different. But once they enter in they are unwittingly replicating the model of what it has meant to be female within the traditions that have been handed down to them. And what it is to be female is to sort of give up yourself in the context of being a parent or a partner.
I was just talking to somebody last night who said, “When I was in high school, I was on sports teams and I traveled and did a year abroad in another country. And I did all these things that were courageous. I was comfortable developing myself. Then I got married and something just overcame me and almost seduced me into a backseat position relative to my husband. He was going to school and he was busy, and so I was just picking up the slack around everything. And what I wanted and what my dreams were and who I was, was just not as important. And we both implicitly agreed on it, even though it was never explicitly discussed.” And over time the resentment develops of feeling like you're losing yourself within your choices. So it's not about I don't want children and I don't want a spouse, it's that I want to have a self, too.
And sometimes when people have no self, that's when they're thinking about leaving their families. Because of the way they've done family life, there's no room for their own self, and they've often co-constructed that with their spouse and even their children. They've taught their children to not respect the mother's autonomy and independence as a person. I think many people do that, and again, it's not about not wanting to love your children, it's about wanting to have a life that exists in addition to having children. And that's healthy and that's normal.
Monica Packer: I think that takes the fear out of it too. I have been in that situation where I just felt so deeply unhappy and not myself within the choices I had, that I always wanted. What I could identify with you, was that it wasn’t about not wanting my marriage or my kids and the life we built. What I wanted was myself in that life. So very often I think what women can get in touch with, is the life they want to choose is right there in front of them, but it looks different. Maybe they're not navigating life in the same way. And so that does still entail dipping into some fear, like you talked about with those extreme examples. I think it also applies to these more typical examples of the way that you have to arrive at your choice. What could these women be facing in terms of choosing the choices they already made?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: I think one of the things that is very easy to do is to want other people's approval to manage your sense of self, which many of us have been socialized into. There's a kind of safety of being a backseat partner or being in the back seat relative to your kids, because then there's not as much exposure--you can feel needed and you can feel necessary and you can even gratify yourself that you’re making all these sacrifices for people, even if they don't appreciate or understand it. Sometimes when I’m helping people see this about themselves, what they're afraid of is the exposure of actually stepping out and allowing themselves to assert choices in a world where there are no guarantees. I mean, it's like, "Well maybe I'd go back to school for this, but what if I don't even like it? What if after we sacrifice money and time, I don't really want to be a P.A.," or whatever it is that someone's thinking of doing. And so one big fear is that if I stick my neck out, maybe it's going to come up as flawed and unacceptable, and so maybe I'd rather just do what everybody else wants and just be resentful. I can feel a kind of false superiority because I'm the one who “gives so much.” And that's much more self-protected than I think sometimes we recognize. So I think that's a fear.
There are very few guarantees in life. If you're going to assert your choices and desires into the world, you don't necessarily know that it's going to turn out right and that it's going to affirm your sense of yourself. It could go wrong. It could be a disaster. That's why we often collude in having other people make our choices for us. These are significant fears but I do think it's an exposure that's essential to development. You can't develop if you're not willing to assert a desire and to reach out and try and create something in your life. That's always where the growth happens and there will always be failure, if that's the right word. But there will always be disappointments or things you don't think went the right way. And that's just how you learn. And so tolerating that process is a function of self-respect.
Monica Packer: I think that's another way we delude ourselves, too, is by thinking that if I do this then everything has to be suddenly happy or easier or great, or not as stressful. It's not a magic pill.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Exactly. It's not a magic pill. And I think a lot of times we want that idea that if I go and I take the risk, then please God make it all go great. Rather than I'm stepping into a process that's going to stretch me and couldn't happen to a nicer person. It requires a certain amount of self-respect to stand up for ourselves, and I think sometimes we're afraid. We want other people to respect us. We want other people to tell us we deserve to pursue our dreams. But in order to do it, we have to hold on to some level that our desires and wishes matter.
I was talking to someone else yesterday who was explaining that her mother was a martyr par excellence. Her mother just did martyrdom all the time. And that it's been a very tempting role for her to do things and then resent her husband. And that he's deserved some of that historically because he has been willing to let her pick up all the slack at home and let her do the heavy lifting in terms of keeping the household running and so on. And so as they have been doing work in couples therapy and getting clear about the way they constructed a one-up one-down marriage. She was saying that it's scary to step up and actually ask for something better. It's so much easier to just resent and feel covertly superior. And she was, in fact, talking more honestly with her husband about it, like, "I really do love doing all these things. I'm happy to be an at-home mother. It's what I want right now. And I enjoy these things, I feel good about doing these things, but these things over here are not working for me, they suck the life out of me. I feel unable to do anything that I enjoy. And I also feel like you take advantage of me on these fronts (which he acknowledged he did), and so how do we do this differently? Do we hire someone to do it? Do you come home and do more of these things?"
She was exercising a muscle that's unfamiliar or more uncomfortable, which is taking more responsibility for her choices and then also stepping up to create something better out of the things that were undermining her happiness. And this is a way of having a self within the context of her choices. She didn't want her kids to go away. She doesn't want a divorce. But she does want to construct something in which she feels there's more room for her to belong to herself. And things feel more fair or just equitable between them now that they're working together towards creating a family that they feel good about.
Monica Packer: I think that is exactly what many women who are listening are experiencing and would like to get in touch with knowing how to do that. I mean, we can't sit here and give a blueprint for everyone, but you've talked about being willing to push into that discomfort. You talked about that stretch zone and being willing to sit in the mess of it and know that it all serves a purpose. Because if four years ago I heard what you just said, I would have been scared because it doesn't sound that happy. But I've lived what you've talked about and I am happier. So for someone who was like me four years ago and they're not sure if they're willing to step into that discomfort, how does this lead to happiness? How do you feel more content or happier in the sense of self that you are trying to step into and find again?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Well, I just have a strong belief and I have a lot of evidence of it from watching people's development. You can't sacrifice your development and be happy. And so if you back burner your life, you will resent and you will suck the life out of the people you're in relationship to. I guess I'm just saying that human beings want to love and they want to develop. They want those things. They want to be in good relationships and be cared about and belong. And they also want to express themselves in the world. And so if you compromise one or the other of those, you interfere with people's capacity to be happy.
And I think traditional marriages and traditional thinking about gender have made it so that men develop and women belong. And we've gendered this human reality, which is we both want to develop and to belong. I see my parents who've done marriage in a more traditional way, where my mom really struggled with the sense of self and identity and “who am I and what are my skills,” because she put all that aside and did the work of belonging. But she also has a rich network of relationships. My dad, on the other hand, did much more around development and much less about relationships. And I used to think of him as the privileged one, but as I watched him get older, I thought he's really underprivileged in the relational sense that he doesn't have the rich network of relationships that my mom has. And I think that they both have suffered because of the aspects of themselves or of their relationships that they didn't develop.
I think it's just a part of life and, as I talked about in the Perfectionism podcast we did, that it's a function of self-respect to take that risk. I want to help people succeed in their lives and to be willing to stand up for their own value through standing up for their development, making room for it, tolerating the failure or the disappointment that may come as part of it. It always will come, but that's just how you get better and stronger. And so it's about encouraging people to be truer to themselves and it's a really important way of being truer to others too.
Monica Packer: Oh, I love that connection. And maybe there are some husbands and wives listening to this together, and just to see how this can benefit both, especially when we are making sure both people are doing what they need to do in order to feel what they're missing.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Husbands in traditional marriages pay dearly. If their wives don't thrive, they don't get desired and wanted through sex. They are resented. They are martyrs. Often husbands are trying to manage their wives’ sense of self all the time, unsuccessfully. The wives will resent their husbands’ successes. You pay a big price. The person I was just talking about who was orchestrating the household demands differently. When they first came to me, I think he really saw me as too feminist and too liberal. But I think because he's seen how much the marriage had suffered in the old model and how much better it's gotten, he's on board. I mean, he's like, "Look, yes, I have been taking advantage of you in this way. I come home and I just know that you'll take care of it if I don't. And that's not fair. And I don’t want to do that anymore." And just knowing that if you're going to both be happy and like each other, you don't get away with taking advantage of your spouse in that way. And so, intimacy is for strong people, and strong people learn how to make room for two people to thrive in a marriage.
Monica Packer: Wow. Yes, and I love that, too. I think so many men are lost and that development piece, honestly I hadn't really framed it that way in my mind until we just spoke today. And that is so interesting to me. You know, Jennifer, we could talk about that a lot longer as well, but I just thought it'd be nice to know, what does happiness look like for you? You're our last guest for this month. We've talked about happiness all month long. What does that look and feel like for you?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Gosh, that's an impromptu question, so let me think how to answer that. What does it look like to me? I feel very happy in my life, and I think that's partly about good fortune and partly about pushing myself to make choices. I'm grateful for some of the courageous choices I've made in my life because I've been able to live in the benefit of doing things that didn't necessarily get the validation of others, but that have made my life better. So I think what happiness looks like for me is, I feel loved and I feel cared about, which means the world to me. I am partnered with a really good human being who supports me and cares about me and has been very happy to see me thrive, and it hasn't undermined his sense of himself or his masculinity or anything like that. And I'm deeply grateful for that because it really blesses my life. And I think happiness is about feeling good about who I am as a parent and a partner and being able to affect good things in the world. I think a really fundamental part of being happy is feeling like you can use your gifts to make the world better in some way. And I think we all have the ability to do that, even if we think our way is not that significant. We all have the ability to do things that make the world a better place than we found it. So I think that's a very satisfying part of life for me. So I do think it's about the same idea of belonging to others and belonging to aspects of myself that go hand in hand with impacting others, that I'm using aspects of myself to bless the lives of those that I care about.
Monica Packer: Well, what I especially love about what you just said is, happiness to you isn't life feeling easy and stress-free and nice and perfectly tied together. And I think if we just define happiness as that, we'll actually feel the happiness that is waiting for us there.
Jennifer, I love when you come on the show. It's such an honor. I know people always want to know where to find you after this. I feel like I'm the Jennifer Finlayson-Fife ambassador, and I wholeheartedly take that role on.