Tag Archives: toxic relationships

Poke the Tiger

“I pray every night that God will take my life.”

Vince, 56, apparently would rather die than leave a life-sucking relationship. He’s been with his wife, Gail, for eight years. And for the bulk of that time he’s been unhappy, merely enduring his existence instead of living.

In our counseling session, he depicted Gail as having a sharp tongue and a hair-trigger temper.

He recounted several irritating incidents of being nagged and belittled. Instead of objecting to this dignity-squashing treatment, he continues to tolerate it. “Why ignite her wrath?” he said. “I survive by withdrawing.”

“Why do you stay with her?” I asked.

Vince gave a heavy sigh. “I can’t bring myself to hurt her.”

When we protect people from hurting, we may be doing them a disservice. When offenses go unchallenged, we inhibit the soul-searching process.

“You love her, Vince, but maybe she needs to hurt a little,” I said. “The truth may hurt, but it makes us take a good hard look at ourselves and possibly grow. “She’s oblivious to the extent of your misery,” I continued, “including how badly you want out and your reasons why. How can she change for the better if she isn’t given that information?”

“You don’t know Gail,” he said. “She’ll explode!”

“Perhaps,” I said. “And it’s that behavior she needs to open her eyes to. Her temper, along with a few other habits, is chasing you away—and probably everyone else.”

Vince nodded. “It’s true. But how can I possibly tell her that?”

“Come from the caring you naturally have for her,” I said, “a space of compassion, one that’s non-critical and minus blame. In other words, don’t attempt it when you’re gritting your teeth and seething with anger.”

I suggested he write it in a letter because in a face-to-face encounter, defensive reactions are likely to be triggered in both parties.

Vince and I explored what he wanted to say in the letter. He wasn’t inclined to flat-out tell her of his intentions to walk out. That’s because he was no longer certain about that particular course of action.

He has hope—for the first time—that she might change. Vince has also come to understand how he’s been perpetuating the problem by biting his tongue.

His withdrawing behavior sent the wrong message to Gail: “Vince might not like how I’m treating him, but, hey, he still takes it, and he’s still around. It must be working.”

In short, because he continued to cooperate with toxic conditions, she failed to see it as toxic.

Cooperating with an undesirable or toxic system, situation, or person—pretending that all is well—merely reinforces it.

The question is, if he starts to assert himself in a respectful manner, will she change things on her end? Time will tell.

In the meantime, the letter. It needed to be a declaration stating that the status quo has been detrimental to Vince and their relationship. Here’s Vince’s letter:

Dear Gail,

I’m moved to write this letter because I love you and I want to improve our relationship.

Up until now, I have tended to keep my feelings locked deep inside myself. I don’t share them with you and that isn’t good. It isn’t good for either of us, and our relationship has suffered because of it.

I went to a counselor. I told her that I pray each night asking God to take my life. I’m miserable and I don’t communicate that to you. I should have a long time ago.

She helped me see that no one’s at fault here. We’ve fallen into a rut that neither of us can seem to get out of. It seems you’re critical of me almost all the time, and I feel like I can’t make you happy, no matter what I do. I clam up so nothing gets better.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t go on this way, Gail. But I have hope. I want to fix this. I want us both to be happy. I think we can be! I’d like us to go to counseling together.

Your husband, Vince

Along with this letter, Vince needs to stop withdrawing. When he feels nagged or when there’s been an insult to his dignity, he needs to learn to respectfully and immediately object.

Blocking the soul-searching process doesn’t do anyone any favors. Others remain stagnant if we’re not direct and truthful. Waking up someone who is blind to their behavior can be a painful thing, but if we really have the other person’s best interest at heart, the result will be better for everyone.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Love Shouldn’t be a Prison, and True Love Isn’t

love-prison

 

Since this is the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d dust off one of my favorites from several years ago that seemed to resonate with many people. Even if you’ve been following me from the beginning, this one’s worth a second look:

One thing that assures a long-lasting relationship is kindness—each partner treating the other with the same respect, courtesy and gentleness that characterized their mode of relating in the beginning.

Unfortunately, our human tendency after settling in is to relax those standards. We drop those nicer habits. Not good. A relationship should be a place where flowers grow . . . not a place where we’re constantly encountering prickly nettles.

Another crucial element is freedom. Love shouldn’t be a prison, and true love isn’t.

Go to my column titled “The Grander Version of Love” where you can read about Carl and Lynn. I go into more depth about kindness, freedom and two other components that comprise a healthy relationship.

I welcome your views! 

“Making marriage work is like operating a farm. You have to start all over again each morning.”

— Anonymous

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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You’re not Crazy!

frustrated-woman

Ever been around someone who makes you question your sanity because there’s no working things out? Every attempt to reason with them fails miserably . . . nothing works. Presenting facts doesn’t work. Even staying composed doesn’t work.

Those hair-pulling moments can reduce a person to a pitiful pile of frustration and self-doubt in a flash.

That’s a fairly typical response, according to Dr. Alan Godwin, author of How to Solve Your People Problems. In a seminar I attended, he pointed out that the world is populated by two groups of people—those who can be reasoned with and those who can’t . . . or won’t.

Those who can be reasoned with, he says, possess three psychologically healthy traits. They self-observe, self-monitor and self-correct.

That means they’re willing to take an honest look at themselves. They want to know their flaws and they want to monitor them. They admit to being wrong, and readily take responsibility for their actions and shortcomings. Then they go that next step—they make things right.

Godwin says that when such people see their wrongness, they cringe.  Call it a healthy dose of feeling ashamed of oneself. It’s a response rooted in a fully developed conscience. When they violate their own standards of character—how they want to be—they cringe.  ( I like that word 🙂 )

The opposite of cringing, he says, is shrugging. Shrugging is an expression of no conscience. In other words, they couldn’t care less.

Godwin states loud and clear: “If personal wrongness doesn’t bother us, we’ll do nothing to correct it.”

So true. In fact, we may deny its existence, gloss it over with elaborate excuses, or simply shrug it off.

It’s clear to me that shruggers don’t care about the quality of the footprint they leave on the landscape of humanity.

So here we are. We find ourselves living among cringers and shruggers—reasonable and unreasonable people. It’s good to know the difference, especially for those who believe they will be understood if they just exert enough effort. Those same people are certain that reasoning will inevitably transform any feud or misunderstanding into a harmonious state of connection, compromise and appreciation.

That’s all true . . . if you’re dealing with a reasonable person. But, according to Godwin, “You can’t reason with unreasonable people.”

It’s also helpful to know that unreasonable people are chronologically older than their developmental age. That is, you may be trying to communicate with a twelve-year-old who’s walking around in a forty-year old body. So your attempts to reason can only go so far. Have realistic expectations.

How to know if you’re in the presence of a reasonable versus an unreasonable person?  You’ll know them by their willingness to hear contrary opinions. They welcome feedback and are open to changing how they see and do things.

In contrast, if you try to talk to an unreasonable person, they’re likely to distort the meaning of your words and not allow you to correct any misinterpretation. They hear what they want to hear.

Reasonable people embrace truth. They don’t deny or distort it in order to avoid their own wrongness. That’s not the case with unreasonable people. Being right and winning is all they care about. Enhancing a climate of mutual cooperation, problem-solving and goodwill isn’t even on the radar.

Blaming is a characteristic of unreasonable people. When they argue, Godwin says, “They play the ‘blame game,’ absolving themselves of responsibility and attributing exclusive blame to the other side.”

What to do about these people? Godwin suggests we avoid them when we can and if that’s not possible, establish firm boundaries. This includes guarding our buttons and accepting the fact that our relationship with them will be limited—lacking depth and a level of intimacy that accompanies open and honest sharing between two people.

Godwin sums it up in a nice package:

“Superficial and light is better than bitterness and strife.”

One of my clients decided to do just that with her difficult sister. “There’s no point in trying to reason with her. I might as well save my breath because she’ll twist things to fit her world anyway.”

Needless to say, my client is feeling much freer and more peaceful these days. Her hair-pulling moments are a thing of the past.

If you’re in her shoes, take comfort: you’re not crazy. It’s probably just the company you keep.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Stay Out of the Mud!

pig_31

 

Setting boundaries includes placing limits on what we’re willing to do for others.

Sometimes, we make the same mistake a bazillion times before finally waking up.  It’s exasperating! One of  my clients knows this experience all too well. His mistake was believing he had to rescue other people—mainly women. If they weren’t happy, he felt guilty and responsible. It left his spirit heavy almost all the time.

At some point, he realized that sacrificing himself senselessly was self-destructive so he chose to rescue himself, instead.  I knew he had reached that step when he wowed me with something he had learned while growing up on the farm:

“You can’t get a pig out of the mud if it doesn’t want out. More often than not, you end up in the mud yourself–you get muddy. Pigs like to soak in the mud. Why try to get that other person out of the mud when they want to be there?”

(c) Salee Reese 2016

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The Golden Rule in Reverse

resepct two way

“Don’t let other people treat you the way you wouldn’t treat them.”

This is what I recently said to Stanley, who never objects to disrespectful treatment from key people in his life. He swallows it … and suffers for it.

Kind-hearted by nature, he’s respectful in all his dealings with others. He wouldn’t, COULDN’T, hurt a flea if forced to. But there are those in his life who don’t mirror that characteristic. When I asked him why he doesn’t stand up for himself, he said, “It’s what I’ve come to know.”

Said so well! Stanley’s succinct comment speaks to all of us. Programmed from early childhood, we tend to behave and react in ways that echo what we’ve come to know. To step outside that box takes us out of our comfort zone, and as we all know, leaving our comfort zone isn’t one of things we crave in life—we resist it like the plague.

For the remainder of our session, Stanley and I explored the ways his comfort zone existence has hurt and hindered him. I knew we were getting somewhere when he said, “I can see that I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s the only way I’ll dig myself out of this hole.”

Click here to read about Deanna with a similar problem and the advice I gave her . . . .

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Husband and Doormat

I-am-not-a-doormat - touched up

The problem with walking on eggshells is that it imprisons you, and nothing gets better.

That was my response to Naomi in our counseling session. She habitually succumbs to her hot-tempered husband.

“I’m careful about everything I say because, well, he gets ugly if I tell him what he doesn’t want to hear,” she said.

He routinely undermines her self-worth with hurtful, sarcastic remarks. But instead of objecting, Naomi immediately self-censors how she feels.

There’s a price to muzzling ourselves: a restricted voice—unspoken words held captive in the throat—is a form of confinement. If we can’t talk freely, we aren’t free.

Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist, would agree. In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he equates freedom with the ability to articulate grievances. Our founding fathers understood that basic truth when they wrote the constitution.

“When did you become a slave to his moods?” I asked. “And why is degrading treatment okay with you?”

Naomi lowered her head …. and after some tears and lots of sighs, she opened up about the many years of putting up with his abusiveness.

A pattern, though, took root way before Naomi met her husband—when she was a small child. Her one sibling—a sister—kept the household in constant turmoil with her explosive outbursts. Naomi was frequently the target of her sister’s rage and hostility.

“My parents catered to my sister in order to keep things peaceful,” she said.

And they coached Naomi to do the same. When her sister was offensive toward Naomi, instead of being supportive by prompting her to stand up for herself, they hushed her.

“They would tell me to not make waves,” she said.

In fact, Naomi was reprimanded if she fought back or defended herself. Anger wasn’t allowed, even when it was unquestionably justified.

“I was supposed to be understanding,” she said.

Clearly, Naomi and her sister weren’t held to the same standards of conduct and selflessness.

This sent a distinct message to Naomi: the difficult people—those hard to live with—are to be excused.

In this seedbed of her early formation, Naomi naturally concluded that her feelings should always take a back seat, and that she’s expected to quietly endure harsh treatment.

This early programming set the stage for the dynamics in her current relationship. In effect, Naomi married her sister. And now her parents reside inside her head, instructing her to “not make waves” and to tolerate her raging and demeaning husband while ignoring her emotional wounds. A clear-eyed, critical stance toward her husband’s behavior leaves Naomi feeling guilty, causing her to second-guess whether her feelings and observations are accurate, acceptable or even normal. My work with Naomi has included helping her question her programming instead of herself.

“What did your parents need to do differently?” I asked.

“I should have been allowed to assert myself with my sister,” she responded. “They should have let me fight her, stand my ground and say how angry she made me feel. Instead, everything was suppressed. I was never able to speak up to verbal abuse.”

Since her feelings weren’t validated as a child, Naomi has to learn how to do that for herself as an adult. Trusting her emotions is an important hurdle. She is learning just how important it is to be able to honestly assess how others treat her, and how to do it without feeling guilty. Sometimes, subjecting another person to critical analysis is absolutely called for—and necessary for both parties.

I asked her, “Now, what does your husband need from you?”

She seemed surprised by the question. “He needs . . . he really needs me to be myself. He needs me to be honest with him, or he’ll treat me like this until the end of time and we’ll have no chance of really being together. We’ll be ‘husband and doormat’ until we’re old and gray . . . .”

A few sessions later, Naomi told me how she had successfully stood up to her husband after he made a rude comment. She told him she didn’t deserve being talked to that way. And as one could easily predict, he flared up. She, on the other hand, felt bad about upsetting him.

In so many words I said this to Naomi:

He’s upset because you’ve given up your doormat status. Remember, he married a doormat. He didn’t opt for a partner who stood up for herself. So understandably, he’s not in a jubilant mood upon running headlong into your integrity. He’s going to fight back at first, hoping to return things to how they were. Consider his fury a clear sign that you’re evolving.

She smiled, and I could see the relief on her face. Clearly, a new day is coming for Naomi! 🙂

Hopefully, Naomi’s husband follows suit and does some evolving himself. If not, she probably won’t stick around. That’s because once we perceive things through clear eyes, and once we become our own advocate, it’s impossible to go back to tolerating the status quo.

Something to keep in mind:

Don’t automatically assume when someone’s angry at you that you’ve done something wrong. Maybe, just maybe, you did something right.

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2015

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Two to Tango

tango

Passivity invites the other person to take a power position.

Maya and Jarel have been dancing the same dance step—or style of relating—for years. He dominates and she obediently yields. She’s tired of it.

Not long ago, she was ready to walk out the door, but right at that point he made a dramatic change . . . for the better. Now she’s not so sure about leaving. But she’s not sure about staying, either.

“I’m skeptical,” she said. “If I change my mind and decide to stay, I’m afraid Jarel will go back to his same old ways.”

“Sounds to me like you don’t trust the new you,” I said

Lately, Maya has made some impressive changes—giant strides—in terms of standing up for herself.  She doesn’t mouse-down anymore. Gone are the days of being dictated to and controlled. Gone are the days being passive and silent. She’s come to value herself way too much for that.

Yes, Jarel could slip back to his “same old ways,” but it’s more crucial that she doesn’t.

Here’s the naked truth:

If she doesn’t go back to her old ways, he can’t go back to his. It’s impossible to dance the tango when the other person is busy doing the rumba. As the saying goes: It takes two to tango.

Darcie, another client, was also rising to the challenge of changing the dance in her relationship with her husband.  You can read about that by clicking here.

Maya, Darcie and all dance-changers should not underestimate their power to change a relationship dynamic . . . or dance. They can. It happens, but only if they remain changed themselves.

For Maya, this means she’ll continue to stand up for herself—instead of being passive—if Jarel reverts back to his habit of dominating. Not occasionally or a week later, but ideally every time it happens!

Both will slip up occasionally, but weakening back to their former daily pattern spells destruction for their relationship. Maya’s challenge is to remain just as self-honoring as the day she was poised to walk out.  Not to forget that being uncompromisingly true to herself was the game changer for Jarel.

By the end of our session, Maya was leaning in the direction of staying. She’ll be practicing her new dance step which, inevitably, invites Jarel to follow suit. Who knows, he may even decide he likes the new dance!

 

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