A Letter From A Reader

A while back I posted an article on passive aggressive behavior and manipulation: its symptoms, its effects, and how to cope. One reader responded with her own situation, and we have since had long discussions on how to change the situation she is in. I am sharing her initial letter here (with some edits, for privacy) and my response, in the hopes it might help another who shares the same problem.

Here is what she wrote:

“So interesting to read your own personal take on pa [passive aggressive behavior].  I have been dealing with this for 4 years now and I am mentally exhausted, feel alone a lot and tired of him always trying to prove me wrong so he can claim victim. He buys me things and then gets mad that he did so he slowly punishes me for it and when I question him about it he says it’s my attitude. It’s extremely frustrating and tiresome. Childlike. I always have to run back to him and call first. He will ignore me until the end of time. He is shut down constantly, shows no emotion but is aggressive in the bedroom. And when I show emotion he is like a stiff board. When I am crying he does not even ask why. He told me as a kid he never got any recognition. You did as you were told, end of story. He uses his money as a control mechanism. If he doesn’t like what I do or say he withdraws his financial support for me and he also withdraws himself. And once again I have to crawl back to him. He’s pathetic. If I tell him I like something he will say he doesn’t and say he likes something else. And his tone is nasty. I am always on eggshells when I want to discuss something with him. He charms the world, but those closest to him he treats like dirt. It sickens me to watch him turn on the charm to others and then turn around to me and have a different tone or barely speak to me. If I make suggestions he will never be accepting but may attempt them later on and then tell me he tried something and claim it as his. He doesn’t trust anyone. I always wonder if I am being taped or on a camera or my computer is bugged. It’s a horrible way to live. He only tells me select information and doesn’t give much details. His communication is close to zero. He punishes me all the time by ignoring me and I cannot ask him for anything for thou shall not receive. It’s bizarre. Very confusing life.”

Here is what I wrote in return:

Oh honey, I can’t help but think you must be feeling so very trapped. Thank you for sharing your burden with me. I don’t know your man, but from what you’ve written here, it sounds like he craves power and control. Maybe because he never felt he had any as a child; that his needs went unrecognized, even at times most important to him. And so he turns that on others because he feels it is owed to him. But of course that is just misdirecting his anger, and turning him from victim to perpetrator.

But I truly believe that everyone has a right to two basic things in a relationship: honesty and to be treated with basic human decency. Maybe that really just comes down to one thing. And it sounds like the kind of relationship you’re in as it stands right now is just not sustainable. It will only wear you down more and build greater resentment in you, changing who you are. Then you have to think: is that the person you want to become?

If the answer is no, you have two options. You can cut your losses and run (which I imagine others close to you have already suggested). Or you can try to make something better of it. I imagine you probably love this man a lot (or else you wouldn’t have hung around for 4 years, right?), so there must be some good you see in him. But here’s the kicker: NO ONE CAN CHANGE A MAN WITHOUT HIS CONSENT. We women love to try. But it must be his decision to change. You can change a relationship. You can change yourself. But only he can decide to be a better man; a stronger man. And strength doesn’t come from power over others; it comes from power over one’s own demons. And in his case, if he is to change, he has to decide that love and happiness is more important than power and control. It’s not an easy decision. If you’re going to change this relationship, you have to make it clear to him that he cannot have both. It’s already true: the more power he tries to exert, the less love and happiness there is in the relationship. But he clearly doesn’t see that. To him, that little bit of power gives him a thrill that makes it difficult to see how little true and pure happiness there is. And to communicate this to him properly, you really do have to be prepared to leave and be prepared to accept the possibility that he might choose power instead. You can’t issue an ultimatum: that will only play into his power games. It really just has to be a simple truth: that you are done with the way things are. And that you would rather be on your own than be abused. For that is what it is: abuse.

If you choose this road, I’m not going to lie: it’s not going to be easy. It takes time and commitment. He might beg forgiveness and try all kinds of ploys to get you back. But trust must be earned, and he must earn your trust that you are more important to him than anything else in this world, even himself. He must be willing to face everything it is that he does to try to assert power and control, and he must be willing to give each and every one of them up. You both have to come to terms with what things you do (i.e. what he does to assert power, and what you do that gives him that power) that have allowed the relationship to get to this state and both must commit to changing that. Maybe you can do this on your own, maybe a therapist might help. And remember, actions always speak louder than words. He can say whatever he likes to you: the true test is how he acts. Trust your gut: it knows how to protect you if you listen to it.

I’m sorry to put this in such stark terms. But if you take a step back from the day to day and look at the grand picture, relationships really do come down to some very basic things. But I know (oh my god, trust me on this, I really do deep-in-my-bones KNOW) how painful and difficult this is. If I were with you in person, I’d take you in my arms and give you the deepest hug I could, treat you to your favorite dessert, and just listen to everything you had to say until you ran out. And then I’d hug you some more. In lieu of all that, I hope these words help, for whatever they’re worth.

I wish you strength and courage and hope. And most of all, love.



Stay or go, the choice is never easy. In our culture, we focus a lot of our empathy on the person who gets left behind. But leaving is painful and takes courage too. If you are in an abusive, or just plain dead-end relationship, and decide it is time to leave, please check back in tomorrow. I will have a post on having the courage to say good-bye.

man on the bus

bus_signSo I’ve started taking the bus to and from work lately and quickly remembered that when you take public transportation, you inevitably meet some colorful personalities. Like one guy who took it upon himself to direct people to whichever seat he thought they should take. Or the old woman babbling loudly in Vietnamese to no one in particular. Or the man who smelled overpoweringly of stale, rancid marijuana…and clearly hadn’t bathed in weeks…and who decided the seat next to me was the one he should sit in. (As I tried to breathe through the window.)

While most people keep to themselves, some friendly folk try to spark up conversations with the random strangers who happen to sit next to them. I happened to sit in front of an older man who was such a figure. A young high school boy got on the bus and sat next to him. The older man turned to him, and without a hi or how-do-you-do, he asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Clearly nonplussed, the teenager mumbled out some incoherent response. Undeterred, the older man immediately launched into a tale of all the people he’s asked that question and their colorful responses, ranging from President, doctor, and lawyer on to “rich” and “happy”.

He was full of advice too and he happily rattled off a whole host of advice unsolicited to the poor boy, who nodded, laughed, and agreed politely. But the one bit of advice that caught my attention just as I was about to get off for my stop was this:

“Don’t try to impress the boys. You know, I see all these young guys everywhere, always trying to impress the guys, trying to show they’re hot stuff in front of their friends. Naw, they got it all wrong, you know?”

The boy agreed hesitantly.

“Naw, the ones you gotta impress is the girls. That’s what I gotta tell ya. Impress the girls. They’re the ones you want. The rewards are way better when you impress the girls.”

I chuckled to myself as I got off the bus. Old man, you are my new hero.

Worst Birthday Gift Ever

In honor of my birthday, which was yesterday, I would like to tell you a tale of the worst birthday gift I have ever gotten in my entire life.

Back in college, there was a short period where I was dating a young musician. Let’s call him “Drummer Boy”. Every Tuesday my bff/college roommate and I would go to his studio and I would hang out with Drummer Boy and his friends, watching him play, while my friend went and spent the evening with her then boyfriend (now husband). Drummer Boy was fun to hang out with (read: make out with) for a while, but he reached such heights of total stoner-hood that I was quickly over it. It was so bad, we ended up calling him Four Tuesdays because that was how many times I knew I’d see him before summer came and I could gracefully make an exit sans scene. (You know it’s bad when there’s a countdown.)

Let me illustrate. Right before the arrival of that summer, it’s my birthday and I invite Drummer Boy to meet me and my friends for dinner. He arrives, complete with gift, and we have a fun dinner. Good times. And then I open gifts.

Drummer Boy’s gift comes wrapped in a brown paper bag à la grade school sack lunch. It isn’t taped shut; just the open end is folded closed. I start to open it, then stop.

“Uh, it’s all sticky,” I say, completely befuddled, wondering what mystery substance is now all over my fingers.

“Oh yeah,” says Drummer Boy, in that long, low stoner drawl. “I didn’t have tape, so I tried to seal it with honey.”

Pregnant pause as I try to school my face into a look of polite understanding and commiseration, rather than scathing derision.

I continue to open the gift, trying carefully all the while to not spread the stickiness. I pull out this little box and I see it is a tiny, stuff-in-your-junk-drawer type sewing kit. Moreover, the package is open and some of the spools are half empty, so clearly it has already been used.

I look at him and he flashes me a devil-may-care grin and says, “I figured girls like to sew.”

Thanks, Drummer Boy.

So I told you that story, to tell you this story. This weekend, my husband and I were with some friends, and he was telling my friend about the nightmare that was the wedding tux situation when we were getting married. We had ordered tuxes for him and all the groomsmen from Men’s Wearhouse and they F-ed up the order three times in less than two days–which also happened to be the two days before the wedding. Long story short, the groomsmen had tuxes but they believed for some unknown reason that the groom didn’t need his tux.

I mentioned I should have known not to go with Men’s Wearhouse, considering I had dated Drummer Boy (who worked there), and thus had become familiar with all the potheads who work there (but think they’re Rico Suave because they get to wear fancy suits to work). It should have come as no surprise they would F up something so simple in such a retarded way. And so I told the story of Drummer Boy and his fabulous previously owned gift, wrapped in a sack bag, and sealed with honey–because really, I love to tell this story.

And that’s when we collectively realized that, not only was that a Gift Fail, he probably got off work, realized he should probably bring a gift, looked around Men’s Wearhouse and tried to think, “What in Men’s Wearhouse can I bring that a girl might like? Oh, I know! A sewing kit!” Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf is just a few stores down, so that’s probably where he went for the honey.

We laughed so hard at the poor boy’s foibles, we were practically crying. And thus I came to the conclusion that the worst gift ever had actually become one of the best gifts, because the running joke keeps me laughing every time. It’s like a gift that just keeps on giving.

So, thank you Drummer Boy, where ever you are.

Transitioning to Tweens

Yesterday, I attended a younger sibling-in-law’s sixth grade graduation. The principal gave the typical speech about “the challenges ahead”, advising them to always think critically, be themselves, and not be pressured by their peers. As an educator and socially responsible person, I’m nodding “yes, yes, of course, sound advice that is”, but as someone who has suffered through and survived junior high, I found myself thinking I could have used an entirely different set of advice before embarking on that adventure/tragedy that is junior high. Oh, the social awkwardness. So this is the non-parent/principal-approved list of advice I wish I had gotten when I was 13. To the adults out there: what advice would you like to have gotten before going to junior high? Feel free to add your own to the list!

The (Alternative) Guide to Junior High School

1. Don’t pop your zits – As satisfying as it is, you never know when you’ll pick the wrong one and just get a bloody mess and scars for your efforts.

2. Yes, it’s true. The social hierarchy does depend almost entirely on the clothes you wear. The sad truth is it is so easy to move up the hierarchy but the kids at the top almost never deserve it and yet the kids at the bottom don’t realize how such tiny, inconsequential, superficial things determine their fate. It’s not a matter of “following the crowd” like your parents warn about; it’s a matter of social survival.

3. That said, it’s not worth caring much about the social hierarchy in the long run. Most of the popular kids end up barefoot and pregnant before adulthood, and the nerds and geeks come into their own and end up being the really cool people you want to know right around college.

4. Avoid being in photographs at all costs. You’ll only want to burn them later because a) hormones and braces are evil, and b) 7th & 8th graders are just not the best judges when it comes to make-up.

5. These are the years you discover sarcasm, rolled eyes, ineffable boredom, the joy of cussing and general negativity. Embrace it with your peers, but realize every one else finds it supremely annoying.

6. To the A students: If the choice is between doing homework and hanging out with your best friends, more often than not, opt for friends. You only need to test well to get into advanced classes in high school (and even without that, you can petition)…other than that, NOBODY looks at your grades from junior high. Fun times and hilarious memories are far more worthwhile.

7. Guys, as much as it might seem cool to act like a badass, you’re not fooling anyone. Except maybe yourself and other wannabes.

8. Girls, ALWAYS have an extra tampon/pad, even if it’s not that time of the month. You never know when emergency or disaster will strike you or a loved one.

9. Eighth grade dances are not like the proms you see on TV. Imagine all the girls on one side and all the boys on the other side, insert awkwardness and music compiled by people three sheets shy of cool, and you have the first half of an eighth grade dance. In the second half, when people start actually dancing, awkwardness increases exponentially as everyone realizes they have no clue how to dance. Successful slow dancing requires being able to rotate slowly in a circle, while weaving from side to side, without stepping on anyone’s feet or dress. This can be hazardous when people’s feet and arms are out of proportion from the rest of their bodies thanks to growth spurts and when boys are a head shorter than girls but girls must still find a way to rest their heads on the guy’s shoulder.

10. Romantic relationships will probably be the most dramatic, soap operatic, and short-lived of your entire life. Two survivor rules: 1) Dating your best friends’ (ex)boy/girlfriend is so not cool. No, it’s not like they’re not going to get married, but it is a code-of-honor issue among friends; 2) Don’t freak out when your friend gets a bf/gf and spends less time with you. They’ll be back eventually when they discover how much of a dweeb their bf/gf was.

And above all:
Nothing that happens in junior high is the end of the world (though it all seems like it), and so remember: This too shall pass.

This I Used to Believe

Once upon a time, I used to believe it was of utmost importance to command the respect of my significant other in my relationships. I choose those words precisely. I say “command the respect” because, in my little belief system of the time, it was more than just having his respect. The way I understood respect was something more along the lines of having him bow at my feet. Whatever I wished, he would make so. If there was anything I did not wish, he could not press me. I thought it was my duty as a woman of the modern age, my duty as a feminist, to have total, complete control in the relationship. Of course, that also meant respect was a one-way street. For how could I respect a man who did not stand up for himself, even if it was me he must stand up against?

My command of my boyfriends’ respect sounds atrocious now put in such words, and in all honesty, I am exaggerating to some extent. I am not unkind and I do care for the people in my life. I do try to please and find ways to make my loved ones happy. But when push came to shove, there is more than a kernel of truth to my statement above. Part of it came from having a supremely strong mother, and part of it came just from what I understood it meant to be a strong woman. And I was happy because I pretty much got whatever I wanted. And the men I dated were happy to supply it. And when I was ready to move on, well…I’m sorry darlin’, but it was good while it lasted, right?

But then I fell in love. And I don’t just mean the love you feel for really special people in your life. I mean real, head over heels, no one but him kind of love–where rationality has no place because logic–or even Haagen Daas ice cream–can’t fill the hole in your soul in which only he belongs. Where you can’t even put up any defenses, because somehow he got past them when you were looking the other way. And then I discovered there is no such thing as feminism in love. There’s no such thing as ‘commanding’ respect. Because when you love, when you really love with your whole being, there is no room for pride. There is no ego; there is only the two of you.

And then respect becomes, unerringly, a two-way street. Because respect is intrinsic to true love; without it, love wouldn’t exist. Love wobbles without trust, but it perishes without respect. You don’t have to fight for your rights as a woman, you don’t have to prove your equality. You just are and he just is, and everything clinks into place. Gender roles don’t matter. You just do your thing and he does his…and on everything else you meet in the middle. Because really, who the fuck cares who does the dishes and who smashes the big, scary bugs? At the end of the day, all that matters is you take care of each other. Not saying it is easy, not by a long shot. Just saying, in true love, there’s no such thing as keeping score.

I heard a segment on NPR today discussing “This I Used to Believe”. It’s not about what you believe now, but what convictions you once held. It’s less about who you are now, and more about how you’ve changed and what brought about that change. So I invite you to comment: What did you use to believe?

Never Go Back

You’ve seen it before. Chances are, you’ve even done it. And despite all good intentions, all self-admonishments, all promises to the contrary, it will happen again. Why do we always have so much trouble saying goodbye to our exes? And I don’t mean the slam-the-door-in-your-face kind of goodbye. I mean the really-I-have-moved-on-and-truly-wish-you-happiness goodbye.

The pattern is so well-established it could be cookie cutter. You break up, you weep backslash get bitter backslash party like you’re 19 again, you may or may not find someone else for a time, but then like the inevitable repeal of the boomerang you discover you miss your ex and have to see them just one more time. Just talk to them that once. Or if the ex caved first, you get that call and decide it’s a good idea. No. Not. Stop. Before one or both of you gets hurt, yet again.

So you put your frock on, do up your hair, and put on that scent you know will ram nostalgia like a wrecking ball in your ex’s gut. You look fresh, new, vibrant…yet still seductively comfortable familiar.

Let me skip ahead. It ends badly. One of you might actually have moved on, and begging to change their mind will only cause you both grief. But even worse, if one or the other of you hasn’t had the good sense to say no, you will have gotten back together for the simple, inane reason that you miss each other and still love each other. It is inane because it is a lie you tell yourself in your weakened emotional state, when caring is too easily mistaken for loving, and loneliness is too often more powerful than self-preservation.

Missing each other and thinking you still love each other is NEVER enough to save a failed relationship. It might be the first of a mountain full of steps, but it is never enough. In time, the giddiness at your reunion will wear off and the stupid fights, the outrageous arguments, and the infuriating habits will resurface and drive you just as insane as they did the first time. Remember? There was a reason you broke up in the first place.

The only thing, I repeat, the only thing that can save a failed relationship is some seriously deep soul searching and a commitment to both partners changing. No matter the circumstances, both of you did at least something to contribute to the relationship’s demise. I’m not trying to place blame or say it’s your fault your ex was a lying, cheating slut/bastard (so wait…why are you going back?). I’m merely saying that from every experience there is an opportunity to learn how to be a better person and a stronger couple. It is only until the two of you sit down and really evaluate what fears, insecurities, poor habits, and line of thinking led to the break up that you can figure out what you need to know and do to prevent it from happening again. And that is just the beginning. It’s not enough to say you will change. You actually have to do it, and have the courage to help each other do it.

So the next time you consider going back, I challenge you to ask yourself two questions. One, are you strong enough to do what it takes to make it work? And two, is your ex really worth it?

If you can honestly answer yes to both questions, then good luck and best wishes to you. I say you can get past old hurts, you can learn to trust again after infidelity, and you can make something strong, beautiful and wonderful out of something that was once failure. But you must first change the ways and thinking which brought you there in the first place.

Being Happy Trumps Being Right

In family dynamics, one of the saddest things I see is the destructive nature of trying to prove that you are right. This “I told you so” attitude can rear its ugly head in nearly any situation where two people disagree. It comes in basic arguments about nothing of import. It shows up in stupid arguments about who forgot to do what on the honey-do list. And worst of all, it displays itself proudly in serious arguments, where the very foundations of trust and respect in a relationship are at stake.

Let me give you an example: Johan and Marie.
Johan and Marie have been married for several years, and though it has been rocky from time to time, they still love each other and have made it work. But Johan feels a bit unfulfilled in his career and wants to try something new. He used to play bass guitar in high school and college. He had even been part of a band. Now he is wondering if maybe he can make something of it. He picks up the guitar again and starts writing songs.

Marie sees this and she is worried. She knows how competitive the music industry is and how difficult it would be for a 40-something to break into the industry and make anything of himself. The last thing she wants to see is Johan pour his heart into song-making only to fail and have his heart broken. She knows he would be devastated and insecure. But how can she say that to him? Obviously she can’t tell him he might fail so it’s better not to try. So what does she do? She passively-aggressively undermines his attempts, making it difficult for him to have the time to practice or to work (more on passive aggressive manipulation in a later post).

And it works. He never writes anything completely, and eventually his dream falls by the wayside. He still dreams of it, wishing it could have been, but ultimately he has given up. Marie is sorry he is sad, but she figures he will get over it in time, and in any case, being sad is better than being heartbroken. But the trouble is, in the end, Johan is heartbroken–just in a different way.

Her passive-aggressiveness has not gone unnoticed. Johan thinks back and remembers why he never had time to practice music or write, and he ends up resenting Marie because somehow, however vaguely, he senses she has not supported him in his dream. Now he feels he would never know how he might have fared because she didn’t give him the opportunity to try. Resentment, anger, sadness, distrust and betrayal build up slowly over time, undermining their marriage. He retaliates in other ways, perhaps by engaging in power plays with her, trying to reassert his power over her. Of course, by doing so, they can never actually talk about the real problem, because they are too busy dealing with superficial things covering up the true pain they should be addressing.

Marie was so sure she was right, she was willing to sacrifice Johan’s dreams. And very probably, she was right. But did that spare anything? No, it didn’t. It only caused bitterness and distrust in their marriage, and Johan was still heartbroken for not having achieved his dream. If she had only supported him, regardless of the outcome, then it is possible the two of them could have found happiness. Even if the worst had happened and Johan failed, then she could have been the bedrock of support to comfort him and help him stand up again. In his mind, the blame for his failure would have lain with the industry or himself, not with her.

This is just one example, and the need to prove ourselves right comes in a myriad of guises. But underneath it all, when we find ourselves in a conflict, we can always ask ourselves what is at root. Are we really hurt and angry, or are we just trying to prove our idea is right and the other is wrong? Are we really so insecure that we need validation, that we need to prove someone else wrong? Sometimes, it is enough just to know that we are right. Sometimes it is more important to soothe a loved one’s feelings than it is to prove to them why they shouldn’t feel that way. Sometimes it is better to resolve the conflict than to win the conflict–because when the conflict is resolved, everyone wins. Think of it this way: if you “win” the conflict, that means your loved one loses. And in what world is it a good thing if someone you love loses?

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