Relationships Don’t Have to be Painful

There are three basic blockages to communication that I see causing pain in peoples’ lives. These are assumptions, unrealistic expectations, and shutting down. I will explain how these muck up relationships with our friends, family, and lovers. I will also make a few suggestions for how to overcome these obstacles.

Assumptions can be small, like thinking someone is going to call you rather than text and getting angry when the person texted you instead of calling. Alternatively, they can be big, like your fiance thinks you want kids because he does and is very disappointed when he discovers that his assumption was incorrect. Clear communication on an ongoing basis is the easiest antidote for this. There’s a silly old saying that says assumptions make an ass out of u and me. It sounds goofy but it’s true; when we think that other people see the world exactly as we see it, we’re begging for an argument or painful discovery.

This leads me to unrealistic assumptions, which may be largely based on unmet needs from our childhood. They can also be based on biases and difficulty trying to put ourselves in others’ shoes, seeing the world from their perspective. I see this especially with young people and social media. They get very offended if someone doesn’t respond to them immediately and jump to all kinds of horrible conclusions about the other person’s intent. Sadly, this leads to ending relationships prematurely and unnecessary arguments.

This problem can be a little trickier to solve, as you can’t always see your biases and blind spots. You might not understand that something from your past is influencing your current behavior. Therefore, it can be helpful to talk to a professional psychotherapist to learn more about your unconscious mind and what factors motivate and control your behavior. This can help you release the past influences and live more happily and realistically in the present.

Finally, we come to shutting down. Sometimes people get overwhelmed by hurt, or they don’t know how to cope with something. They might lack the skills or doubt themselves in how to respond to a situation. Or, they might lose interest or decide that interacting further is not in their best interest. There are many reasons for shutting down communication. It’s painful to be on the receiving end of this, and it can be painful to shut down as well. It leaves the recipient of this behavior wondering what happened. Naturally, they want closure, they want to understand what happened so that they can avoid that type of interaction in the future.

From the recipient’s perspective, there is not much you can do in this situation but ask for closure (not demand, not force but ask) and hope that the other person will have the courage and kindness to respond. If the other person’s response is no response, then that can be hard to take, but eventually, it must be accepted for you to have the freedom to move on.

If you are the person shutting down, it is important to learn how to communicate even when it’s difficult so that it doesn’t prematurely end or damage your relationships. It’s also important to be conscious of your effect on other human beings and to at least give the person some kind of answer when they ask for it. You don’t have to remain involved with other people when you don’t want to, but it is much more respectful to let a person know when you want to change or end the relationship.

These are just a few tips on how to have less pain and more joy in your relationships. If you’d like to find out more and schedule a psychotherapy session, please call me at 661-233-6771. Thank you.

What does “mean” mean?

I often hear clients say that they can’t assert themselves with various people in their lives because it would be too “mean”; I often wonder what exactly that signifies to them and I ask them to explain their definition of “mean” to me. Often, I find that being assertive has come to be seen as “mean” in their eyes. This is usually because they have grown up with controlling, overly strict, or abusive parents who don’t allow them to be themselves by saying “no” to their parents or family members. To me, there is a difference between being mean and being assertive, and I’d like to share the distinctions with you.

First, there are many ways we as humans can be unkind to each other, but they basically boil down to three basic types of behavior: being overly critical or insulting; being deceptive or manipulative; or being dismissive and withholding when upset. In future posts I can go into the details of these headings but for now, I wanted to provide a loose framework for you to measure your behavior against. The idea is that we can think about what we want to say and ask ourselves, “Am I being overly critical or insulting? Am I deceiving or manipulating the person? Am I withdrawing my affection from the person in order to control their behavior, when I could share what I’m upset about with them instead?” If you can honestly say that you are doing none of the above, it might be worthwhile to share with the person what you want to tell them. I think most emotionally healthy people would rather you tell them that you didn’t like something they did, than secretly resent them or live in fear of hurting their feelings. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they can handle a simple statement like, “I didn’t like what you just did” is usually not too threatening for most people to hear.
Now, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the other person would regard what you do as mean. Sometimes we imagine that we “know” people and can predict how they will act in advance, when in reality they might surprise us and actually react neutrally or positively to what we would like to tell them. Sometimes we might ask a trusted friend, “How does this statement sound to you? Would you take offense if I said this to you, if you were bothering me?” This way you avoid gossiping about the person with whom you’re upset but you can also get honest feedback from them. It’s healthier, I believe, to give the person with whom you’re upset the chance to hear you and possibly modify their behavior, than to assume that they will not hear it and resent them for not changing. After all, you haven’t told them what’s bothering you, so how can you expect them to change if they don’t know?

There are people, however, who have narcissistic personality traits and/or full-blown personality disorders and these people have an extremely hard time taking responsibility for their behavior and its effect on others. Those people always see interpersonal issues as arising from “out there” (other people) and are too emotionally fragile to accept any responsibility for their own behavior, much less see that they’re hurting others (even inadvertently). Sometimes you don’t know you’re dealing with someone like this until you innocently share with them that you’re not happy with something they do; the result is often not, “I wasn’t aware I was doing that. Let me think about that, and we’ll discuss it some more.” The response is more akin to what you probably fear: “I always knew you were against me! How dare you say that?” Or, “how could you be so mean and selfish to say such a thing! Don’t you know how much I’ve sacrificed to be with you?!”

If you get a response like that, chances are you are probably dealing with someone who can’t take a step back and observe themselves interacting with other people. This lack of perspective makes people very touchy and defensive, and that can be rather unpleasant to deal with. You may know some people like this in your life, and my hope is that you don’t have to deal with them on a regular basis, because they can be very wearying to encounter. Even if you do have people like this in your life and fear their retribution, you can still assert yourself and set boundaries with them. It will just be harder to hold the line because they lack boundaries themselves and find other people’s assertiveness “mean.”

So if you can deliver your message of discontent cleanly, just stating their behavior as an observation and your emotional reaction to it, you can reasonably assume that you are not being “mean” when you state this. For more information on how to communicate effectively, I recommend Marshall Rosenberg, PhD’s book, Nonviolent Communication. It has some really good tips for how to talk to other people in ways that facilitate communication and not defensiveness.

What’s at stake?

Sometimes people who have had numerous bad things happen to them think of themselves as unlucky, especially in relationships. They may feel that they have to put up with negative behaviors or inconsideration from others because if they don’t they will either lose the person in question or be rejected by that person. This is very unfortunate because not only does it deprive us of getting what we want in relationships, it also blocks us from having a true, intimate exchange with others. Sometimes the other person is truly incapable of being reasonable or hearing critical feedback without rejecting us, but often I think we may not even give them a chance to prove whether they are as unreasonable as we assume they are. Even if the other person has been negative or defensive in the past, does not mean they will always be that way. I think we owe it to each other to at least try to communicate our needs and feelings to the people who matter to us, if nothing else to gain practice doing so and being assertive. If our fears come true and we lose that person, either from rejection or a fight or worse yet, death, we have given them a chance to respond to us and we have spoken our truth. I see so many people who never told people how they really felt about them, only to have that person die without being able to resolve their differences. This is a painful position to be in, and I hope you do not have to live through that.

It is possible to express yourself in a way that honors yourself and the people to whom you’re speaking. If you need help with that, you might want to read Marshall Rosenberg’s excellent book, Nonviolent Communication. You can also seek the counsel of a mental health professional; I would be happy to help you learn to communicate your needs and feelings, as well as listen effectively. What’s at stake is not just losing relationships, but making strained relationships better and clearer. The choice is always yours to make.