Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Words Hit as Hard As a Fist

We've talked about conflict and intimacy avoidance in other posts, how we learn from the examples set by our parents. It isn't rocket science, but there are subtleties.

Those of us raised in affectionate families sometimes find physical intimacy the easiest thing in the world; it's difficult to conceive of life without it. Feed us with love and we love back, cringe at anger. Some of us develop an allergy to anger to the degree that we'll walk out of films, change the channel on the television when the volume feels too much.

Those who suffered violence in the home, as opposed to peace-love as children, can be conflict-avoidant, too. Others identify with the aggressor and are consciously aggressive. There are many variations here, including one in which two people are drawn to one another, feel they're soul mates because they both grew up in violent homes of one type or another.

But expectations are everything in a relationship, and expecting a partner to be a peace-nik when you want him to be a peace-nik, just because he should, in your opinion, be conflict-aversive, having grown up with so much conflict, doesn't make it so. If you think about it, logically it makes sense that one of the two should be good with conflict, and the other, not-so-good. Laws of chance.

And when that happens, things get pretty wild. Let's pretend the person comfortable with conflict is a guy, and the person who is conflict-avoidant is a woman. (Substitute genders at will).

The assumption on her end is that he gets it, this soul mate of hers, that she's had enough insults or sarcasm to last a lifetime. She's thinking that he, too, doesn't want to raise his voice or hear her yell, that he won't want to behave like his parents behaved. He understands.

Yet he's hardened off, is immune to verbal and physical violence. The continuum of violence is what is meaningful to him. A jab, a joke, a minor insult shouldn't hurt. It's a left-handed insult; or sarcasm, no big deal. A good fight, even, no big thing, nothing to fear; it's something to win.

Whereas she truly could be overly sensitive. Negative communication might hurt her to the degree that she feels re-traumatized. She's already too bruised, can't handle any more bruises, emotional or not.
Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. His refrain. Doesn't she get that?
For him it has become something of habit, rising to the offensive under pressure, and it is hard for him to change, even if she has called him on his words, told him how much they hurt.

She's disappointed in him, is the truth, which depresses him. He senses it. She's disappointed that he hasn't changed, for she has said something to that effect on numerous occasions. But she doesn't yell about it, doesn't punctuate in the way that he's used to people yelling when they want to make a point. So he doesn't hear, doesn't respond, and out of nowhere, he spontaneously cuts her with words, especially if he's feeling attacked.

She'll walk away, get some fresh air, won't even say,
You know, Words hit as hard as a fist. Watch what you say.
That's the tagline for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, highlights a poster that a patient once stole for me. She took it off a bus. I've had it for thirty years.

This is a simple family therapy. We revisit both childhoods, talk about feelings, explore the intimacy avoidance characteristic of the behavior of both partners.

What's amazing to me is how long some couples endure this pattern without insisting it change. You would think the conflict avoider would explode, at some point, for exploding is necessary, to make the point. It is most typical that a child will bring a couple like this to therapy, will think of some way, act out, carry a symptom. It can take a good while for anger to become the motif of that treatment. The anger management is eventually requested, interestingly, by both partners, and begins with old fashioned insight, psycho-dynamic psychotherapy, reaching into childhood.

Only after that, will the cognitive-behavioral strategies really work, the self-relaxation, the breathing, integrating a positive parent figure, the one we all want to be. There are a host of anger management techniques. They don't work, not until you get to the root and yank it out, because it is primitive anxiety that drives the conflict as well as the conflict avoidance.

You can't really apply a band-aid to the deep stuff is the truth.



Isle Dance said...

So true. Just now, seven plus years of being away from this, and I'm finally realizing there is a very direct way of saying, "I need to be protected." Who knew those words existed?!

Social Work Helps said...

It is amazing that we allow those communication gaps to exist for so long in relationships. A very interesting read!

porcini66 said...

I sometimes find it difficult to understand the "need to be protected" vs. the underlying "you shouldn't NEED anything." It was an unwritten rule in my house that we (the kids) were not to express any negative feelings - stop whining, stop crying, you're too sensitive, don't you talk back to me, don't you look at me with that tone of voice! It just seemed that no matter what, I wasn't allowed to feel ANY of the "bad" stuff.

Consequently, I never learned HOW to feel any of it. I just pushed it away, pushed it away, pushed it away. Yup, I avoid conflict. But, until recently, not in a healthy way. I just stuffed. Still do, sometimes, but at least I know that's what I'm doing now and can sometimes catch it...

Conflict is part of life, even when you're a child, especially when you're a child, I think. Kids face conflict day in and day out. The trick for us parents is to teach them that conflict is healthy and that we grow from it. I'm learning right along side them, really. Probably not the best, but hopefully THAT cycle is broken...

CiCi said...

Growing up in an extremely violent home and removed from it at age twelve, I had no role models of how to get along with anyone. And I did not trust even a small complement. It took many failed relationships and then finally fifteen months of intensive therapy (DPT) which ended eight months ago for me to be able to ask for what I want and to live in the present in reality. Hubby and I have learned how to work together, him with his bipolar disorder and his thirty something years of alcohol and drugs. Neither one of us is conflict avoidant. Nuh uh. And yet when voices get raised the little girl in me panics and still has to work through it. No band-aids for me.

Dr. Deb said...

Sticks and stones AND words hurt. That childhood saying needs to be updated.

Syd said...

It sounds like many relationships that I have had. I never learned how to fight with others, like to avoid conflict, and do have expectations that others will respect my boundaries. When they don't I am often dismayed. I know where my angst comes from--my dominant and critical father. When confronted with an angry outburst, I inwardly cringe but have learned that this usually isn't about me. I am not sure what else I can do except leave or say that I am not comfortable with the anger. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

In He Drinks, She Drinks from 10/21/06 you mention the "behavioral dysfunction of jumping from partner to partner beyond alcohol." I would love to hear your thoughts on that topic.

Wondering Soul said...

I'm so lucky to have grown up far far far away from conflict and violence. Mine was the affectionate family you mention in the first instance... I am always grateful for that. I see the extreme damage wrecked by ciolent parents daily in my work with terribly angry and disaffected teenagers.

It's always hard to meet those responsible for such damage and yet, very often, they are so broken and so disaffected themselves... It's so often a legacy left for those who follow...

"You can't apply a band aid to the deep stuff is truth"
... IS truth.


moviedoc said...

One could argue that bones heal easier and better than the psyche, but when someone who is supposed to care about you breaks them the psyche is always damaged too.

Beno said...

Great post and one of my favorite childhood aphorisms :) I couldn't find the haunting campaign picture of the little kid cowering in black and white (TD, who ran that campaign?), but I did find this:

Unknown said...

I remember reading that conflict avoidance is more often associated with relationship endings, divorce. Because partners never know what they're thinking, don't know to change their behavior. When the angry person speaks out (shouts, lunges) at least a partner has a chance of knowing what is bothering them. Of course, some happy medium is often the healthiest.

moviedoc said...

Aw shucks, TD. Thanks. And I think your blog is most excellent.


Anonymous said...

Hey, TherapyDoc -

This touches on something I'm working on right now . . . I can yell and scream and say nasty things with the best of them when I feel threatened . . . I'll get you first, thank you very much.

But now, in therapy, we are looking at the violence in my childhood home, violence used against me . . . and when my therapist expresses his own anger about what happened to me, I can only tolerate his words if he wispers them . . . normal volume feels out-of-control and deadly to me. It's rather strange.

Great post, as always! Thank you!

- Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

Texan99 said...

I find the idea that someone would notice something bad that happened to me, and would express anger over it on my behalf, absolutely OVERWHELMING. I can well imagine that mmaaggnnaa might need a therapist to whisper it while it sank in. It almost takes my breath away just sitting here typing about it.

Terrific blog here, TherapyDoc. My first visit. This business of learning how to ask for what we want and need is so basic that I'm stunned I'm barely figuring it out at the age of 53. It makes a huge difference in our marriage. "I need protecting." Wow.

therapydoc said...

Texan, nice to meet you, and thanks.

Mmaaggnaa illustrates this very well. Thanks, M.

And thanks again to Moviedoc, readers should check out he blog. It’s great.

Sandy, I’ve read that, too, that conflict avoidance, what family therapists call a “united front” is one of the top three dysfunctional relationships. So it stands to reason that would lead to divorce. On the other hand, divorce is so full of conflict, I could see these couples avoid it.

Beno, always happy to hear from you.

Wondering, so lucky.

Anon, I'll try to get to it.

Syd, I know how hard this is. If someone's overtly angry, however, a simple, "Can you say it without yelling, can you say it like you don't hate me," sometimes helps. It's denied, but then you persist, and say, "No, actually. You get a look on your face that says you hate me. That's all I can say."

Techno Babe, you're my hero.

Porcini, believe it or not, I see a LOT of this, the no entitlement to feeling, thing. Takes a lot of retraining, no?

Thanks LBSW, and Dr. Deb,

and Isle Dance, WAY TO GO!

Counselling Cardiff said...

Hi TherapyDoc, just found your blog. I have some reading to do.

One of the things that my angry clients find most significant is the revelation that anger is the result of being hurt in some way. In my opinion once that connection is made a client can start to forgive themselves for their behaviour. In my opinion anger is a very useful emotion, it tells us when something is wrong. The challenge is to learn non-destructive ways in which to communicate that hurt.

I employ a blended approach where and exploration of early experience is combined with techniques that allow a client to overcome that moment of anger.

By exploring early experiences I attempt to find unresolved anger that is piggy backing on opportunities to vent anger in the present.

I've found that the archytpes of inner child and warrior are useful in this work too. The warrior leaps to the defence of the wounded inner child and expresses the anger in a destructive manner. I've found that establishing a dialgoue between these two aspects of self is a useful way of valuing the warrior, but then asking 'him' to take a step back as the threat is not as significant as it once was.

If the client is able to work with this then we can explore alternative ways to avoid destructive behaviour. I use embodiemnt techniques to help client feel the anger rising, then utilise visualisations (& meditations) to allow a clientto step back from the explosive threshold. I then explore alternative ways to express one's hurt.

So I guess I'm in 'violent' agreement with your two-stage approach.

Texan99 said...

I've been working for years on how to say "ouch" before it's too late.

Wait. What? said...

This was a very enlightening read. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

You just described my marriage--13 year of it--then our son brought us into therapy just like you describe. Took a year to get to the aggressive/passive dynamic in the marriage. And yes, I'm very sensitive but so what. I'm claiming my sensitivity, in general it's an asset. And I see now that no matter what rationalization I come up with being passive just doesn't work. Trouble is my husband's recurrent denial that I even have been passive, which he somehow (I really don't get it) construes to mean he's been Bad and that I'm blaming everything on him. 1st therapist told us we should stop couples work and focus on individual issues. 2nd therapist told me privately that husband blames everything on me, which I hadn't seen because he says I blame everything on him. Then I told the 1st therapist what the 2nd had said and he goes, of course he does! as if it was obvious. But it wasn't obvious to me. Then he started drinking and things began moving toward violence (how much violence it too much? Hair pulling? Holding me down? Threatening to rape me but not following through?) and I started asking him to move out and really meaning it then suddenly he began trying to accommodate me. This is a tangent and a sigh. Life is painful.

therapydoc said...

Thanks everyone, great comments. I like the "violent agreement" concept! And Anonymous, all I can say to that one is, You bet. Back to the drawing board. And maybe one therapist who knows how to do marital therapy. Not that it always works. And he has to stop drinking or one of you should get out. What you describe is certainly too much violence. Guy has to work a program.

Anonymous said...

I heard a song on the radio today by Eminem, featuring Rhianna about violent relationships and their destructive cycle. (It's called "Love the Way You Lie.") I honestly couldn't believe the words as they described a vicious relationship in the rawest form, came home and googled it, and it is the number one song on ITunes at the moment. Just wondering if you had heard it. It's a strange commentary about our society... I can't believe it's the number one song.

therapydoc said...

Anon, I'm a little out of it musically lately. Your comment makes me think that's not such a bad place to be!

Canadian Carrie said...

This describes my marriage. Our kids are still too young to act out enough to make us change. Hopefully it really does change soon. It started getting really bad a few months ago, him drinking more, blaming me for everything, blah, blah, blah... As soon as I internally was ok with the reality of what would happen if I made him leave, I gave him the ultimatum, and he DID change. For a while. It's getting bad again. He just doesn't get it. I grew up with an alcoholic mom, him an alcoholic dad. He sees nothing wrong with the way his dad treated his mom.(not violence as far as I know, but choosing the drink and his friends over her) It's a vicious cycle that I want to break. He has 3 nephews between 20-25 who already have drinking problems. I have 2, possibly 3 brothers with drinking problems. Myself and 1 other brother I think experienced the worst of my moms problems, subsequently, we both have aversions and intolerance to drinking after getting over our issues with it.
Anyway, just ranting, I'll be reading alot more here. Very interesting!

The Leadership Lady said...

Words Hit Hard as a Fist, With 18 tips on How to STOP being Bullied. “It is sad when a young person gives up on life. My book was dedicated to a young man where I live by the name of Seth Walsh who took his life while I was finishing my new book. There are skills that we all need to know. In my new book Words Hit Hard as a Fist With 18 Tips on How to STOP being Bullied, I teach kids how to "take the bull by the horns." I share information on how to communicate clearly so others don't take defense, I explain what boundaries are and how to draw the line, and how to gain teen-esteem. I give advice on acceptance and tolerance, as well as information about 24 teen challenges all teenagers will face, I give resources and I share a hotline for quick advice. You can get it at Balboa Press, a Division of Hay House or Amazon or download it. The weekend of Nov. 11th, in Tampa Florida, My books will be displayed at a Hay House publishing conference, called, “I Can Do It!” My goal is to get a copy into every Middle and High School Library. www.theleadershiplady.com