Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 4.7]

When I finally got to my parents’ house, I spent the first two weeks curled up in my bed all day, sleeping, and crying some more. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting my old job back at the Golden Corral. Instead, I decided to commute thirty minutes each way to work at a restaurant in another town. I didn’t get to see much of Mindy because she had gotten married while I was at school and was pregnant with her second child. But I tried to spend as much time with Grandma Trailer as I could. Dad checked on me periodically. One day he came in my room, said he was sorry for what happened, and asked me if I wanted to talk. I explained all that had happened and how hard I felt I’d tried to be what Trey wanted. I really thought that Trey and I were close in ways that he could never be with other people.

Feeling sorry for myself, I asked Dad, “Did I do something wrong? Why wasn’t I enough? Clearly I wasn’t enough for Ryan either. Kim and I are so different, how could Trey love us both?”

“Well, from what you’ve told me, Michelle, Trey has a lot of problems and he’s struggling to figure things out about himself. It sounds like he is lost and doesn’t know what he wants. You said that Kim was someone he’d always looked up to but never had a chance with, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. She used to not give him the time of day, but then she went through some bad relationships in college and realized Trey was one of the good guys. Although I’m not sure what she thinks now.”

“Well, honey, I hate to say this but if Trey is feeling really bad about his life, getting validation from Kim after all those years probably felt really good.”

“And getting love from me doesn’t?”

“No no. Michelle, look at it this way, you are intelligent and know yourself well and you aren’t easily influenced by what your peers think. You pretty much have learned to do things for yourself because you want to. You’re not trying to please me or your mom, either. You are strong and independent.”

“Yeah, so shouldn’t those things make me the desirable one and make him want to love me more than her?”

“Not necessarily. I believe that we don’t really love people for who they are—as much as for how they make us feel about ourselves.

“But, Dad!…I tried constantly to make him feel better about himself.”

“That may be true, and I know your intentions were good, but it could have actually made things worse. Trey is smart enough to know that he has problems in ways you don’t. A lot of men need to believe they are smarter, more capable, and more successful than their girlfriends are. If Kim made him feel that way, that’s probably why he wanted to be with her.”

“I guess that makes sense. But, now I feel like I should have handled him differently. It’s still my fault to some degree that I didn’t just love him for who he was and not try to change him.”

“Well, Michelle, don’t blame yourself. Sometimes, because of different reinforcement histories, two people are just too different in how they behave to be happy together. Think back to your mom and me. Your mom’s past caused her to behave in ways I didn’t like. And I constantly behaved in ways she didn’t like. She didn’t like that I constantly read books; she wanted a lot more of my attention. When she nagged about those things, I just wanted to escape, and my escaping just hurt her more. Our relationship was almost solely aversive and based on negative reinforcement and punishment. We hardly ever positively reinforced each other. If you contrast that to my relationship with Bridget, it’s almost the opposite. Almost all of our actions towards each other are reinforcing for both of us. And there is no need for either of us to use aversive stimuli or aversive consequences.”

“Dad, I really don’t want to hear about how perfect and happy you and Bridget are right now, okay?” I could feel myself getting irrational as the tears began.

“Michelle, I’m not trying to say that, I’m trying to explain that love can be conditional and that we love people who reinforce us and make us feel good and we don’t have the same feelings for people who make us feel bad.”

“What do you mean? You don’t love ME conditionally, do you?! I really can’t believe you are saying this. It makes it sound like you could stop just loving me if I did something you didn’t like.”

“No no. I wouldn’t stop loving you for one—or even many—wrong things. I just think that’s how love works for all of us, whether people want to admit it or not. Most just don’t think about it. That’s not to say I don’t love you as much as someone can love a person…”

“Jesus, Dad, I have always loved YOU so much! I even remember thinking as a child that I couldn’t bear the thought of living without you. It wasn’t conditional for me!”

“Michelle, believe me when I say I have and always will love you so much. That has never changed and never will. We have such a long history of positive reinforcement together—and I intend for that to continue.”

Exasperated, I said, “Why does EVERYTHING always have to come back to Skinner? You never really hear ME, Dad. Maybe you don’t listen because I’m not PERFECT, like your PERFECT wife, Bridget.” I felt a fight coming on and it felt good to finally make that attack on her.

Continuing to cry, I said, “I just get the impression you won’t love me as much if I don’t believe the way you do.”

Dad softened and said, “Michelle, that’s not true. I love you more than I could ever tell you. I am beyond proud of you. You’ve accomplished things I never could.” His voice waivered and his eyes filled up.

“But, Dad, you basically haven’t cared about me at all since you found Bridget. I really loathe you both sometimes. I don’t want to feel that way, but I can’t help being jealous of her.”

“Michelle, I’m sorry I hurt you. I guess I didn’t realize you were still so hurt by it. I thought you understood what happened. I really thought marrying Bridget was going to be good for you too. I never dreamed you wouldn’t accept her.”

I didn’t accept HER? What are you talking about? SHE didn’t accept ME! And YOU turned your back on me and sided with her all the time. She could do no wrong and I was ALWAYS doing SOMETHING wrong. She judged me and made me feel terrible about myself, and you went right along with her. I was so happy until she came along, and then I was miserable, and you never even noticed.” It was painful to discuss the betrayal. I’d never brought it up to him and thought I’d done a good job getting past it, but clearly, those emotions were still painfully strong.

“Michelle, I NEVER stopped loving you like I always did. I didn’t realize you were in so much pain. I really thought Bridget was going to be the perfect person to come in and love you like a mother. I thought she would be the kind of mom you needed but weren’t getting. I’m sorry for all the pain we caused.”

“See, Dad, Skinner can’t fix everything. He doesn’t have ALL the answers.” Dad had apologized—don’t ask me why I felt the need to add that last dig.

For the next hour, Dad listened, really listened to me talk about my emotions, my painful adolescence, and how I’d felt abandoned by him at the worst possible time in my life. I rehashed many painful moments when he had rejected my feelings or sided with Bridget against me, and I told him what a hypocrite I thought he became when they met. He didn’t try to defend himself. I could tell he genuinely felt terrible. He also admitted to me that Bridget hadn’t “replaced” me and that he missed the relationship we had when I was younger.

After we’d both had a good cry, we took a walk to the fountain and agreed that I’d probably just had my primal scream moment.

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