June 12

It Depends

June 12, 2018

Marriage, Personal Growth

On uncounted occasions, I have heard people describe a difficult—often painful—situation or interaction, and then they ask, “What should I do?”

I usually know something about them, so I don’t actually use the two following words in quotation, but my thoughts are often preceded by the words, “It depends.” Let’s see if I can illustrate this with a number of real-life situations that I commonly encounter.

Sandra calls and describes a situation in which her husband was angry and condescending. She asks, “What should I do? I did get angry in response, so I probably need to apologize, right?”

While anger is never the best choice, sometimes it IS the best choice we can make at the time. I happen to know that Sandra’s husband has walked all over her for their entire marriage. He has used his physical size, intelligence, and education to intimidate and bully her. As a result, she has felt small and worthless—feelings that were just a continuation of how she was taught to feel as a child. If she apologizes, he will unavoidably receive that not as a genuinely humble and self-assured act on her part. He’ll receive it as yet another victory for him and further justification for stepping on her the next time.

So, no, apologizing would not be helpful in this case. Sandra would feel it simply as a repetition of her feeling small, and her husband would be encouraged to repeat his abusive behavior.

I could go through algorithms on how to respond to abusive behavior for a hundred pages, but let me just say that as the two partners vary in their emotional capacity, their willingness to learn, their ability to love, and more, the responses of a woman to her angry or critical husband—to choose just one of many common interactions—could include the following, among many possibilities:

  • “Do you realize how you are speaking to me right now?” If he is even a little willing to learn, he’ll realize that his approach was bullying, and he’ll alter his behavior.
  • Touching. She walks over, throws her arms around him, and just holds him. This can be pretty irresistible, because it supplies the love he needs, the absence of which is the real reason for his speaking with anger.
  • “Would you like to say that again, but this time in a different way?” This would require some advance discussion and preparation on the part of both of them, perhaps in a couple’s meeting.
  • “I love you.” Loving and disarming.
  • “In our last couple’s meeting, we talked about how you often don’t realize when you’re being angry or condescending, and you said you’d be willing to have me point it out when you do it, so that you could see it and possibly choose differently. I’m just telling you that you’re doing it now. I’m not telling you to stop. What you do now can become a choice you make instead of an involuntary repetition of the past.”

Responding to other people is a very flexible and fluid choice. Although anger is not the best choice, “standing up” for oneself with significant vigor can for a time be better than being a doormat. Feeling trapped is a nightmare, so on occasion temporary measures that are less than loving can be better than perpetuating a sense of being trapped and having no choice. We learn to respond according to our growing capacity to be loving.

Just today a woman said to me, “I’m becoming so much stronger. Until recently I didn’t even have the concept of not being trapped. I had no choices. Now I do. Sometimes I still make mistakes, but I don’t feel trapped all the time.”

So, what is the answer to the question, “What should I do?” Just take the one next step that you’re capable of. It may not seem impressive at the time, but if you keep stretching your reach and your gait, eventually you’ll find yourself stronger and further along than you thought possible. It’s certainly worth the effort.

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