Emotional bullying and being a ‘loser’ in marriage
By: Yasmin Mogahed
A few weeks ago, an article was widely circulated about a woman whose husband told her he was leaving and she decided to ‘ignore’ him (and his feelings) until they magically disappeared (See: http://theweek.com/article/index/99512/the-last-word-he-said-he-was-leaving-she-ignored-him#) .
As I read the article, I did something different. Instead of putting myself in *her* shoes, I put myself in his. What I discovered was disturbing at best…
What’s wrong with what she did?
The rhetoric and ‘technique’ was mocking and demeaning. Instead of showing *any* acknowledgment of her husband’s feelings, and then working from there, she *completely* ignored his feelings, likening them to a child’s temper tantrum. Next, she boasted about ‘ducking’: When he opened up about how he was feeling, her response was, “I don’t buy it!” There was no real compassion or empathy. Empathy is to recognize what someone is feeling *from their perspective*–not your own. And compassion is nonjudgmental understanding of those feelings—even if you don’t particularly like them. Acknowledgment, empathy, and compassion are necessary ingredients of any successful relationship. On the contrary, emotional bullying is to dictate to someone what is, or is not acceptable for them to feel. Perhaps the fact that she had absolutely *no* idea that there was any problem in their marriage is indicative of this lack of ability to see things, not only from your own perspective—but from your partner’s perspective, as well.
“But it worked!”
Umm, how do we know? Because he mowed the grass and gave thanks at Thanksgiving dinner? Seriously? Human psychology is just a little more complicated than that. Notice that the entire article is written from *her* perspective. Where is *his* perspective? The only thing we know of his feelings are the very feelings she writes off by saying she doesn’t “buy it.” Had the article been written from his perspective then I could say I really know how he feels. But to say that what she did was ‘successful’ just because he didn’t leave, is simplistic at best. Have we never heard of people staying together ‘for the kids’? Or what if he just suppressed his feelings because they weren’t ‘acceptable’ to her. She didn’t ‘buy it’. She used a technique of manipulation which basically dictates to the other person which part of themselves and which feelings are ‘acceptable’ and which were not. Psychologists call these techniques ‘tools of repression’—and they are *not* healthy, nor should they be applauded as successful relationship or communication techniques. These tools of repression help contribute to what psychologist Dr. Harville Hendrix calls ‘The False Self’, ‘The Lost Self’ or ‘The Disowned Self’ in his book “Getting The Love You Want”. This is a technique used by many parents with their children and it’s a sad day when we applaud its use on spouses!
We also need to stop measuring the success of a marriage by simply the fact that the husband stuck around to mow the lawn and say grace at Thanksgiving dinner. There is something a bit deeper to successful relationships, than just ‘sticking around’. That is not the measure of success. So many people automatically applauded her for her actions just because she wasn’t the one who wanted to leave. But few people tried to imagine the situation from her husband’s perspective (a perspective we saw nothing of first hand). Remember, the one who wants to leave a relationship isn’t always the villain and the one who tries to stay isn’t always the martyr. Relationships are a bit more sophisticated than that.
The only thing we know for sure from the article is that the wife got her desired outcome. She successfully controlled his actions (or feelings)—but did not successfully understand or empathize with them. The article’s wide acclaim sends a chilling message about our society: that perhaps we are more interested in just *controlling* other people’s behaviors, than we are in *understanding* them.
What would have been a better way?
First, she should have acknowledged and respected how he felt, instead of denying or ignoring it. These are the basics of interpersonal communication and relationships. Likening a grown man’s feelings to a child’s ‘temper tantrum’ is the epitome of disrespect. After first acknowledging his feelings, they should have proceeded from there. Perhaps a more healthy response than ignoring, belittling, and denying her husband’s expressed emotions would have been to suggest counseling or reflect on what things she herself could change to enhance the relationship. Instead, she completely denied that there was any *real* problem with the marriage (after all he was just having an adult temper tantrum and she just needed to ‘duck’). Then she put 100% of the blame on her husband. She diagnosed the problem as being 100% outside herself, and then proceeded to just ignore it, and wait for it to go away. That is basically everything you should *not* do in a relationship or on the path of self-development.
There was absolutely no introspection or reflection on *anything* that perhaps she could change in herself to improve the relationship (starting perhaps from learning to acknowledge and respect other people’s feelings, beyond our own—even when you don’t particularly *like* them). Instead, she framed the entire situation as him being the irrational child and her being the selfless martyr. I don’t see what she did as martyrdom. I see it as oppression and emotional bullying. And I think it says a lot about the compassion we have as a society when her actions are not only tolerated, but applauded.
Even if her husband was displacing some inner unhappiness on his wife, to believe that there was absolutely nothing she was doing to contribute to the problem or that there was absolutely nothing she could do to elevate the problem is self-righteousness at best. To think that we are ever just passive bystanders of our problems or that the problems in our lives are 100% someone else’s fault, is self-centered and just plain wrong. Of course there was some part she played and of course there was something she could have changed in herself to strengthen the marriage. No one is perfect and we all have things in ourselves that we could improve to strengthen our relationships. But chalking up the entire problem to just his mid-life crisis and inner dissatisfaction, while completely exonerating her own role, is putting the blame entirely on him and implying that she herself has nothing to improve or change.
See “Marriage is For Losers” (http://drkellyflanagan.com/2012/03/02/marriage-is-for-losers/ ) for a beautiful example of the better way to make a marriage strong. (The previous article seems like a great example of what Dr. Kelly refers to as the ‘second type’ of unhealthy marriage in his piece.)
Dr. Kelly describes an entirely different approach to healthy marriages. He writes:
But there is a third kind of marriage. The third kind of marriage is not perfect, not even close. But a decision has been made, and two people have decided to love each other to the limit, and to sacrifice the most important thing of all—themselves. In these marriages, losing becomes a way of life, a competition to see who can listen to, care for, serve, forgive, and accept the other the most. The marriage becomes a competition to see who can change in ways that are most healing to the other, to see who can give of themselves in ways that most increase the dignity and strength of the other. These marriages form people who can be small and humble and merciful and loving and peaceful.
And they are revolutionary, in the purest sense of the word.
Dr. Kelly further writes: “Maybe marriage, when it’s lived by two losers in a household culture of mutual surrender, is just the training we need to walk through this world—a world that wants to chew you up and spit you out—without the constant fear of getting the short end of the stick.”
Until we start seeing the world through the lens of compassion—rather than judgment—we will never succeed at building a society of relationships founded on understanding, selflessness, and self-improvement.