Thursday, October 19, 2017

enabling, disabling and re-engaging

Anybody can be angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person to the right degree at the right time for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not easy

Today I met a mother whose college-aged daughter had become belligerent and rude. When the daughter asked for something like a glass of water, the mother either complied, bringing it to her with a "Here you go, dear," or denied the request explaining that she was just too tired to get up from the couch at the end of her long day.

In the first scenario, the daughter rarely thanked the mother and, sometimes, didn't even acknowledge her.  The mother felt invisible, like her daughter was acting all entitled.  But if the mother did not comply, the daughter pressured her relentlelssly, sometimes even treating her to a litany of explosives which criticized and demeaned her.  The mother was appalled at what she perceived to be her daughter's lack of empathy.

She knew, "I'm an enabler" but her alternative strategy, to disengage, seemed to be doing more harm than good. What to do, she wondered...

The mother came from a family where you either cared for others or looked after yourself. She never learned how to engage needy others without enabling them. Not surprisingly, the mother's two gears for dealing with her daughter's requests were: enabling or disengaging. Lo and behold, she created a monster!

But there is an alternative.

The mother could make her service to others dependent on their respect. She could do this by enabling civility, at the very least by inviting them to say "please" and "thank you" before and after doing something for them.  This disables rudeness without disengaging, a pretty simple way to turn this mother's situation around.  She may not be able to control her daughter, but she is always in charge of herself.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

crossing the line

Either you're right or you're in a relationsip

Much of the literature advises “no contact” with a person who is abusive.  Sometimes I think I should do this with my husband.  Other times I’m not so sure.

I see a pattern in my life.  I've been the victim before.  Actually, I've been thevictim a lot! My boundaries have been violated by friends, family, colleagues... so I must be the common denominator.

My partner is working on himself. He is becoming more self-aware and the incidents of verbal abuse are getting fewer and farther between. He is in an anger management group and starting to look at his behaviour.

I don’t want to blame myself when my husband crosses the line (the literature calls this “blaming the victim”) but doesn’t every conflict have two sides?  Shouldn’t I be owning mine?

It’s easy to lump “abusers” into one pile and “victims” into another, and say never the twain shall meet.  This might be the only recourse in a relationship where the abusive person is so defensive that there is only ever one side to every disagreement. Your boundary is not really being crossed because, in the abuser’s mind, there is no “you”, just an annoying voice that needs to be quashed, controlled or silenced. It is a no-win situation and no-contact may be the only option.

But sometimes a black-and-white solution like no-contact is not the only answer.  In fact, in the majority of conflicts, even when one partner becomes abusive, the dynamics are usually more nuanced.  Both sides may need to do some work on maintaining boundaries.

Like you, I have noticed that most victims are repeat defenders just as most abusers are repeat offenders.  Without blaming the victim, I wonder: are victims possibly missing cues that might forewarn them of violence?

I recently read that victims of physical violence tend to push back on their abusive partners. Maybe they are misreading or ignoring a potentially abusive situation and failing to back away before it escalates? This may be especially true in a relationship where there is a pursuer-distancer dynamic.

“Distancers” get easily overwhelmed by strong emotions.  They need downtime to self-regulate (hence the famous dictum to “breathe”, “take a time-out” or “count to ten”).  The “pursuing” partner, rather than back away when the distancer becomes unavailable, attempts to bridge the gap by getting physically closer or asking what is wrong and trying to fix the problem.  The distancer, threatened by the encroaching pursuer who seems to be ignoring their need for space, feels warranted in pulling further away or pushing back harder and begin at this point either to sulk and go silent, or raise their voice and yell at or insult their partner.

Distancers often feel it is unfair to be called out for “abusive” behaviour. They see their partner as having provoked them. While pursuers do not deserve to be blamed for their partner’s violence, they may need to do their work on containing their emotions rather than acting them out.  They may be just as impulsive as their abusers.

So, to answer your question, it is quite possible you both need to work on your side of the conflict, even if only one of you resorts to verbal or physical violence.  When you work on your dynamic together, you become allies rather than opponents and stand a much better chance of managing conflict before it gets to the point where someone crosses a line.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Caring and compassion, chaos or control?

My husband is a very kind, protective person but, once in a while, he flips and becomes unbearably bossy.  He gets on his high horse and starts to comment on my life and how I should live it.  It could be as stupid as telling me how to organize my kitchen while I’m cooking, or how to load my fork so the food won’t fall off it when I’m eating.  It’s kind of cute.  Until he goes as far as to tell me how to be a better parent to my kids (who are not his) or gives me all kinds of unsolicited advice on my choices with friends, colleagues, family or money.  He starts out sweet and caring but, if I tell him I did not ask for his advice, it escalates and becomes chaotic very quickly.  He can get so worked up that he ends up giving me these patronizing lectures that sound almost angry.  If I continue to push back or (God forbid) cry because I feel like a scolded child, he tells me I can’t take criticism and accuses me of taking things too personally. 

I tell him his way of talking hurts me, and have tried asking him to talk about himself and his feelings instead of criticizing me and mine (to use I-statements as you have suggested), but he says I am playing the victim, or the therapist, and that he should not have to use special words or phrases to express his opinion.   He says I am being controlling!  But I feel like he is the one trying to control me.  The conversation goes round and round.  It’s crazy-making…

He has ADD and OCD.  Sometimes he uses cocaine.  Maybe there is a connection?  Or maybe he is a just a hopeless control freak. 

He is the one being controlling!  I do not think that is your husband’s intention and, yes, there is probably a link to his ADD and OCD, and cocaine; we’ll get to that later…

One of the reasons I-statements are so important is it puts the emphasis on the speaker and his opinions and feelings rather than on you and yours.  Relying on you-statements puts the listener on the defensive as your husband is doing to you, “the accused”!  He is pointing the finger instead of talking about himself.  If you feel criticized it is because you are being criticized.  No wonder you push back!

Lovers and parents can both get into this “high horse” mode when they are worried about their loved ones.  One of my good friends told me that when he was a boy his sisters would berate him when they worried about him.  If he cried they’d just dig in deeper, trying to get him to man up, like your husband is doing to you now.  They probably cared.  They just had a helluva way of showing it. 

As a parent I have surely fallen into the same trap when my kids have done things that upset me, like forgotten their homework. “How many times do I have to remind you to double-check your agenda?” If my son or daughter would push back on me, “I don’t have time”, or say, “Stop telling me what to do!” I would just get more exasperated and respond with something like, “Well you should make time!” or “I’ll stop telling you what to do when you start doing it by yourself!”  I wanted to inspire and encourage them but it always came out angry!! 

This is definitely a learned thing.  My parents did it to me and theirs to them and so on and so on… We learned to express concern by sermonizing but to our loved ones it just feels like strong-arming them into submission.

As for ADD and OCD, you’re right, it would make it even worse.  ADD is an impulse control problem, and OCD resolves anxious feelings by trying to do something about them!  So if someone has both ADD and OCD tendencies, when they worry about their loved ones, their impulse is to say or do something to get them or the situation under control, quick!  It is more than an impulse.  It is a compulsion that bypasses thoughtful action because of an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Add cocaine to the mix and, well, you have someone who is going to be even more emotionally labile, even though he may be using coke to help get his emotions under control.  It’s a vicious circle because of course it is not just avoiding the problem, it’s making it worse.

Your husband needs to understand the triggers for his impulse control issues (always going back to childhood) then develop a plan of action for dealing with his feelings other than by avoiding them with drugs or acting on them by controlling you.  He will have to practice the plan, putting it into action until it becomes second nature.  He can do it!  And you can help him.  But he needs to own his part, stay planted in his feelings and reach out to you rather than tell you what to do.

Finally, in terms of being a “control freak”… I am not very fond of that term or in agreement with claims that people who are controlling relish power over others.  That is a rare perversion of the human spirit.  I think it is more accurate to say that controlling people feel easily controlled and, when they feel helpless, deeply and genuinely want to do something about it.  They just haven’t learned how.