We All Have People Problems

I made a presentation once to a room full of pre-marrieds—couples who were either engaged or thinking about engagement.

I spoke for an hour about conflict resolution and was truly impressed with how well I did. I was organized, used good illustrations, and concluded with some practical take-aways. But it was a snoozer. All of them had facial expressions that implied, “Conflict? We don’t have conflict. We love each other.”

photo credit:  Sholeh, Creative Commons

photo credit: Sholeh, Creative Commons

I felt like I had just wasted an hour trying to convince middle-schoolers to save for retirement. But if I had those same folks in a seminar two years into marriage, there would have been rapid-fire questions and impassioned note-taking. Heck, they might’ve even requested another session. You know why? Because they would have had conflict.

Here’s something about human nature: we’re all mixtures of positive and negative traits—maturities and immaturities.

We’re obviously attracted to each other’s positives but encounter the negatives when we get in close. Now, it feels nice to be around someone’s nicer attributes and we may even use the L-word (love) to describe it. So much so that we tend to disregard the other person’s negatives because the positives feel so good.

That’s why my pre-marrieds looked bored.

Probably every one of them would’ve acknowledged their partner’s negative qualities but they just didn’t matter “because we love each other.” To them, conflict was nothing more than a theoretical abstraction. But when we get in close and stay there over time, those negatives we previously understood academically become experiential. At that point, we have conflict or . . . people problems. In fact, the closer the contact, the more likely the conflict.

And people problems don’t only happen in marriages but in any setting populated by homo sapiens. They occur in families, at work, in neighborhoods, or even at church. If you doubt me, take an extended road trip with six of your closest friends. Let me know how that goes for you.

Here’s something else about human nature: we’re lousy at conflict resolution.

We can learn to do it but we’re not naturally very good at it. It’s an acquired ability. Left to ourselves, we fight like children, which is why my pre-marrieds would likely be motivated to learn more about conflict resolution after two years of handling their problems immaturely.

Learn How To Fight Like An Adult

I do a lot of marital counseling and have for years.

My kids are grown now but when they were young, I was sitting in my office one day with a couple who’d come in for help with their faltering marriage. At one point, they really got into it and this is what I heard, “Did too . . . did not . . . did too . . . did not . . . “. I didn’t say this out loud but I thought, “These people sound just like my kids when they get off the school bus.”

Have you ever listened to political talk shows where they have “spirited” debates? The combatants occupy quadrants of the split screen as they interrupt each other, talk over each other, mischaracterize each other’s positions, and roll their eyes while others make their points.

photo credit:  philippe leroyer, Creative Commons

photo credit: philippe leroyer, Creative Commons

Very frustrating to watch. My growing conclusion through the years is that adults tend to fight like children.

Left to ourselves, fighting like kids is what we do.

If you don’t believe me, have someone take a cell phone video of you during your next argument and then watch it later. I bet you’ll notice a gap between your actual age and the age you appear to be on the video. If that’s your observation, take heart—you’ve got a big peer group. It’s just part of our nature to argue immaturely. So, what does it mean then to fight like an adult?

It’s not actually all that complicated but what makes it hard is that it’s unnatural. It requires us to take numerous counter-intuitive forks along the conflict road.

Let’s talk about one of those forks.

Suppose your roommate says, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you. You’ve been leaving your dirty dishes in the sink for days at a time. I can’t use the sink unless I first clean up your stuff. Would you mind putting them in the dishwasher when you’re through with them?”

And then you say, “I would but you haven’t paid for dishwasher detergent since the Clinton administration. So you’re not the only one with a bone to pick, pal.”

Notice what you’ve just done. You’ve thrown a related (but separate) issue into the conversational mix. The chances of now resolving either of them is slim to none. It’s the adult equivalent of one kid saying, “You’re stupid.” The other kids then says, “Oh, yeah? You’re ugly.” (Use your imagination and you’ll notice both kids sticking their tongues out).

The less-traveled counter-intuitive path would be to bring resolution to the first issue before going on to the second. Both issues are important but neither gets resolved when tackling both of them simultaneously.

Resolving one thing at a time is just one example of what adults do when they argue.

Why Are So Many of My Friends Jerks?

“Do I just wear a sign around my neck that attracts these people?”  “They’re drawn to me like bugs to a light.”  “Am I a jerk-magnet?”  Have you ever uttered one of these phrases?  If so, you’re not alone.

We refer to some people as “crazy-makers”—those difficult people in our lives who drive us crazy, wear us out, or make us sick.  We all have irritating qualities, but crazy-makers are profoundly deficient in their abilities to establish and maintain lasting, healthy relationships.  Our attempts to deal with them in normal ways fail, which leaves us feeling—crazy.

We encounter crazy-makers people throughout life.

They first show up as toddlers throwing temper tantrums.  At that point, the crazy-maker is a kid who needs to mature—to develop better ways of handling frustration.  The ones who don’t mature show up again in elementary school as bullies on the playground.

Again, the need is to grow—to learn more mature ways of dealing with peers. Those who persist in failing to mature become adults who are called one of the names listed in the previous article (i.e. creep, nut, pain in the neck, or piece of work).  The crazy-maker is a child in an adult’s body who needs to grow up—to learn more mature ways of handling relationships and conflict.

Crazy-makers are truly are everywhere.

And a large percentage of the population meets the criteria.  We run into them at work, at school, at church, in the community, at the doctor’s office, in government, in entertainment, at family gatherings, or in marriages.  In fact, there are sleeper cells of crazy-makers all over the place.  So, if you run into them often, it’s not that you have some sort of magnetic attraction.

They’re just everywhere.

How To Avoid The Drama Queens

We all know drama queens or drama kings.

The way they operate in relationships is through drama. They have a role to play and so do you. As long as you play your designated and obligatory role in that drama, the relationship “works.” At least, that’s the way they see it. But drama participation takes its toll. It drives you crazy, wears you out, or makes you sick. So, the challenge is: how to keep yourself out of the drama.

Wendy had a drama queen in her life—Heather.

Heather had been through some difficult circumstances dating back to her earliest years in life. Both parents were alcoholics, a brother had been killed in an automobile accident, and she had some chronic health issues.

She truly had been a victim of circumstances but she unfortunately developed what might be called a “victim stance.” That is, victimhood had become her identity—how she saw herself.

Her closest relationships became dramas that worked like this:

“My job in this relationship is to be taken care of. Your job is to take care of me. Any questions?” Such words are rarely spoken but the message is clear nonetheless. In an attempt to “get along” with Heather, Wendy found herself continuously presumed upon and taken advantage of. And whenever she tried to back away from her care taking obligations, Heather became one big ball of hurt feelings.

In order to break the drama cycle, Wendy had to do some things that felt a little mean—she had to refuse participation in the drama.

Heather had become like a child who screams, “You’re the meanest mom in the whole world”, in hopes of guilting mom into performing some desired activity. Wendy wasn’t being mean but Heather certainly tried to make her feel like she was being cold and calloused.

It wasn’t easy but she became a drama non-participant. It had become clear to Wendy that staying in the drama was hurting Heather more than helping her.

Why You Feel Crazy Around Crazy-makers

There’s a reason some people are called “crazy-makers.” They make you feel crazy. You may be mentally stable but being around them can leave you feeling a little wacked. They have a way of affecting their surroundings in such a way that others buy into their distortions. Here’s how Abby, a former client, explained it:

“My family was crazy. Somehow, I was always aware of it but had few options for dealing with them when I was younger. But once I was of age, I went off to college—the first in my family to do so. College for me was like a perch on which I could sit to get a bird’s eye view of the family dysfunction. Being away and forming relationships with normal, healthy others restored my sanity and made me feel normal myself.”

“But whenever I’d go home for some obligatory family gathering, I could feel my sanity slipping. Here I was, surrounded by relatives who had no ability to grasp or appreciate my recent growth. But it was worse than that. They really believed I was the crazy one. And before I knew it, I’d find myself starting to buy into their altered reality. I always felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. It was as though I’d see a red couch in the room and remark to a relative about the pretty red color. And then, I’d be told, ‘That couch isn’t red; it’s green.” Everyone would then laugh at my color-blindness. I’d leave thinking, ‘Maybe it’s me; maybe I am color blind. Maybe it’s green like they said.’”

The combination of healthy relationships—those who have the ability to distinguish between reality and the Twilight Zone—and time helped Abby deal with her family better. Now, they irritate her without devastating her. Abby is very glad that Rod Serling no longer attends her family gatherings.