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During high school, my mother talked a lot about contrary action. “Contrary action” is exactly as it sounds – an opposite action. Essentially, it is about identifying the parts of your life where you innately choose to do something less than ideal and flip it on its head. This morning, for example, my initial instinct was to lay in my bed and marinate in a white wine hangover whilst half-watching season three of Sex and the City for the twentieth time. Instead, however, I managed to get in the shower, put on a pot of coffee, and sit at my desk to write. Voila! A contrary action has been born!
At the onset of said writing, as I mainlined a gallon of French Roast, I googled “the practice of contrary action.” Mostly, I wanted to confirm that it wasn’t a practice my mother had accidentally adopted from all of the new age cult documentaries she consumes. I have learned it is best to do a bit of research before publishing articles about “things my mom said when I was young.”
Even though skimming the first page of Google was about as much academic research as my pounding headache would allow, I managed to learn that contrary action is a popular practice among addicts in recovery. Makes sense, right? If you want to get high on drugs (like the scary kind that kill you or make you sell your newborn for meth) it is best to perform a contrary action and do the opposite of that. For example, by going to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting instead.
While my mother didn’t learn about contrary actions from a sponsor, essentially the same idea applied when we were kids. Want to scream at dad because he took away your cell phone? Maybe do a contrary action and reflect for 20 minutes before unleashing a slew of vulgarities on the man that feeds you. Want to sleep until noon every Saturday and Sunday? Maybe instead get up and go for a run so you can make the soccer team. Want to sulk because you don’t get an allowance and your friends do? Maybe do a contrary action and get a job.
When I was a teenager, contrary actions were all about physical acts. It was about getting up and cleaning my room instead of wallowing in a pit of dirty clothes and Akon CDs or about calling my sweet elderly Grandmother instead of avoiding it like an ungrateful twat. (Twat felt right in this context, didn’t it?).
Upon entering adulthood, however, contrary actions have become a tool I use to impact my mental going-ons as much as my physical ones. When my 6 a.m. alarm goes off and my first thought is, “Wow, you’re 23 and have no purpose,” I try to employ mental contrary actions. Instead of rolling around in self-loathing, I force myself to think about my life and the exceptional things that have happened in it thus far. I pull a contrary action on bullshit negative self-talk, otherwise known as a mental bitch slap.
If I look in the mirror and my mind starts to wander down the steep yet incredibly seductive slope that is finding flaws in my figure, I try to take a contrary action and remember all of the reasons my body is badass. I mean, I have working legs that allow me to shred up a multitude of dance floors in one evening AND have a functioning liver that properly filters potato vodka out of my bloodstream. If that’s not a dope body, I don’t know what is.
Another example of employing mental contrary action happened last week when my crazy thoughts reared their ugly head to talk shit about my love life. In the wee hours of the morning (the time my mind is most susceptible to the insanity that is self-doubt), I began to compare myself to my friends in Los Angeles. One is married and pregnant and most of the rest are in serious relationships. “Are you not in a serious relationship because no one actually wants to commit to you?” my mind wondered. “Will you always be the girl that’s great at dating but bad at relationships?” It’s amazing what bullshit my mind will pull before I’ve even had my morning hard-boiled egg.
As my mind started to run amok, I tried to use the skill set my mother taught me years ago. What’s the contrary action to self-doubt? For me, it’s compassion. I actively reminded myself of all the things I like about who I am, all of the things I am good at, and that I am ever so proud of myself for continuing to date even when the outlook is bleak. Then, I began to wonder — can contrary action be applied to relationships and dating? Can actively doing the opposite of unproductive behaviors in all aspects of romantic life be a key to a healthier and happier dating experience?
Sure, in theory, maybe. But what if I made a cognizant effort to apply the practice of contrary actions to my romantic life on a daily basis? Would it have as positive an outcome as it does for my own personal struggles? Could contrary action be the key to romantic bliss?
I decided to do a case study of my own instead of waxing poetic about an unsubstantiated claim like I normally do in these columns. You know, practice what you preach and all. My strategy was as follows.
I identified three women in very different phases of the dating cycle: 1) Single, 2) Ambiguous non-exclusive relationship, 3) Serious Relationship, and asked them to intentionally do at least one contrary action during the course of the week. This morning I compiled our results.
Location/Relationship to Victoria: New York/Best Friend
Relationship Status: Serious Relationship
Contrary Action: Instead of immediately compromising during a fight, I took some space apart and eventually stood my ground.
Experience: “I smooth things over, it’s just what I do. I like everyone to be happy because I am happiest when I am happy, so a lot of times I am the peacemaker in my relationships. I compromise with my boyfriend a lot, which isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes it doesn’t feel equitable.”
“Recently, as our relationship gets more and more serious, I have been wanting to work on understanding when compromise is good and when I need to stand my ground. After talking to Victoria (it’s so weird to call you Victoria, by the way) about contrary action, I thought a lot about how I could use it. The perfect time came up when my boyfriend and I got into a disagreement about our parents and how involved they are in our relationship. He’s comfortable telling his parents things that I am not.”
“As we argued about this I was immediately inclined to ‘pull and Blair’ and make things better. Instead, I did a contrary action. I told my boyfriend I wanted to take a day to think about things. I needed a day of no contact. This felt insane for me to do because I never give myself time to digest the argument.”
“At first, my boyfriend was uncomfortable with a day of silence, mostly because it seemed out of character. That night, however, he said he actually saw my point and was happy we had time to think. I also felt much more confident in my position and was ready to work with him to get to a place we could both be comfortable in without immediately giving in to his point of view. After we figured things out, I think we were both way happier because we felt like each person was heard and neither one was uncomfortable with our resolution. I’m going to try to do this more in my relationship because I think it will make us stronger.”
Authors Note: Amanda is a reader who emailed me last month because she was looking for advice on getting back in the game after a post-breakup hiatus. We’ve been going back and forth for a month now.
Location/Connection to Victoria: Philadelphia/Reader
Relationship Status: SINGLE AF AND LOVING IT
Contrary Action: I called a guy out of the blue to go get dinner instead of waiting for him to contact me, even though I normally would never make the first move.
Experience: “It’s crazy because when CMV and I were talking about contrary action, I felt like I already do it all of the time. It’s basically just doing the opposite of what the lazy version of you wants to do. But when I thought about it, and actually like made an effort to try and do it, it was way harder and more intentional than I thought.”
“I have been single for a year now and really loving it, but also have become frustrated with the ‘game.’ I want to get in a relationship that has potential to go somewhere. Also, I’ve been super frustrated with exchanging numbers with someone and never hearing from him, or like having it fizzle out. One guy and I exchanged numbers a few weeks back. We texted a bunch but couldn’t find time to meet because my work schedule has been insane. Two weeks ago, he went out of town and said he would call me ‘in a few days when he was back.’ When I didn’t hear from him last weekend I was super bummed because I thought we had a cool connection.”
“On Tuesday I found myself getting more and more frustrated wondering why he hadn’t reached out. At one point, I was sitting at my desk stewing! That’s when I thought about the contrary action CMV told me to do. In the end, I called him and asked him if he wanted to go to dinner. He said he was so sorry he didn’t call, that he was so busy from the trip, but that he was thrilled that I reached out. We went to dinner on Thursday night and it went SUPER well. He’s funny! The best part of the whole thing was that I felt so in control. Also, I think he was impressed that I took the initiative. We have a date planned for next week. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Location: Los Angeles
Contrary Action: I swallowed my big fat pride and called the guy I’m seeing after a fight instead of playing mind games.
Experience: I am dating this guy, his name is Jack. Our relationship is fun and has progressed in a strange way because ever since our very first date, we have known that there is an expiration date on the relationship in the form of my leaving the state. Because we have known all along that I am leaving, we have taken things both slow and fast. The best part is that there have been no expectations, only a kind of consistent surprise that we’re both willing to embark on a two-person emotional and physical tango even though we know the relationship is going to end. I think it is a testament to how much we enjoy each other’s company, we’re willing to endure the inevitable heartbreak just to spend time together for the next two months. It’s a great relationship, but tricky to maneuver at times. My steadfast rule is that we’re honest with each other.
This week was particularly stressful at work and involved a plethora of business dinners and late night spread-sheeting. I didn’t see Jack once. We live pretty much separate lives during the week, something that works perfectly for us both. On Friday night, he called me as I was sitting at a bar trying to write. It was then that I told him my finalized plans for my move. I had finally accepted a job offer and the reality of my relocation was beginning to take shape. I’d have to leave sooner than I anticipated. At the end of the conversation, we agreed to call each other later that night as we both had some early evening obligations and planned to meet up late. When 10 o’clock rolled around, I checked my phone and was surprised there was no call. It turns out we had miscommunicated and were both waiting for each other to reach out. When I finally texted him, I was annoyed and so was he. His texts were abrupt and mine were sassy and a little bit biting. The tension was palpable even through the airwaves. In the end, he texted me something cold and I left him on read and went to sleep. Ahh, modern romance.
The next morning, I knew I’d have to employ my contrary action. Instead of getting worked up about the thing, or embarking on a three-day game of who will text first chicken, I just cleared the air. Normally, I would let things marinate. I’d let both of us wonder what the other is thinking instead of being vulnerable and swallowing my pride. Thanks to the experiment, however, I called Jack and rescheduled plans to see him that night. When 6 p.m. rolled around and I met him at the bar, we both laughed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I was a little bit mean.”
“Me too,” he replied.
“Honestly,” I said, “I’m sad about leaving you,” (for the record that’s contrary action #2, normally I would pretend I’m fine). The conversation that followed was cathartic and honest and ended in him acknowledging that by calling him I broke the ice. He noted that instead of letting things get out of hand we were able to talk about it, and that is something he likes about our not-relationship relationship. I couldn’t agree more.
So, is contrary action the key to romantic bliss? Well no, probably not. If it was, I’d get on Dr. Phil and make this whole “writing unsolicited sometimes miss-guided dating advice” my full-time job.
That being said, I do think we’ve learned something here. At least I have. Making a concerted effort to identify bad behavior in a relationship and do the opposite isn’t easy. I mean, how could it be? Essentially it is the act of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and reversing unhealthy patterns that have become innate in our day to day romantic lives.
Whether it means talking to a pretty stranger when normally you would shy away or taking a moment calmly explain to your partner that you despise the way they do dishes instead of just doing them like normal and harboring the resentment, it seems to me that contrary action is a tool among many that may make this insanely confusing and often infuriating quest for love (or lust) a tiny bit easier.
So I guess (once again), thanks for the advice, Mom. Sorry for writing about you on the internet, but aren’t you impressed I was listening? .