It’s true, I’ve been thinking about Oedipus. He comes to mind often as I sit with couples who see me for therapy, and I marvel at how much we humans do the very thing that is least likely to bring about the result we desire. Short-tempered people know when they let something fly that their partner will be less likely to want to approach them – though this is the thing they desire most in the world. Withdrawn people know their demeanor does not excite in their partner the respect they most long for. As much as the talkative one knows her spouse wants nothing more than to feel there is room for him, still she talks on. I know that when Garth muses aloud, “What shall I make for breakfast?” he isn’t actually asking me and it will be annoying if I rattle off a list of possibilities. And still, sometimes, I rattle away.
Oedipus, as many of us know, learns he is going to do something heinous to the people he most loves: his parents. So he leaves town to save them all from this fate. Of course, because he doesn’t have some critical information – i.e., that the people he thought were his parents aren’t -, Oedipus manages to do the very things he’d hoped to avoid.
Sophocles believed it wasn’t just lack of information that brought Oedipus’ suffering, but also his very particular faults. In couples therapy – maybe in any therapy – we hope for what Sophocles would not: that, armed with our own critical information (namely, awareness of our flaws and blind spots), we will be able to divert a tragic end. We proceed in the hope that if Oedipus had known Jocasta was his mother and Laius his father, he would have made different choices.
As with all things human, bringing about our desired outcome is less straightforward than applying awareness of our flaws to our relationships. Even with that critical information – when we know our partner wants space to step into, or to be vibrantly engaged, or to be spoken to with a calm voice, or to be left alone to figure breakfast out himself – sometimes we don’t act on the knowledge we have. Whether because we forget, or, for just a moment, don’t care, or because it slips out even before we can try to remember, we still act like Oedipus sometimes.
Perhaps it’s pure rationalization that makes me feel it’s still worthwhile to learn what we can about each other. After all, I’d be out of a job if I believed that falling short of absolute success meant we shouldn’t bother trying at all. But just as I think it’s still worth addressing climate change, for example, though we have already exceeded the no-return 350 parts per million, I believe there is worth in educating ourselves about ourselves, and about the people we choose to partner with. Likely Garth can’t hope for a future where I will never again take his thinking out loud as permission to offer various breakfast menus. But wouldn’t things be better if sometimes I were able to refrain? And to do that sometimes, all it takes is some knowledge and a little humbleness.
Sophocles was right, as it happens. Oedipus didn’t just need to know the facts – though those certainly would have helped. It was also required that he accept his own need for humility.