Tag Archives: toxic relationships

Not to Upset the Family Bully, but . . .

walking-on-eggshells

I just have to share something with you. As a writer, I follow several blogs, one by author Kristen Lamb. She captured my attention in a recent post about bullying. Actually, she’s been cranking out post after post on that subject. In one she mentions “family bullying.”  Here’s the quote that grabbed me:

For every family bully, there are passive members dancing around trying to appease The Great Volcano from erupting. Clean the house a certain way, don’t have an opinion, be invisible and cater to every need Mt. Volcano has and he/she won’t blow.

This brought to mind my client, Paul (not his real name), who was feeling conflicted over spending time with his family at Christmas. The bully in his family is his mother. And the family members, with the exception of Paul, do whatever it takes to make her happy.

His mom recruited a reluctant volunteer from amongst his siblings—a sister—to guilt him into attending. She dutifully obliged even though she has a full appreciation of his position.

Paul has made it a policy to avoid such functions because “family events make me miserable,” he said. “Why do I want to go through that? My mom has to create trouble . . . she’s not happy if everyone is having a good time.”

Paul puts her in the same category as a belligerent child who pouts or storms if she doesn’t get her way or if she isn’t the center of attention.

He doesn’t mind one-on-one interactions with his brothers and sisters. The family dysfunction isn’t occurring then. As for his mother, she’s tolerable when he’s with her alone. That’s mostly because he doesn’t “play her game.” He said, “I see it as a form of standing up to her.” He’s right.

Paul is wary of family gatherings for another very good reason: “Expectations are attached to all family events. People get cranky when their expectations aren’t met.”

Many of us can relate to that.

I can still recall with great clarity a family bullying incident I witnessed firsthand a few years ago. It was painful to watch then, and still is when I think about it today. I described it in a column I wrote about some of the unfortunate consequences of family bullying.

In both of these cases the “family bully” just happens to be the mom . . . that’s a coincidence. Any family member can wear that hat.

On that note, how were your holidays—how did it go? Are there any bullies hiding out in your family?

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The Latest Wow: “Get over it!” Really?

chasm

According to the late theologian Paul Tillich, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

I rank listening right up there at the top of requirements for a well-running relationship. This includes love partnerships, parent-child relationships, friendships … you name it.

Listening is a lot bigger than the mere act of hearing with our ears. It entails reining in our straying thoughts, our knee jerk assumptions, judgments and impatience. It entails listening from a heart-space, not solely from an intellectual space.

It’s hard to master. I find that true both personally and professionally. One couple comes to mind—Ross and Sara. Ross expressed … no, he wowed me with a complaint common among many of my female clients:

“Just because someone says, ‘Get over it,’ doesn’t mean it stops hurting.”

He directed that comment to Sara after she discounted his feelings in our counseling session. He was sharing a painful incident, and instead of taking his pain seriously, she trivialized it.

Another client, Mindy, feels exactly like Ross. Her husband, Sam, not only discounts her feelings, he’s frequently sarcastic and has an explosive temper. In one of their marital sessions he said, “She cries over anything. I’m convinced she’s incapable of controlling her feelings.” I challenged him: “You accuse Mindy of being too emotional and incapable of controlling her feelings. Isn’t anger an emotion?”   Read their stories here.

Whether the one we love is our partner, our child, a friend, relative or acquaintance, statements like “Get over it,” “Why let that bother you?” and “You’re too sensitive” fail to relieve the hurting heart. Not only that, they can create a chasm between two people—a chasm that, if allowed to continue, may not be bridged.

I welcome your thoughts!

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Keeping the Peace Backfires

Hand covering wife's mouth

“It has to change!  I can’t take it anymore.”

Liza was referring to her marriage. “If I don’t conform to how Stuart wants me to be, or if I don’t agree with how he sees things, he get’s furious,” she said.  “And if he doesn’t get his way, he get’s stormy.”

Liza was describing life in a prison—her soul constricted to keeping the peace. She learned a long time ago that airing her wishes or complaints simply made matters worse. “I can’t talk to him. I’m always on edge . . . not sure how he’ll react.” For years, Liza pretended—even to herself—that nothing was wrong. “I wanted to avoid the pain I felt, so I blinded myself to the mistreatment.”

The day she stopped trying to fool herself, the day she faced her buried anguish, change became a possibility.

Liza began a journey inward, starting with examining why she doesn’t stand up for herself. She learned it as a child. With both parents, she learned it was best to squelch her real self and become agreeable, self-sacrificing, and always nice. She described her father as a “rageful tyrant,” and her mother as basically uncaring. Like Liza, she too walked on eggshells around her husband.

So Liza’s manner with her husband is learned behavior. The good news is that learned behavior can be unlearned. I suggested she read The Nice Girl Syndrome by Beverly Engel.

By our next session, I was certain Liza had done a lot of reading, because of the first words out of her mouth:

“I’m no longer a robot who wakes up in the morning and takes her daily punches.”

She confronted her husband with a bold truth: if change doesn’t happen, I’m out of here. He listened. She expressed her grievances and he listened hard and long.

Not only do I congratulate her, I congratulate him!

Companionship occurs in a relationship where two people are being themselves. Translated, this means each freely—but respectfully—expresses what he or she truly thinks, feels, wants, and needs, while the other makes it emotionally safe to do so. Each is alert to the unique needs and concerns of the other. Consistently, the couple practices frankness about what they like and dislike. Within a climate of acceptance, they freely exercise their capacity to disagree, refuse, and object. As individuals, they oppose all that threatens their integrity. And as a couple, they tackle—together—anything that threatens the strength and specialness of their relationship.

The formula for a successful relationship doesn’t lie in appeasing the other. Appeasing, in fact, can be just as destructive to a relationship as a steady diet of domination, hot-headedness, or bullying. That’s because dissatisfactions and complaints—on the part of the appeaser—are allowed to fester and accumulate to the point of bitterness and contempt. Eventually, love dries up and the appeaser may just walk away.

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Reject Spirit Zappers

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When we tune in to the outrage of being violated, no matter what the degree, it’s the beginning of putting up a protective shield.  We’re designed to be invested in self-preservation.

 It appears that for the duration of our lifetime, we’re assigned to one person to fully watch over, to love unconditionally, and bathe with constant caring and protection. We inhabit that person’s body. How else can you explain survival instincts, defense mechanisms, and pain?

These statements are excerpts from a column I wrote about Natalie and Tiffany a few years ago.  Today,  they know how  to avoid deflating people. I’m happy for them, and am moved to help others with  the same advice I  gave them.  I would love to hear your story!

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The Latest Wow: Fire Your Inner Critic!

Use words wisely I had a client tell me once:

“Every time I put myself down, I’m affirming that my mother was right.”

Click here to read about Dawn and Doug and how their childhoods were fertile soil for the formation of negative self-talk and low self-worth.

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She Turned Me Into a Puppet … But Puppets Can’t Love

man puppet

“She turned me into a puppet, and then wondered why I no longer loved her. The answer is simple—a puppet doesn’t have a heart.”

“As men, we share a single purpose: to find that one special female who will kill us just slowly enough that by the time we reach 80, we’re already dead.”

To read more about Gordon’s struggle and eventual liberation, click here.

Gordon’s story isn’t that unusual. For example, Trey—a recent client—uttered these words to his girlfriend in his therapy session:  “I don’t want to be nit-picked to death.” He went on to say that he was rethinking whether he wanted to stay in the relationship. “I’m tired of being beaten down all the time,” he explained. 

“I don’t see how I make you feel that way,” she replied.

I loved his straight-to-the-point response:  “You do it by expecting the worst out of me all the time.” 

In that relationship, Trey felt he could never do anything right. He fell into the trap of making futile, exhaustive attempts at attaining her approval before finally realizing: “It’s not me, it’s her. She wants to see me as flawed.”

Like Gordon, Trey tried to make the relationship work by altering himself—by keeping his girlfriend appeased. It turned him into a puppet—an empty shell.

After that session, Trey broke up with his girlfriend. He came to understand that no woman—no matter how special—is worth the loss of his essential being.

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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She Married Her Brother

Not really. Sheri married a man who puts her down just like her brother used to. What I really mean when I say she married her older brother is that she’s married to a pattern that began in childhood. That pattern consists of being zapped with a negative comment—like an accusation—and then reacting to it by defending herself.

Defending herself is all well and good. What’s self-defeating is that she’s compelled to do so . . . she can’t rest unless she can get him to change how he sees her.

“Okay,” I said, “Suppose he accused you of wearing orange pants (she was wearing blue jeans). Would his accusation derail you?”

“No! Not at all,” she said, laughing.

“Why not?”

“Because it wouldn’t be true,” she explained.

Ahhh. So, the key is for Sheri to get good at questioning the accuracy of all put-downs and accusations. To help her do that, I advised her, “Just think of orange pants whenever you feel the compulsion to defend yourself. Then be your own judge.”

Every accusation is an opportunity to practice believing in yourself.

Share your thoughts with me.

Names are changed to honor client privacy.

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