Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dismaying Story #126: He Won’t Fight Fair

Dear Andrew,

I've been married for three years. In many ways, my husband is a funny, kind, and thoughtful man. However, should I become upset about something he takes it as a personal attack. His response? He fights dirty.

I never hear him say, "I'm sorry, but I really didn't know that would upset you," or anything resembling an apology. He goes for the jugular. He lists off a series of adjectives to describe me: a nag, a control freak, a manipulator, someone who is not transparent....I don't think I'm any of these things (and I say that after a lot of introspection and talk with family and friends). His tone in these arguments is very acidic. His words are dripping with sarcasm. In a nutshell: he's mean.

I have such a hard time recovering from these arguments. I often find that I'm not just mad at him, but I actually don't even like him as a person. Sometimes those feelings linger for a few days.

My guess is that he uses personal attacks to put me on the defensive so that argument is no longer about what he's done to upset me, but more about me trying to get a handle on why he would accuse me of being manipulative. After our last argument I told him point-blank that he was very mean, and that disagreements didn't have to be like this.

Are we at our worst in arguments or is that behavior indicative of our true beings? Is my husband a mean person, or is he just highly dysfunctional when it comes to conflict resolution?

Signed, Wanting to Fight Fair

Dear Wanting to Fight Fair,

We all have our personality traits. For instance some people are quick to anger, whereas others find it easier to remain calm. When I talk to folks who have trouble staying cool in conflict situations, sometimes they will claim, “That’s just how I am. I’ve always been that way and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Sorry, but that’s baloney.

Clearly our personalities influence our behavior, but they do not have to determine it. We can all learn life skills and strategies to cope effectively with others.

Are you a great negotiator? Most of us are not. But do you believe there are negotiation experts out there who could teach you some tips and approaches that would improve your abilities in that area? Sure there are. The same is true with all sorts of life skills – public speaking, managing finances, work/life balance ... and yes, how to have an argument with your significant other so the conflict is resolved without damaging your relationship in the process.

Dr. Phil has some great advice for couples in this regard. Here are Dr. Phil's rules for fighting fair, which I copied from his website:
  • Take it private and keep it private.
    Fighting in front of your children is nothing short of child abuse. It can and will scar them emotionally — all because you don't have the self-control to contain yourself until you can talk privately.
  • Keep it relevant.
    Don't bring up old grudges or sore points when they don't belong in a particular argument. Put boundaries around the subject matter so that a fight doesn't deteriorate into a free-for-all.
  • Keep it real.
    Deal with the issue at hand, not with a symptom of the problem. Get real about what is bothering you, or you will come away from the exchange even more frustrated.
  • Avoid character assassination.
    Stay focused on the issue, rather than deteriorating to the point of attacking your partner personally. Don't let the fight degenerate into name-calling.
  • Remain task-oriented.
    Know what you want going into the disagreement. If you don't have a goal in mind, you won't know when you've achieved it.
  • Allow for your partner to retreat with dignity.
    How an argument ends is crucial. Recognize when an olive branch is being extended to you — perhaps in the form of an apology or a joke — and give your partner a face-saving way out of the disagreement.
  • Be proportional in your intensity.
    Every single thing you disagree about is not an earth-shattering event or issue. You do not have to get mad every time you have a right to be.
  • There's a time limit.
    Arguments should be temporary, so don't let them get out of hand. Don't allow the ugliness of an argument to stretch on indefinitely.

Your husband is straying from these rules in at least four ways. He uses character assassination as a primary tactic, the intensity of his reaction sounds like it is off the charts, his idea of an olive branch is a blunt club, and you make it clear in your letter that your discussions stray far from the real issues.

I agree with Dr. Phil’s rules, which he proposes for a very good reason – bad things happen if you don’t follow these guidelines. You are living proof of this. Your husband may not mean to drive you away with his tactics, but that is one consequence of his actions.

I suspect the answer to your question is that your husband is not a fundamentally mean person. If he were then this would exhibit itself more generally in various aspects of his behavior. Instead his conflict resolution skills could use a tune up.

So the question becomes how to make that tune up happen.

I suggest you begin by looking in the mirror. Have you been following all of Dr. Phil’s rules? Be honest with yourself now. I know it’s not easy to do, but you are half of this equation so you need to make sure you are not also contributing to the problem.

I’ll give you a hint. Here are the words you said to him: “You are mean.” That may be your true feelings at the time, but it is also a character assassination. It is a comment about him personally rather than about the issue that started the discussion. As you can see, it can be difficult to follow the rules when stress levels are high, and especially when your partner’s behavior is not at its best. When one partner strays from the rules, the other often follows right along.

You need to get him to admit that there is an issue with your arguments. That shouldn’t be difficult. He is certainly aware of the stress in the household.

Then admit to him that your behavior has not been perfect. I’m not saying you are the problem, just that offering an olive branch can be an effective way to begin to move past an issue. Admit your part in the proceedings, remain calm and contrite regardless of how he reacts at first, and then eventually most partners will admit their part.

Then it’s time to break out a copy of Dr. Phil’s rules and suggest to him that you both learn to abide by them. I promise – if you can get to that point you will get past your issues more quickly and with fewer hurt feelings.

Finally, I have posted before on the issue of fighting fair. You will probably also glean some ideas from Dismaying Story #89: Learning to Fight Fair. The challenges faced by the couple in that story are different from yours, but the strategy for moving past them is similar.

All the best,

Last week I put out a request for people to send in new questions. A few people responded ... thanks! I could still use a much larger back-log of questions, though. So if you know someone who could use some advice or even just an encouraging word, please reach out and suggest they write in. I’ll keep the back porch light on for them so they can find their way.
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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dismaying Story #125: Feeling Trapped

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for taking time to read this, as I am terrified and confused about my state of being. My closest peers know what I’m going through and I’ve received their input, but I don't know what to think about my situation and I’m so terrified.

I am 23 years old and I am still living with my single mother. Ever since I could remember, the slightest thing would set her off: If I asked her a question she didn't like, if I offered an opinion that was unlike hers, or if I talked too much while she was watching something. My earliest memories are of her screaming at me. When I was four, she started dating this man who was not very nice to me and insisted on nicknaming me "Little Bitch." I would not say he was physically abusive, but he was a real hot head and got mad as quickly as my mother. He impregnated her and they had my brother and stayed together while they both fought physically and verbally.

When they broke up my mother started physically abusing me and didn't stop until I threatened to call the cops on her this year. She always said I’d be "screwing truckers at 15" and I wasn't going to amount to anything. I tried calling child services on her, but it only made her mad and the rest of my family mad. I didn't know what to do.

Now, I’m 23, I’m trying to save a car, but my money is all in her possession, she screams at me for everything, even dragging my feet, and sometimes she'll be so nice and then she'll set off into criticizing me for not going to college (she refused to fill out Financial Aid forms, so I cannot afford it), and calls me a loser. She barges into my personal life, tells me who to date, who to hang out with, and she gets really suspicious if someone she doesn't like calls me.

I don't know what to do and I’m at my wits end. I don't know how to make it stop.

Please answer my query, because I don't know what else to do.

Signed, Feeling Trapped

Dear Feeling Trapped,

Yours is a classic case of a victim who feels she has no options. You have been dependent on your mother for a place to live, for her approval (which you often fail to receive), for the necessities of life. You have fallen into a trap of feeling like you have no options. This is similar to the mindset so often reported by abused wives – they feel they have nowhere to go, that they are powerless to create a better situation for themselves.

Simply put, in your case this is not true.

Let’s look at the positive side of your balance sheet. You are earning an income - I assume this because you say you are trying to save your money. You are an adult (although I’m not sure you have realized this yet), so you are capable of managing life’s logistics on your own.

I’ll stop the list right there, because that is all you need to extract yourself from this situation. Here’s what I recommend:

First, demand your money from your mother. I don’t mean ask for it, and then accept her initial refusal to give it to you. I mean DEMAND IT! Tell her she is going to give it to you, and right now thank you very much, and keep on telling her until she gives in, no matter how long it takes and no matter how much unpleasantness she spews your way in the meantime. Win. Don’t quit until you do. Use whatever leverage you need to, but win this one battle.

Now you have accomplished three things:

1) You have shown your mother that you are not a child anymore. You have started to redefine the relationship between the two of you so you have more of a standing, as befits the adult you are;

2) You have grown the beginnings of a backbone, which will make you feel better about yourself; and

3) You have your money.

With this accomplished, next give yourself a 7-day goal (with a 30-day, absolute, no-excuses deadline) to find another place to live. Talk to girlfriends who could use a roommate. Look at apartments. Read the paper and look for ads for boarders, rooms for rent. Make a plan and find a way, because you absolutely cannot alter the life-long patterns between you and your mother while you are living together.

Once you are out, now you need to start a program to help yourself recover from all the negative messages that have been drummed into your head for so many years.

Check out a free therapist through a local clinic, because you will almost certainly need help identifying all those messages and then discovering the alternative truth about life and about yourself.

Consider limiting the amount of contact you have with your mother for a while. Your progress will be more difficult if every time you take two steps forward she then works hard to drag you three steps back.

Finally, I suggest you read Dismaying Story #56: Divorcing Your Toxic Parents. This will help you understand you are not alone and will point you to other relevant resources.

I find it so sad that you have had to endure such a difficult and clearly abusive situation for so long. The only sadder thing would be if you continued when there is no need to do so.

You can do this! Make up your mind to get your own life, and then go make it happen.

Good luck!
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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Dismaying Story #124: Sexual Obsession

Dear Andrew,

I discovered over the summer that my husband is suffering from "Sexual Addiction." It's been the most painful and gut churning experience of my life. He is in therapy now, but that doesn't really help ME deal with it. As I look back over our years together, I am faced with re-framing everything, because it all feels like one big lie now.

As more and more details come out, I feel more and more discouraged. His "acting out" behaviors ran/run the gammut from compulsive use of porn (for hours at a time while I was at work supporting him through school), suspected acts of voyeurism (it seems to me that not even our friends or family members were spared), obsession and fantasies about almost any female acquaintance I have ever had, and "sexual anorexia." Not to mention all the times I caught him, only to be talked out of what I saw. He was so very intent on NOT being discovered that my sanity and peace of mind were of no consequence at all. He became very talented at lying to my face, and then becoming enraged and verbally abusive if I didn't accept his explanations. Boy, do I feel stupid now.

I stayed with him. I am not sure why, but I keep hoping that the man I thought I married will come back. I miss my best friend. How strange to learn that my entire marriage was a fabrication. Now I have to try to put the family back together with a man I really do not know.

If you have any resources for me (education, encouragement....just whatever...) I would sure appreciate it.

Signed, Trying to Put it Back Together

Dear Trying,

I am so sorry to hear of your troubles. That must have been a terrible shock, and obviously is still a minefield of emotions and challenges to battle your way through.

My first thought is that you are most definitely not stupid. Trusting, loving, caring, maybe ... all the things a spouse is supposed to be. And now add "hurting" to the list.

Your marriage can only ever regain happiness if he truly changes. It sounds like he has been defining himself for some time by his compulsions. This is big part of how he defines himself, which means he has an enormous mountain to climb if he wants to truly change. This is not just ditching some habits -- it is a makeover of his complete self image. This is not easy and not everyone can do it.

You need to protect yourself. That can be tough to do while also trying to rebuild the relationship. The protection involves building protective barriers, while the rebuilding requires opening yourself up, being "out there" and emotionally vulnerable. I'd say protect yourself in the beginning and put yourself "out there" for him only to the extent that he proves himself, that he proves he has made true progress in changing.

In some of my earlier posts I talk about losing fear in relationships. It goes something like this: Imagine that he is unable to change. Imagine that you are eventually forced to live a life without him. Now build a picture of how that could be okay, or even way better than okay. See yourself in a nice home, with friends to spend time with ... whatever would be a pleasant existence without a significant other. See yourself being content, filling your life with plenty of positive experiences.

If you can succeed at that exercise, then you will realize your life will not be ruined if this relationship doesn't work out, or even if no relationship ever works out. Then you can relax. Sure, you still want to make it work, but you are not so panicked about the possibility that it might not.

And it might not. Like I said before, changing his entire self image will be truly difficult.

Strangely enough, by deciding that you would be okay without the relationship, you are actually increasing the chances that it might work out, or at least the part that depends on you. By relaxing, you will contribute more positive energy to the relationship, and maybe a little less stress.

But honestly, he is the one who has caused the problems, not you. The burden of change falls upon him. If he is as obsessive as you describe, then he is unlikely to be able to accomplish the change alone – he will likely need professional help, which he probably won’t get without sufficient motivation. That could be your contribution, motivating him with the promise to leave if he doesn’t change.

But don’t make that promise unless you are willing to back it up. If he doesn't change and you stay with him, then you have become part of the support system for his problem.

I truly hope you can find a happy ending. My thoughts and prayers will be with you. Good luck!!

All the best,
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