Is the Peacock Phenomenon playing a toxic role in your relationship?

The pursuit or expectation of perfection, which commonly stems from an unhealthy relationship with authenticity and vulnerability, is the cause of great heartache and disruption in many people’s lives. In this article, leadership coach John Williams shares a deeply personal account of his experience with the ‘Peacock Phenomenon’.

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May 19, 2022

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6 mins read

The importance of a life partner to one’s professional career, let alone entire life, cannot be overstated. There is an old saying, “Act in haste and repent in leisure”. Choosing the wrong life partner is not a mistake you want to make. If you’ve met Mr or Ms Perfect, congratulations! But don’t expect it to last. No, I’m not a cynical old bugger; I’m an optimistic romantic at heart.  However, I know that no person is perfect, and the pursuit or expectation of “perfection” is a cause of great heartache and disruption in many people’s lives. It can even cost someone their life. Even those considered holy have been crucified. Far from perfect and never committed to the popular images of perfection, I once sold an impression of who I was and what I wanted out of life to a poor unsuspecting woman who was looking for a guy just like the guy I was pretending to be. As you are about to discover, my fake persona resulted in an outcome that was anything but perfect.   

The perfect match for all of my imperfections

Within three months of meeting, the woman who fell for my pretence and I were engaged, and we married seven months later. Six years later and we were the proud parents of four young children. Meanwhile, my career had taken off. I was in a senior management role that incurred a great deal of travel.  My wife and I had time to share a brief “Hello”, “Good night”, “Good morning”, and “Goodbye”, but not much else for the first fifteen years of our marriage. We loved our kids, they were all that mattered to me, and I was on the promised trajectory. In my mind, we were doing well. 

Broken promises

Before long, reality hit and it was confronting. After I embarked on a business venture which failed, we literally lost everything. We went from a large, beautiful five-bedroom home overlooking a golf course with brand new cars and money to spend to a small three-bedroom rental house in Brisbane without air conditioning or a pool. I didn’t even own a car or have a job! I realised I had broken my promise to my wife. I’d told her I was going to make it big; she was never going to have to worry about money. At the time, I’d meant it from the bottom of my heart, and she’d trusted me to deliver.  The expectation had been set and I’d blown it. So now what? 

Persistence pays off, at least on the surface

I go again, that’s what! Within ten years, I earned my MBA, rose to a General Managers position job again, left that, and was now travelling the world to put together strategic supply deals for global corporates. We both drove a Lexus, owned our own home, and had two investment properties, one in Brisbane and an apartment in the centre of Melbourne. But I was miserable. 

I had climbed the ladder high enough to tell that the view wasn’t going to change much, even if I managed to make it up the few remaining rungs. I wanted out. I had ignored my physical, mental and emotional health and hit the wall. I was disconnected from and hated my life. But here’s the catch – I’d made promises 25 years earlier, promises my wife still expected me to live up to, and the job was far from finished. They were promises I’d made based on a fantasy of how I thought my life would look as an overconfident, inauthentic, invulnerable 22-year-old. I wasn’t dealing with the reality of who I was at heart, primarily because I didn’t know who I was back then. In my ignorance, I was writing cheques I wouldn’t have the means to cash! Here I was, in my late forties, burnt out and prepared to do just about anything to escape the life I was living. 

The slippery slope of reality

I contemplated suicide. That way, I could honour my promises, and everything would be paid off. Sure, it would be the end of me, but I’d lived a full life, so, maybe? Based on the statistics, I know I was not alone in thinking this way. In 2020, according to the ABS, the 2,384 males who died by suicide in Australia accounted for 75 per cent of all suicides that year. Their median age at the time of death was 43.6. Indeed, males aged 40-54 accounted for over one quarter (26.7%) of all male suicides that year.  

I ditched that plan after a conversation with my wife that finished my marriage but probably saved my life. I cracked and finally spoke my truth. “I don’t want to live like this anymore; it’s killing me. I don’t care about the money, the cars, the travel and all the trimmings. The kids have all grown up, and I have nothing to prove to anybody. I’ve had a gutful of it all.”

“Well, I do care!” came the rapid response from my wife. “I like the cars and the money. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.  I’m never going back there again!”

The stranger

At that moment, I realised I didn’t know the woman I had been married to for 25 years, nor did she know me. I had an image of who she was in my mind, but the more I revealed myself, the more I discovered who she really was and what her journey was all about.  How could I have expected her to be open and honest about who she was and what she needed from me if I wasn’t vulnerable about my needs with her? 

I think we both knew right then that our marriage would not last. I had reached for the lifebuoy, the way out of having to be everything for everybody, away from a world where I was expected to be invulnerable. If I were being judgmental of myself, I would say I cowardly let go. I threw my marriage under the bus and all of our financial security with it.  Is it any wonder my ex-wife had little time for me? I had let her down miserably.  My lived reality was that I had no choice. I had to stop living a lie or die! If it cost me my marriage and everything I owned, then that was a price I was willing to pay. To escape from the pain and anguish, I knew I was even prepared to kill myself, either directly or by wilfully neglecting my health and indulging in risky behaviour. 

Peacock feathers make nice decorations

This could all have been avoided had I been a wise young man, but that’s an oxymoron. If only I had realised how naive it is to make lifelong commitments before you know who you really are and your purpose for being.  In hindsight, I should have spoken my truth much earlier. While honesty and vulnerability may still have ended the marriage, continuing to live in a fantasy nearly cost me my life!  

In a recent conversation with Engenesis founder and CEO, Ashkan Tashvir, he mentioned the ‘Peacock Phenomenon’. We agreed that young men can be like peacocks in that they often create an exaggerated persona. It’s fun to be a peacock and be appreciated for your finery, and peacocks are very alluring. But best you test the ability of the peacock to deliver on their promise before you go making commitments with them. Men need to accept responsibility for staying within the bounds of reality and only sell what they know they can deliver. They, and their partner, also need to realise you can’t have it all; you cannot be the best at everything. Work out what matters and be the best at that.

AwarenessIntegrityResponsibilityProcrastination

John Williams

About The Author

John's skills lay in ensuring you are operating at your peak so you can honour the commitment you’ve made to yourself and Be the leader you were born to be. Leaving school at 17, he went straight into the workforce. By 23, he was a General Manager. He climbed to the top of his profession as a senior manager in a billion dollar, multinational trading company where he simultaneously led projects in Europe, Asia, America and back in his home in Australia. In his 40’s, he earned an EMBA, studied negotiation at Harvard Business School, and gained a Professional Certificate in Arbitration. He is a son, husband, father, step father and grandfather who for over 30 years has been studying what makes some people successful while others are stuck in ever decreasing loops. What he has discovered is that we need to go beyond what we’re ‘doing’ and look at who we are ‘Being’.

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