Forcing People vs Standards

By Greg Baer M.D.

June 29, 2018


Erica said to me, "When Justin and I got engaged, we made agreements about how we wanted our marriage to look. We wouldn't use drugs. We'd be sexually faithful to each other. There'd be no yelling or hitting. That kind of thing. But now Justin smokes marijuana almost every day, so he's zoned out and hardly here with me. And I learned that he texts this other woman like twenty times a day, and I read some of them. It's pretty sexual. I tried to talk to him about it, but he yelled at me that he could do whatever he wanted, and I had no right to control him. We couldn't have a real relationship if he felt like I was trying to force him to do what I wanted. I don't know what to say to that. I don't know if I even want to marry him now."

My response to Erica or anyone in a similar position:

When you try to talk to people about their behaviors that are hurtful or wrong, they often attempt to distract you by claiming that you're trying to control them. Then they don't have to be honest about themselves. You feel so defensive about the accusation of being controlling, that you let go of any discussion of the issue you originally brought up. And the other person continues to engage in the behaviors you find hurtful.

It can be helpful to distinguish clearly between forcing people to do something and simply setting a standard for people who wish to interact with you. Imagine, for example, that you walk into a store. No one will force you to give them your money. What they will do, however, is price everything they have as a statement of their standard for its purchase.

If you decide to meet their standard for a particular item—if you pay the stated price—you may take it home with you. You're not forced to pay anything. You just decide whether you will meet the standard, and if you do not, the store will not willingly allow you to take what they own.

Of course, you can make a decision to break the standard. You can steal what you wish, but then you are exposing yourself to the potential unpleasant consequences that the store or the law chooses to impose—imprisonment, for example.

In relationships, we have a similar right to set standards. There are no standards for unconditional love—by definition—but I do have a right to set standards for who I will interact with. I have a relatively firm standard, for example, that I will not spend time with people who are drunk. I would not stop you from drinking—it's none of my business—but after a certain point of intoxication, you're simply not here anymore. Who you really are is chemically suppressed to the point where continued interaction becomes unproductive, sometimes even harmful. When your behavior falls below my standard, I choose to leave. This is not arrogance, just a choice I make to maximize the love and productivity of my own life.

Erica has standards for what a true partner—in this case, a husband—will be, and Justin agreed to those standards. She didn't force him to do anything. He then decided not to live by those standards, which means that Erica now has three choices:

1. She can continue to accept him as a partner who violates her standards of partnership, which will almost certainly lead to increasing resentment and conflict. This choice rarely leads to happiness in a relationship.

2. She can change her standards. Perhaps her original requirements were too strict, even though Justin agreed to them. Sometimes when our ideals meet reality, we discover that some of our ideals need to bend a bit. In this particular case, however, the standards—sexual fidelity and an absence of mind-altering drugs—are probably not unreasonable.

3. She can leave the relationship. If you don't have standards for a relationship, you might as well choose companions and partners randomly out of the phone book. Standards enhance our growth and happiness. Then you compare each potential partner to these standards, and if you accept as a partner someone who significantly deviates from your standards, you will be inviting certain conflict.

Establish standards for those you associate with—standards that will promote your feeling loved, being loving, being responsible, and feeling happy. Be reasonable with these standards, and first ensure that you live within them yourself.

On many occasions we simply cannot avoid association with people who don't share our standards—family members and coworkers come to mind—but we can limit that association, and we certainly can avoid long-term relationships with them.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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