Source: Wikimedia Commons, Carnivorous_Plant_Fly_on_Venus_Flytrap_ by Chemical Heritage Foundation, CC by 3.0
Have you ever met someone who complains and complains to you about their romantic partner, but if you then criticize the person they are complaining about or even agree with them about their complaints, they suddenly defend the person and get mad at you? And if you dare to tell them to speak up to or even leave the person, they start making excuses?
People who do this sort of thing often have a history of doing this same dance with at least one of their parents. They complain in the strongest of terms about a spouse or boy/girlfriend, and describe behavior by that person that borders on being abusive, or even that is unquestionably over that border. The parent naturally gets upset with their child’s significant other, and starts telling their children that said other is bad for them and should be dumped post haste.
And guess what happens next? The adult children get furious with the parent about being so “judgmental” about their significant other, and begin to loudly defend him or her.
Of course, if said parent were to keep his or her trap shut, the adult children then would conclude that the parents are unconcerned with the fact that they are being mistreated. I have seen many families in which an adult child is being severely mistreated or even physically abused, the adult child’s parents know about it, and yet they do and say nothing at all, let alone offer to help their offspring escape from their dangerous environment. That sounds a lot worse, at least to me, than their being “judgmental.”
Therapists who treat adults with certain personality disorders are often put in exactly the same bind.
As alluded to earlier, people who do this with parents often put friends in this same damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t double bind. How should you react? Not being in the same position as the parents, a mere friend such as yourself can in most instances get away with saying things that the parents could not without digging themselves into an even deeper hole. I’ll provide some recommendations on how to handle that shortly, but first I would like to address the question of why it is that you, as the friend, are the recipient of this behavior. The answer to this question goes right back to the complainers’ issue with their parents.
When confronted with seemingly bizarre, but clearly non-psychotic, behavior such as this from otherwise intelligent people I always ask myself, what makes the person act this way? More importantly, why did they get into an bad or highly problematic relationship in the first place, and why on earth are they staying in it? The answer almost invariably lies in repetitive dysfunctional family-of-origin interactions that I have described in many previous posts on my blogs.
When adult children put parents in this position repeatedly (this whole discussion usually does not apply to one-of-a-kind interactions), the real reason they do so is most frequently for one or both of the following: First, the parents are in a bad relationship themselves and are projecting their anger at themselves and at their spouses onto the adult child’s spouse, and/or second, they seem to somehow get off on hearing about the relationship trials and tribulations of their offspring. Sometimes both of these reasons are going on simultaneously. Of course, the parents will deny this vehemently if they are asked about it, but therapists have ways of making them open up and tell the truth.
In the first case, the reason the adult child gets angry when the parent attacks the child’s significant other is that the child is thinking some variation of, “Well, you’re putting up with mistreatment. How dare you criticize me for doing the same thing? Why the hell don’t you follow your own damn advice?!” The latter question is in fact a very good one indeed, and must be answered and understood during psychotherapy, usually by constructing a genogram with a therapist, before this whole problem can be solved.
In the second case, the adult child gets angry at the parent because they are covertly thinking, “You need me suffer in a bad relationship; you’re miserable if I don’t, and you are gleeful when I am. And you absolutely love hearing about it! How dare you insincerely ask me to end the relationship?! That isn’t what you really want, is it?”
In the latter situation, the child’s conclusion about the parent is, “You need me to be in a bad relationship so you can continue to lecture me. If I were in a good relationship, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself!”
But they do not say these things, because severe problems would ensure. However, keeping the right facial expression while attacking your parents when they are ostensibly showing concern for you, and not saying what you are really thinking when they do this – because you are protecting them from feeling bad about their own craziness and yourself from being completely invalidated – takes practice. Suppressing the real reason for your being furious and putting on this kind of a show isn’t all that easy.
So how does one get some practice before attempting to do this with one’s parents? Easy: practice it with a friend, who is far less threatening and necessary to one’s mental health, and probably far more forgiving as well. Therefore, people in this predicament enlist friends with whom they can practice their moves.
Doing this is not necessarily a “conscious” decision, but is usually done automatically and without any deliberation. As I mentioned, they also do the very same thing with therapists. So how to respond?
My favorite psychotherapy supervisor when I was a psychiatry resident in training at the University of Southern California, Dr. Rodney Burgoyne, suggested responding with some version of, “Well, what would you tell someone to do who was telling this story to you?” The obvious answer is that the complainers themselves would tell that person to either change that relationship or get out of it. Or at least quit complaining about it if they plan to do absolutely nothing to fix their situation.
This question usually does stop patients in their tracks, and hopefully leads to more fruitful explorations of the main issue: why they are with the problem significant other in the first place.
That usually takes some time however. The patients can sometimes dig in their heels and refuse to answer the therapist’s question or address the obvious implications. Sometimes they pretend that they cannot see what the therapist is driving at.
I have recently found a response that leads to an even quicker and more effective way to get out of the bind. It involves putting the judgmentalism where it rightly belongs: back on the person complaining about the significant other. This is the response that I would recommend to the friends who are being covertly enlisted to help someone practice their moves.
I would say, “Well, you certainly aren’t painting a very nice picture of (insert name of the significant other).”
Of course, this statement will not in most cases help the complainer get out of his or her dangerous and/or self-destructive situation. But it probably will induce the complainers to stop putting you in this position, and go look for someone else whose responses more meet their needs.
To strengthen your position, you might then add something like, “Of course, I am only getting your side of the story.” This statement presumes that the patient is indeed complaining about the other, and most people will not then put up an argument which subtly accuses the other person of being controlling or judgmental. It almost forces someone to explain further why they are complaining about someone but continuing to allow that someone to mistreat them. As a friend and not a therapist for such a person, however, getting them to explain this is not really your job.
Of course, if you do try to become their therapist or in any way continue to allow them to put you in the double bind position, then it is very likely that your friend will think that you also need to be in the position they are putting you in, so they conclude that they are also doing this for your benefit as well as that of their parents.