I had been seeing Joan and her husband Bill for couples counseling, but this week Joan came in alone. Joan: Ive got a problem. Counselor: What is it, Joan?
Joan: Bill is getting worse. Ever since we came in for our last appointment, hes been horrible.
Counselor: Can you be more specific?
Joan: For instance, he knows all my little tricks now, and he wont let me use them. Its infuriating. I hate him. Counselor: You are angry at him. Could you give me an example?
Joan: Oh yes. When I say, You must be very angry, he says, I know where you picked that up, dont I? Counselor: What else?
Joan: When I say, Im sorry youre so angry, he says, No, youre not. Youre just saying that because you learned it somewhere. Counselor: Anything else?
Joan: When I get angry, he says. Im sorry youre so angry in that third-grader sing-song voice of his. It makes me so angry I could scream! Counselor: He is antagonizing you. If you scream in response to his provocation, you lose and he wins.
Joan: What can I do? Counselor: You can disengage from his antagonism. You are free to respond as an independent, mature adult, not a kid having a temper tantrum. Instead of defending yourself against his false accusations, you can say, Youre making it worse, Bill. Im more angry now than I was before! You can choose to use your words, not your tone, by stating how his behavior makes you feel.
Joan: Why does he do it? Counselor: To perpetuate his unhappiness. Happiness is foreign to him. He prefers the devil he knows to the one he does not. If you become happy and self-confident, he is in big trouble. He feels inadequately prepared to cope with that. But third-grade antagnonism is something he can handle.
Joan: Here I am, trying so hard to make things nice for us, and he hits me over the head with this stuff. Counselor: When you give him ammunition, he uses it against you. He cant see why he shouldnt. You are so vulnerable and so easy. I suspect that he senses your desire to help him, and he resents them.
Joan: Shouldnt I want to make things nicer between us? Counselor: Not yet. You have got your hands full with you. Before you can start to address his behavior, you must find out what pleases yourself. You can do that by doing living on your own terms of how much help is enough. You can choose to set some limits and accept that your behavior shapes his responses.
Joan: How? Counselor: In a sense, he is hitting you over the head with what he learned at our last session. He is killing two birds with one stone. I too, am a threat to his shaky status quo. I am causing him to rethink many of the lessons he learned about himself, about others and about life. Thats scary for him, and he takes it out on you. When you forget to disengage from these games of his, he wins. He feels superior to you, and he holds you in contempt. For the moment, he feels relief from the pain of being mistaken for so many years. But by scorning you, he doesnt have to grow up. That is too risky. So if you take the bait and lose your temper, he is off the hook and is able to behave in a way that is familiar to him.
Joan: Id better stop. What should I do? Counselor: To find out what to do, we need to learn the purpose behind his behavior. How does Bill make you feel when he uses your words against you?
Joan: Angry. Im angry at the unfairness of it. I dont deserve this abuse. Im working at the relationship and he isnt. Counselor: Youre right. It is not fair. Do you feel that your help was all in vain?
Joan: Yes, He makes me feel guilty when he throws these words back in my face. Counselor: Guilty of what crime?
Joan: Like I am being insincere, as if I am merely mouthing someone elses words. Counselor: It may be that you need to practice putting the right words to the right music. You are still new at this.
Joan: But Im not insincere, I really am concerned about his anger. Counselor: He is new at this, too. He isnt sure that he can trust you just yet, so he tests your sincerity by antagonizing you. Like a child testing a patent to see him much he can get away with.
Joan: So what is he trying to achieve? Counselor: Were getting close at finding out. What are you able to do about the false accusation that you are merely reciting lines in a play?
Joan: Nothing. Counselor: Then you feel powerless and out of control. His purpose is to control you, to prevent something bad from happening.
Joan: Like growing up and acting as an independent adult. Counselor: Perhaps, Bill feels powerless and out of control. He may feel that your progress means you are growing away from him, so he controls you with guilt, in these useless, childish ways. He is trying to prevent the disaster of being abandoned by you, which he fears will happen if you outgrow him.
Joan: I feel so frustrated and I cant do anything about it. Counselor: Oh yes, you can. Its only antagonism, and you can still disengage from it.
Joan: Wont it ever stop? Counselor: Not as long as you keep falling for it and paying it off. You say it makes you angry when he uses this information against you.
Joan: Yes, I get furious. Counselor: Can you tell the truth?He is just baiting you and you are falling for it. You can choose to catch yourself next time.
Joan: I feel as if I have to defend what I learned in counseling. Counselor: He is counting on you to defend. He knows you very well, and he lays a trap for you. You can choose to push your comfort zone and tell the truth about your anger. Not destructively with your behavior, but constructively with your words. You are not responding against him, but for you!
Joan: I can take a deep breath and I can say, It makes me angry when you do that. Counselor: Sure you can. You are telling the truth about how his behavior makes you feel, which you have every right to do. This is communication.
Joan: Maybe hell start doing something else! Counselor: Relationships are like machines, if you change one part, the whole machine runs differently. So if you catch yourself taking his words personally, you will stop becoming so frustrated. Remind yourself, his words are not for you. They are for him. You can choose to disengage from his behavior and acknowledge your own efforts, according to your own standards of good enough. Focus on your efforts, not the outcome.”
Couple arguing image available from Shutterstock.