Relationships Feed

What They Say vs. What They Do

In abusive relationships it is not uncommon for the victim to feel that the abuser loves because they say they do.   

Abused children believe their parents love them because they say they do.  And children will believe this even when the parent has a long history of beating the child or profoundly neglecting the child.

This is why it's important to watch what people do, rather than what they say.  The predators and abusers of the world often display "empathy gaps", gaps in their ability to feel compassion or empathy for others.  Their words are very charming and full of "love", yet their actions tells a different story.  



Signs Someone is Passive Aggressive

First let me say there are times when passive aggressiveness (PA) is a coping mechanism.  In an oppressive work environment, smiling and pretending to go along with an unreasonable boss may be the only way to survive.  The same can be true in an abusive relationship with a toxic person.  It may be in your best interest to smile and nod and plan your escape.  But in healthy relationships, passive aggressive behavior is a manipulation.  It is a dishonest way of interacting with people.  As a result it compromises trust and creates a lot of hurt.  How do you know if you are dealing with a passive aggressive person?

1.  They say "Yes" when they really mean "No".

Personally, this is the one I find the most maddening.  Because they said "Yes" you rely on them doing whatever they agreed to do, only to find out they didn't do it and never intended to.  So you have to run around playing catch up.  The feeling of betrayal doesn't foster a trusting environment either as you learn not to trust what they tell you.

2.  They engage in sabotage 

Passive aggressive people will smile in your face and agree to most anything, only to sabotage it when you're not looking.  Their methods of sabotage are limitless.  They are often predictable, but can be very creative.  Some of their more common methods are:


They have a million excuses why they didn't get something done.  They "forgot" or they were "too busy".  This isn't an occasional thing.  We all forget to do things.  We all get busy sometimes.  This is different.  It is a pervasive pattern of always "forgetting" to do the same thing(s),  something they either don't want to do or something they dislike.

Feigned deafness

They consistently didn't hear you ask them to do something.


They are constantly "forgetting" to do things they agreed to do. 


Graceful PAs can become very clumsy and competent PAs can become very inept when asked to do something they don't want to do.  That vase your mother gave which they hate "accidentally" fell and got broken.  There are glaring errors in the report you asked them to write.  


There are glaring errors made in the context of otherwise meticulous work.


I was working on a gardening project with a passive aggressive friend once who "agreed" to every plant I suggested.  So I worked my heart out, in the Texas heat, planting these plants.  A month later, the plants she did not like had met with "accidents".  One hadn't been watered, another had been eaten by the sheep which lived there (but the plant right next to it which she had planted had been carefully fenced off and protected) and one had dug up by the dog.

Accidents happen and they aren't all sabotage.  The difference with passive aggressive people is there is a pattern of this behavior.

 3.  Indecisiveness

PAs can be appear very indecisive, but it is a ploy.  They know what they think and what they want, but they refuse to take a stand or voice an opinion.  This is a powerful strategy, if they never make a decision, they can never be criticized.  So you decide - and they critique you.

You:  "Where would you like to eat dinner?"

Them:  "Oh, I don't care.  Whatever you would like."

You:  "How about the Italian place?"

Them:  "Oh, do you really want to go there?"

You:  "We could go back to the Mexican place."

Them:  "Did you really like that?"

You:  "OK.  What about Chinese?"

Them:  "Chinese doesn't sound good right now."

See how this is going?  Or they will go along to the restaurant sighing all the way.  Or even go to the restaurant and order, but then pick at their food and complain about it.  Now some people really don't care and are happy to go along to your favorite Italian restaurant.  But passive aggressive folks will feign indifference - until you leave for the restaurant.  Then they will often complain or find endless fault with your choice.  Some toxic people have learned that not having an opinion is a position of power - if you don't choose, you can't be criticized for your choice.  So they leave it to you to choose so they can criticize you.  This gives them the upper hand.  But the upper hand should not be the goal.  Healthy, caring, trusting relationships should not be based on who can one up the other and should not be fraught with power struggles.  This is just another manipulation.

4.  Backstabbing/Splitting/Triangulating

People with passive aggressive behavior like to address things indirectly.  Instead of telling you something to your face, they will often stab you in the back.  They may even work to turn other people against you by engaging in "splitting" or "triangulating" behavior, inserting themselves as a wedge between you and another person and either turning the third person against you, or turning you against each other.  Passive aggressive people may portray themselves as a victim and you as the aggressor to bring someone to their side of the dispute.  And this will all take place behind your back.  

5.  Manipulation

Passive aggressive people have trouble asking for what they want outright, so they engage in manipulation to get their needs met.  Instead of asking you to help them with something, they may employ guilt, "If I tear up my back lifting this it will be all your fault" or play the victim, "I just don't know how I'm going to be able to lift something so heavy" instead of being straightforward.  They don't mind being seen as weak or having people pity them, as long as they get what they want. 

6.  They Mask Their Resentment With a Smile

Underneath that phony smile is a lot of aggression.  But they will not express it directly.  Sugary, sweet comments will accompanied by a dash of sarcasm or a cloaked barb.  

7.  They Retaliate

Instead of telling you they are angry or upset with you, they will plot revenge.  Nasty rumors, anonymous emails, turning the boss against you or exposing your secrets are some of the methods employed by PA people.  They may give you the silent treatment, withhold praise or intimacy, be hyper critical of you or your work or engage in sabotage.  But they will get back at you on the sly, not daring to confront you outright.

Dealing with Passive Aggressive People

So how do you deal with passive aggressive people?  I'm not sure that you can.  It's like playing cards with someone who cheats.  You are trying to be honest with someone who is not.   What can you hope to gain from that?

You may try to bring their behavior into the light, to confront then directly or discuss the situation openly, but they will dodge and parry, lying and hiding and perhaps resorting to retaliation on the sly.  They abhor open confrontation and cannot tolerate dealing with things directly.  If you are in a personal relationship with a passive aggressive person, you may have to reconsider it.  If it is a work relationship you may have to force their hand and hope your colleagues see what they are up to, or bite your tongue and wait for everyone else to see what they are dealing with.  Either way, remember not to be swayed by their sweetness and light.  They may be this way to your face, but if you've become aware of them sabotaging you behind your back, remember this and don't fall for their smiles.   


When someone shows you who they are...

"When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.”

Maya Angelou

How many of us have looked back to the beginning of an unhealthy or toxic relationship and facepalmed when we realized we had seen the problem all along?  I know I have seen the warning signs early in a relationship only to talk myself out of them or provide some rationalization for why they weren't as bad as I thought.  Only later did I recognize what I had seen from the start and felt so stupid.


Human Connection vs. Addiction

I recently watched an interesting Ted talk, Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong by Johann Hari.  Great stuff.  Hari makes some interesting points.  Among them:

Simply giving someone opiates can't turn them into a drug addict.  

Our culture has taught us that giving someone opiates will cause them to become an addict.  I've known doctors who worry about prescribing adequate pain medication because they don't want to "make" the patient an addict.  As a result, doctors typically under-medicate pain.  I personally think the under-prescribing of pain medications may contribute to addictive thinking and behavior, but I've never known it to cause addiction.  What's the difference?  Under-medicating patients tends to make them more anxious about being treated adequately for pain, so they may begin to hoard medications or skip doses so they can double up later, etc. because they don't trust the doctor to adequately control their pain.  Addiction, on the other hand, is not about controlling pain, but about feeling the high.  Drug addicts skip doses and hoard their medications so they can take large doses all at one time to get the high.  However, the under-prescribing of pain medications now has a healthy person thinking and behaving like a drug addict - out of fear.

Think of someone you have known who has had a lot of surgery - and the heavy duty pain medications that go with it.  Hari gives the example of grandma having hip replacement surgery.  Grandma completes the surgery, recovers and is not an addict.  

So what is the difference between someone who is exposed to opiates and becomes an addict - and someone who does not?  Hari maintains it is the quality of their lives.

Rats can't be made into heroin addicts - if given other options

Hari cites a study of rats in cages who had a choice between water laced with heroin or regular water.  Rats living in barren, empty cages always chose the heroin water.  However, researchers found if they housed the rats in cages equipped with all the things rats love, toys, other rats to play with, comfortable beds to sleep in, etc. (a kind of "rat park" as Hari calls it), the rats don't choose the heroin laced water.  Point?  Rats with full and happy lives don't choose heroin.

Why is this important? 

We are finding that human connection and a healthy "rat park" is what keeps humans from becoming addicted.  People with full and healthy lives don't want to be intoxicated or numbed.  They want to be aware so they can enjoy their lives.  

What does this mean for our treatment of the addicted?

The criminalization of drugs prevents people from re-entering society.  A person convicted of drug charges has a criminal record.  This labels them as criminals, shames and humiliates them, associates them with a criminal element in society, prevents them from obtaining employment and housing and impairs their healthy relationships.  It effectively hampers them from re-entering human society as effectively.  They are shamed and stigmatized and left with little to get out of bed for.  Being imprisoned severs their connections with family and friends.  

Perhaps we should treat the addiction rather than punishing the addict -  keeping them in society instead of removing them from it, requiring them to participate in drug treatment instead of locking them away with criminals, requiring them to work instead of hampering their employment, teaching them to parent instead of removing them from their children - this might be a better solution.

Resentment is Like Drinking Poison

 “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” 

Malachy McCourt

I once saw a documentary about several men who were wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.  They had each been imprisoned for years, until the court system found they were innocent and released them.  Some of the men were consumed by the injustice committed by the legal system and spent their lives protesting and exposing it.  Others were morose and jaded and cynical.  Eaten alive by the resentment they refused to go on with their lives and sat, stewing, unwilling to trust, to be happy, to rejoin life, to be happy again.  

But the last one caught my attention.  He had met a woman while in prison and fallen in love.  Upon his release, they were married.  He found a job, bought a house and went on with his life.  Not without scars.  Not without trauma, hurt, betrayal and pain.  He embraced all of those.  He talked openly about how negatively the experience had affected him and what it had cost him.  But he made a conscious decision not to let it steal another day of his life.  He had forgiven the criminal justice system for the wrong they had done to him - and moved on.  

I think this can also be said of people leaving unhealthy relationships and survivors of childhood traumas.  At some point you make a choice about the wrong that was done to you.  Do you hang on to it or let it go?  Do you forgive?

"If I forgive them, I have to forget what they did and I never want to forget what they did to me."

Many people think that forgiving is about forgetting.  It's not.  If you were hurt by an abuser, or a partner who was violent, or a relationship with someone who was toxic, you want to forgive, but not forget.  You remember what was done to you to keep yourself safe.  You need to remember what they did so you don't open yourself up to let them hurt you that way again.  You learn from it to prevent it from happening again.  Forgiveness is not about forgetting, it's about letting it go.  I have seen people who were wronged hold onto to the anger, hurt and betrayal long after the deed is done.  The person who hurt them has moved on with their life.  But the victim is consumed with rage, fear, hurt, betrayal.  They walk around seething and fuming.  Their lives are consumed with it.  

I am not advocating that you not feel the pain.  Of course you feel the pain.  Embrace it, immerse yourself in it, feel it completely and totally and experience all the emotions is brings.  But then, let it go.  To hang on to it is to allow the person who wronged you to continue to have control over you, your feelings, your life.  You give them power over your life, over your emotions, over you.

"If I forgive them, they get away with it."

Forgiveness is not about letting them get away with it  It's about letting you get on with your life.  For a moment, or even for years, they were able to affect your emotions, your thoughts, your life.  But forgiving is about letting go and taking back your emotions, your thoughts, your life.  It's about being free from toxic influence or abuse.  It's about deciding how you want to feel, what you want to think and how you want to live instead of allowing your emotions, your thoughts and your life to be hijacked by another person's abuse or drama.  

For those who would; revel in your failure, try to hurt you, seek to oppress you, cause you to suffer, think you are less, care nothing about you, seek to destroy you...

Happiness is the best revenge.  

 Success, the best redress. 

On Tolerance

It seems to me that tolerance for others is closely related to tolerance for ourselves.  It we are compassionate and forgiving of ourselves, we tend to be the same way with others.  If we are hypercritical and judgmental of ourselves, we tend to be the same way with others.  That inner critic who criticizes everyone else is a reflection of the inner dialogue we are having with ourselves.

Learning to accept ourselves may be the first step in accepting others.

Likewise, I think people are less tolerant of people who engage in behaviors which they find repugnant in themselves.  I'm reminded of the cliche of the newly sober man or woman who is intolerant of anyone drinking around them.  I once asked my mother what she disliked most in other people.  She spent 3 minutes telling me how much she disliked people who talked and talked and talked, repeating themselves over and over and over.   And I smiled.

Working on our own program and addressing our own shortcomings may be the key to accepting the fallibility of others.


Narcissistic Rage: The Scorpion and the Frog

Once, there was a frog trying to cross a flooded river.   As he prepared to cross to the other side on a lily pad a scorpion asked to ride with him.  The frog responded, "If I let you go you still sting me."  The scorpion answered, "If I sting you we will both die.  Why would I do that?"  So the frog acquiesced and they boarded the lily pad.  Halfway across the scorpion stung the frog.  As the frog lay dying he pleaded, "Why on Earth did you sting me?  Now we will both die!"  The scorpion answered, "Because I'm a scorpion.  It's my nature."

We cannot change other people.  This is especially true if you are dealing with a narcissist.  Even knowing this, it's hard to grasp just how far they will go to hurt you when enraged.  Their behavior sometimes defies reason and reality.

I recently watched a narcissist who became so enraged at the "frog" in her life that she she stung herself to death trying to get at the frog.  Having destroyed herself, the frog and the entire lily pad she now sits in the wreckage which was her life, still trying to take shots at the frog.  Fortunately, in real life, the frog is usually able to get to shore and carry on with their lives.  But not without the narcissist's stings having taken their toll.  This is especially true if there are children involved.

What enraged this narcissist?  The fact that her partner saw through her facade.  He saw what she really was and therefore had to be destroyed.  Family members and friends tried to understand what he had done to her to make her so angry.  They interpreted her rage as hurt.  They were certain he had done something truly heinous.  But he hadn't.  He had merely seen reality.  He had seen the vacuum of her psyche, the absence of all the things which make us human;  the lack of empathy  for others, the absence of remorse when she hurt people, the lack of regard for any other person.  He saw what she really was, what she fought to cover up with a carefully contrived facade.  And for that the narcissist was determined to destroy him.  And and destroying him became more important than her own well being.  She utterly destroyed every good thing in her life, including herself, trying to get back at him.

Beware of narcissistic rage.  It can be fatal.




Why You Might Want to Stay in that Bad Relationship

First, for the benefit of the fanatics and the flamers, I said "bad" relationship, not abusive.  If you are being hurt or are unsafe, of course you need to get out.  But this article is not about domestic violence.  It is about unhealthy relationships.

With that said you may ask, "Why should I stay in a bad relationship?"  I used to say the same thing.  Cut the ties and get out.  Go on to the next one.  After years of doing that I now realize that the "next one" looks just like the last one.  Because I didn't stick around and learn what was going wrong. I just bailed and moved on.    

So why should you stay in a bad relationship?  If you typically get into relationships that are healthy and happy, and your current one is some freak mistake, this article isn't for you.  If you have a history of bad relationships, chances are your "picker" is broken and you need to keep reading.  

If you are currently in a bad relationship, why should you stay there?  To learn to avoid it.  To see what drew you to it.  Why did you pick this person instead of someone else?  What was it about them that felt good?  What felt familiar?  We tend to date what we know.  Even our friendships are typically fashioned after something familiar.  Personally, I date my father and have best friends who are just like my mother.  

(For more on this, see also on this blog :  Who are You in a Relationship With?)  

If you decide to stay in your current relationships and figure out what's going on, what are some of the questions you can ask yourself?

What attracted me to this person?  

Since I was raised by narcissists, I'm attracted to narcissists.  They have no empathy and are completely self-involved.  So, in my case, what feels familiar is someone who contributes absolutely nothing to the relationship and sucks up all the oxygen in the room, including mine.  Since this was the definition of "love" that I grew up (everything revolves around the narcissist) this is what still feels like love - unless I make myself aware of it and challenge myself to break out of my comfort zone.  

What characteristics attracted you to your partner?  They are forceful and in control?  They are dependent and need to be cared for?  They are charming and seductive?  They are exciting?  They are boring and safe?

When you find out what you are drawn to you can consciously choose to make different choices.  That, then, becomes the next challenge.

What happens when I meet someone who is the opposite of this person?

How uncomfortable am I?  Like I said, I'm drawn to narcissists - people who have no empathy and are completely self-absorbed.  Therefore, when I'm with someone who is loving and nurturing, who is tuned into how I feel and cares about what I'm saying they feel "intrusive" by comparison.  It feels "too close", even smothering.  I almost panic at the realization that they are listening to what I say and remembering it!  But if I want to break out of my old patterns I need to learn to tolerate this "intrusion", because this is actually how someone who really cares about me should act.  It just feels strange because I'm not used to it, and that is what should feel strange.    

If you're in an unhealthy relationship, notice what happens when you meet someone who is the opposite of your partner.  


Are you a caretaker?  What happens when you meet someone who doesn't "need" you, someone who won't be dependent on you?  Do you feel unworthy?  Do you feel ill at ease, not knowing what to bring to the relatioship if they don't require your caretaking?  Does it make you nervous that you can't care for them?  Do you feel like they couldn't possibly want just you?  Do you feel you need to be able to do something for them?


Do you end up with abusers?  What happens when you meet someone who doesn't dominate the relationship?  Do you feel unsafe, "unprotected"?  Do you feel they aren't a "real man"?  When I work with people who have grown up in violent homes they often have this passive-aggressive dichotomy that defines "violent" as "strong" and "non-violent" as "weak".  If this is you, you might have to challenge yourself to date someone who is less aggressive to challenge that belief that this means they are "weak".  You might find it takes more strength to hold your temper than to take it out on everyone around you.

Once you see the dysfunction, how do they suck you back into the relationship?  

Do they use guilt to keep you there?  (After all I've done for you...)  Do they use compliments to lure you back?  Do they use rage so that you stay there to avoid the violent confrontation?  Do they resort to retaliation or revenge?  Do they use the kids?  Do they "gaslight" you?  (Trying to make you think you are crazy, trying to convince you it's all in your head.)  Do they say, "You're just making it up" or "It's just your 'perception?"

What games are being played that you're falling for?  If you can figure out what buttons are being pushed or what games you're used to you will be less susceptible to them next time.  This one is really hard.  Your feet start dancing before you even realize the music is playing.  It is so automatic.  But practice, practice, practice and you'll get better at seeing what is happening - to the point that you will one day be able to side step it.  

What's comfortable about it that shouldn't be?  

In the case of a relationship with a narcissist - being with someone who has never heard a word I've said and has no idea who I am is comfortable - and it shouldn't be.  Some people get comfortable with violence, or substance abuse, or insane jealousy, or perpetual helplessness, or perpetual martyrdom - and they shouldn't.  

If you can identify what you're comfortable with - that you shouldn't be - you have a lot of great fodder for your therapist.  This is where you need to work your own program to make you less accepting of bad behaviors and unacceptable treatment. 

What did you see in the very beginning that you should have paid more attention to, but ignored?

This is paramount.  The little red flags at the beginning of the relationship that warned you what was to come - but you ignored them.  If you can figure out what they were, or might be, you will be better able to avoid this same pattern next time.  Even if you do fall for it again, you will be less likely to get so far down the path before you realize you've been had again.  

What would be the signals that you're in the same kind of relationship again?  The "social" drinking or drugging?  The defensiveness?  Someone who is never wrong?  The selfishness?  The inability to empathize?  The inability to care for themselves?  The martyrdom?  The domination?  The blaming?  The denial?  The rages?

Staying in It

If you aren't in danger and your mental health is not totally compromised you might find that staying in your current unhealthy relationship will teach you a lot about what to avoid in the next one.  Learning what drew you to this person, what feels normal that shouldn't, what games are being played to keep you there and what should be red flags for the next relationship can be helpful information for making better, more informed choices in the future.  





Whose Problem is It?

When people come to me, upset by an interaction with another, I often ask them, "Whose problem is it?"  Many people assume that if someone is mistreating them,they must be doing something to deserve it.  "If the boss yells at me, I must have screwed up."  "If my partner rejects me I must have done something wrong."  "If someone cuts me off in traffic I must have been driving too slowly."

There are three things wrong with that thinking.

First, no one deserves to be mistreated.  Even if you have made an innocent mistake, you don't deserve to be mistreated.  And what if you did provoke it?  You may be acting like a jerk, but retaliating against you doesn't make the other person right.  It just means you are both behaving badly.

Second, some people are ugly to you for reasons that have nothing to do with you.  I once worked with a colleague who would blow up at clients constantly.  Her wrath originated at home, but she took it out on the clients.  After being lamblasted by her, a client would come to me completely crushed or ready to fight.  But when I asked them to step back and observe her behavior, they found that she blew up at people all the time - innocent people.  Once they saw that it happened to other people, it was clear where the problem was.  

Third, people sometimes behave badly because of what you are doing, but what you are doing is healthy and appropriate.  For example, you try to set a boundary with a narcissist and they rage back at you, then project their anger onto you and accuse you of being the angry one.  This can be a really wild ride if you have trouble hanging onto your sense of self.  But that is their unhealthiness, not yours.  (It's probably why you needed to set a boundary, too!)

The next time you have an altercation with someone, take a step back and ask yourself, "Whose problem is this?"  If it's yours, take responsibility and make it right.  If it's theirs, take a deep breath and walk away leaving the problem where it belongs - with them.




Why Did You Pick Them?

When a client complains to me about their partner, a question I will eventually ask is, "Why did you pick them?"  Granted, having a partner who is abusive, unfaithful, addicted, emotionally unavailable, etc. hurts.  And you have to process that hurt and hold them accountable for their behavior.  

However, regardless of what is "wrong" with the other person, I truly believe that relationships are, for the most part, 50-50.  Your partner may be behaving badly, but that still leaves the question, "Why did you pick them?"  If you don't answer that, you may be doomed to repeat the pattern.  It's not uncommon to see a man with an addicted wife fight to break free from the unhealthy relationship only to get with another addict.  Or a woman married to a man who cheats on her, acknowledges the deception, breaks off the relationship, then begins dating another cheater.  


I had one client who was only attracted to married men, but was constantly bemoaning the fact that her latest conquest would not leave his wife and marry her.  Yet, that was part of his allure, that he was unavailable.  It kept her from having to really commit to the relationship.  When one of them actually left his wife she almost died in a panic!  She had been raised by parents who were emotionally unavailable to her and that is what felt normal to her.  So she replicated it in her adult relationships.  

Sometimes it is a matter of not picking.  I've seen people who simply take whoever is interested in them.  That too is something to ponder.  Why do they not make a conscious choice?  Do they think they don't deserve to?  Do they believe they won't be able to find anyone else?  Then we need to look at that.

If you're in a bad relationship, when you figure out what the other person's problem is, I strongly recommend that you take a good look in the mirror as well.  If we don't learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.