I was working with a client today and suggesting that he and his partner, like many couples, have three basic ways in which they relate to one another. The first is that they argue, each trying to prove that they are right and the other person is wrong.
The second pattern often occurs when people are tired of fighting. They try to listen and understand their partner, but because they’re afraid a fight will occur, they stop giving voice to their own feelings. This pattern is an improvement over the first one, but it often leads to another problem.
I’ll explain the third pattern later in this article, but first I want to share what happened when my client went from pattern one—fighting—to pattern two—giving up his voice. When his partner was critical of him he would listen to her and then apologize. When she made demands, he would acquiesce. But there were two problems with this. He was giving her a green light to continue her behaviors and he was becoming resentful.
Too angry to listen
When this couple showed up in my office she was angry and he was worn out. She was too angry to listen to him. So he sat there and listened to her complaints—but clearly he was getting more and more upset. He acted like he was listening to her, but his attitude said something else.
Later, when he and I were in a private session I asked him what his part was in all of this, because although he could see her part, he wasn’t sure how he was contributing to the problem. It’s as if he’d built a clever defense by saying, “Well, I listen to her and I apologize and try to be understanding.” All that may have been true, but still, what was his part?
I shared with him, “There’s no way I could be with someone who was highly critical of me, time and time again, without having it build up. Eventually it’s gonna seep out somewhere.”
He said, “Well, come to think of it, sometimes I see her starting to lose it and I just sit back and think to myself, ‘watch this.’” There was a slight grin on his face.
I added, “I remember your partner saying she wasn’t too happy with your lovemaking for the last several months. She said she wants to make love at night and you want to make love in the morning and it only happens in the morning. She also said it that it no longer feels like love making, just sex. What do you think about that?”
He justified his behavior by saying, “Yeah, maybe, but I have more libido in the morning.”
“I believe you,” I said, “but is it also a way to punish her, to get back at her? It seems like an indirect way to assert yourself.”
What do you call that behavior?
He asked, “What do you call that? Does that have a label?”
I said, “Yes, it’s called foolish. It’s also passive aggressive—doing hurtful things while pretending you’re not. For example, your partner asked you to not get involved with the remodel of her house and the first thing you did was call the contractor. You said you were trying to help, but she explicitly asked you not to get involved.”
“Your partner said she preferred to make love at night but you would only make love to her in the morning.”
“This is how we behave when we allow another person to treat us ‘less than’—less than kind, less than respectful, less than the way we want to be treated. You allow her to treat you that way and then you feel hurt and use your hurt feelings to justify treating her poorly. But you’re not being straight. You’re not taking responsibility to let her know how you really feel.”
He said, “I think you’re onto something because I feel my chest tightening as I listen to you.”
Now, going back to my original premise—there are three ways couples relate to one another. One is to fight, the second is to avoid fights by not voicing their feelings, but this often results in becoming passive aggressive.
There is a third way, which is what we teach in Reology. I refer to it as respectful relating. This means that we listen, make an effort to understand the other person’s point of view, and speak about ourselves without telling the other person about him or her. It involves making agreements about how we’ll relate with one another and then honoring those agreements. And there are specific tools we can learn that make this easy to do. It’s what we teach in our course that’s sold on Amazon (for half-price) and it’s what we teach in our retreats.
If you relate in this way, no negative feelings build up. They get dealt with as soon as you feel them. This eliminates passive aggressive behavior.
As I was concluding the session with my client he was starting to feel a bit better, finding his voice again, then he said, “Yeah, now that I’m feeling better I’m going to remind her how badly she behaved—she got really crazy—when we were on our trip to Boston . . . “
I interrupted him and said, “Don’t do that.”
The dumbest thing
“Don’t try to prove that your partner is some crazy person. It’s the dumbest thing in the world to try and prove that your partner is a crazy person, or a jerk, or an a_ _hole. It’s one of those arguments that you lose by winning. If you prove your partner’s a jerk, what’s that say about you.”
He looked at me and sincerely said, “Good point. I won’t do that any more.”
Can this couple change the way they relate? I don’t know. My guess is that they won’t make it unless he’s able to maturely express his feelings. The “crazy person” comment wasn’t a good sign. He still wanted to hurt her.
I suggested that he become very clear about how he wants to relate to his partner in a healthier way and then extend an invitation to her. “Invite her to join you and do this together.” It’s an invitation, not a demand. If she says, “no,” then the answer is clear; it’s time to move on. If she says, “yes,” then both of you need to hold yourselves accountable and live up to this new agreement and new way of respectful relating.