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.

Times, They Are ‘Achangin

I was just watching Andy Griffith. This particular episode first aired in 1963 and the storyline reflected some important worldview assumptions of that era.

A new kid, Arnold Winker, moves to Mayberry. He befriends Opie whom he coaches in methods of kid empowerment. Arnold tells Opie his 25 cent allowance is ridiculously low and even requires work for pay. Seventy-five cents, Arnold assures him, is the going rate which all kids deserve simply for being kids—and they shouldn’t have to work for it. With Arnold’s tutoring, Opie approaches Andy and demands the increase. Andy’s reply was something like this: “No, you’ll receive 25 cents just like we talked about and you’ll have to work for it. You see, Opie, there’s no better feeling than getting paid for what you earn.” Request denied, Opie falls to the floor in an Arnold-inspired temper tantrum. It fails. Andy’s only reply is, “Try not to get your clothes dirty.”

Meanwhile, Arnold gets reprimanded by Barney for unlawfully riding his bike on a downtown sidewalk. Arnold’s defiance doesn’t sit well with Andy who decides to confiscate the bike and requests a meeting with Arnold’s father. When the dad shows up in Andy’s office, he turns out to be just as defiant as the son—demanding the bike’s return. Shocked now by Mr. Winkler’s behavior, he threatens sarcastically to lock him up along with the bike. And then, Arnold does something that takes everyone’s breath away. He shrieks that if locking his dad up would get his bike back, then go ahead.

The room falls silent and, for the first time apparently, Mr. Winkler catches a glimpse of the ugliness standing before him. In this epiphany moment, Mr. Winkler tells Andy he’ll be selling the bike and takes Arnold off to the woodshed. We’re left with a sense that the discipline had its intended corrective effect.

The moral could not have been clearer: the entitled behavior of demanding something for nothing is immature and needs correction.

That was 1963, but what if the same story was told today and reflected many of our current worldview assumptions? It might’ve unfolded something like this:

The story is the same up to the point of Mr. Winkler’s epiphany. But instead of an awakening, he and Arnold stay stuck in their enragement over the bike’s impounding. An election is coming up so Mr. Winkler runs for sheriff. His campaign slogan is “Hope for the Children” and he adopts a platform of turning sidewalks into bike paths.

He hires a PR firm out of Mt. Pilot which specializes in negative campaign advertising. The strategy is to portray Andy as oppressive, mean-spirited, anti-child, and authoritarian. Arnold is no longer an offender but a victim and Andy is now the oppressor. They even produce a flyer depicting Andy as a Hitler-like figure, his uniform replete with jackboots and swastika armband. Townspeople behind him in the Bavarian-looking village stand at attention giving the Nazi salute. Even Otis Campbell and Ernest T. Bass are visually transformed by their starched, brown-shirted uniforms.

They create a 30-second ad in which a local citizen tearfully explains how she can’t get groceries for her kids because Andy disallows bike-riding—her only means of transportation. In another ad, a supposed childhood acquaintance recalls how Andy owned three bikes but never let anyone else ride them. By the way, they were color ads but Andy only appeared in black-and-white and moved in slow-motion.

Nobody quite knew what Mr. Winkler did in Mayberry but he was a pretty good at running for office. All his campaign appearances followed the same format. Mr. Winkler would energetically bounce onto the stage where supporters stood behind him on raised bleachers wearing campaign t-shirts. He would then proceed to ridicule and trash Andy. With perfect comedic timing and cadence, he’d say things like, “For the life of me, I just can’t understand why Sheriff Taylor doesn’t want kids to ride bikes.” The people behind him would explode in raucous laughter. Mt. Pilot television would show these clips on every evening newscast.

Just before the election, Mr. Winkler triumphantly proclaimed, “We’re just a few days away from fundamentally transforming Mayberry.”

Mr. Winkler won and Andy’s reputation was ruined. Mr. Winkler kept his campaign promise but not until his second term. All sidewalks became bike paths. By the way, the numbers of injuries resulting from bikes colliding with pedestrians skyrocketed. Mr. Winkler steadfastly refused to discuss this, dismissing such concerns as nothing more than contrived reasons for people to oppose someone they considered to be an “outsider”.

In case you’re interested, Arnold later went to college on the West Coast where he was repeatedly arrested on campus for protesting “the system.” He now chairs the Department of Earth Sciences at a prestigious ivy-league institution.

The 2014 moral could not be clearer: people who refuse to give you something for nothing are evil and all methods used for taking them down are justified.

Times, they are a’changin’.