You Make Me Sick

My clients frequently present with complaints of symptoms related to depression or anxiety—often referred to in mental health circles as the “common colds” of mental illness.

More often than not, I come to find out that the client’s negative mood originated—and is now being sustained—in some toxic relational environment. Perhaps damage was inflicted from a past relational trauma or from being raised in a dysfunctional family. Or the client has current relationships in which most of the conflicts go frustratingly unresolved. Or maybe the client is in close contact with a crazy-maker and the constant drama and manipulation has left the client feeling exhausted and just a little bit “crazy.”

When relational stress increases, the immune system’s effectiveness decreases. So the phrase, “You make me sick,” can be literally true!

Years ago, I worked with a client who was a Vietnam Vet—a real man’s man sort of guy. He came in complaining of anxiety symptoms but when we stepped back and looked at the context in which his anxiety developed, we discovered a momma drama. Of course she never stated this out loud, but here’s how Mom saw the relationship with her “boy”: My job in this relationship is to be in charge; your job in this relationship is to do what I demand; any questions?

As long as my client submitted to his mom’s control, they got along fine. But there was always a price to pay for his failure to submit. And part of the price he paid was an elevated level of anxiety. “When I come home at the end of the day,” he told me once, “the phone rings and I know it’s Mom calling. I just want to dive under a table.” Being around Mom was like being on patrol in Viet Nam—an anxiety-producing situation, indeed.

I never saw his mom but asked him to describe her. “She’s not quite 5 feet tall,” he answered. This diminutive woman had the power to turn this rugged ex-Marine into a puddle of goo.

It wasn’t easy, but my client became less anxious when he developed some ways to avoid his mom’s excessive controlling demands. He limited the time he spent with her and let some of those calls go to voice mail. When she would give unsolicited advice, he would thank her politely for her input . . . and then do whatever he wanted to do.

Participation in the control drama had made him sick but things improved for him when he became a drama non-participant.

Happily Incompatible

A high value is placed these days on compatibility, the thought being that if two people are compatible, they’ll get along.

Now, compatibility certainly has its place and it’s indeed enjoyable to be around someone with whom we share common ground. But sooner or later, similar people get irritated by each other’s dissimilarities. And if they handle those differences poorly, the relationship suffers. Compatibility is desirable but working through differences is essential.

A few years ago, back when his health was still good and his wife was still living, Billy Graham was a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s show. She asked him to explain the secret of his long, successful marriage (they had been married for around six decades at that point). “Ruth and I are”, he replied, “happily incompatible.”

When asked to clarify the meaning of this seemingly odd phrase, he went on to explain that he and his wife were more different than they were alike. They had different wiring, different strengths and weaknesses, different personalities. And these differences had caused them to clash over the years. But, he explained, they had learned well the art of resolving their clashes and were happy with the outcome. Hence, they were “happily incompatible”.

I’ve seen couples in my office who are amazingly compatible but have lousy relationships. I’ve seen other couples with limited compatibilities but great relationships—all because they figured out how to work through their differences well. In fact, that’s what caused them to get closer. Incompatible people who handle their incompatibilities well develop the very closeness they hope to achieve in marriage. “Soul mates” are more often developed than discovered.

Three Effective Ways To Solve Your People Problems

We all have people problems and the more time we spend with people, the more aware we are of the problems. And we all need relationships but for relationships to “work”, we need ways to resolve the inevitable problems that come with closeness. Solving people problems involves three categories of activity.

First, we need to stop engaging in what I call “bad conflict”.

This is what we do naturally and is driven by our inclinations to react to each other’s reactions. The term “bad” conflict sounds like people are throwing dishes as each other. That’s certainly one form of it but it also occurs when people retreat into silence and stop talking. The results of bad conflict are that nothing gets resolved, warmth is diminished, relationships become alienated, and it brings out our worst.

Second, we must learn to engage in what I call “good conflict”.

Now, good conflict sounds oxymoronic—calling something good that’s inherently bad. Like “good” poison ivy, perhaps. But what makes this type of conflict good is that problems get solved, it warms up a cold relationship, closeness can replace alienation, and it brings out our best. Bad conflict is a circular process in which nothing gets resolved while good conflict is a linear process in which problems can be solved and laid to rest. We can’t avoid conflict but we do have a choice between the bad kind and the good kind.

Third, we must develop the use of reason muscles, which are the abilities needed to engage in the process of good conflict.

I call them “muscles” because they get stronger when used but atrophy from disuse. These are the muscles needed to do the heavy lifting of conflict resolution: humility, awareness, responsibility, empathy, and reliability.

My book, How to Solve Your People Problems, goes into detail about each of these three categories of activity.

Oh, About That Nail

A wonderful YouTube video has been making the rounds entitled, “It’s Not About the Nail.”

A girl and her boyfriend (could be her husband, we’re not told) are sitting on a couch as she explains to him the pain she’s been experiencing. After describing her discomfort in a fair amount of detail, she turns to reveal a nail protruding from her forehead.

Her partner then suggests, ever so carefully, that perhaps removing the nail would relieve the pain. She then protests, “It’s not about the nail . . . You always try to fix things when what I really need is for you to just listen.” He then musters up the wherewithal to lay aside his desire to fix and simply listens. This warms her heart and they start to hug. But he accidentally bumps the nail and the argument starts all over.

I think this video is hilarious and I’ve shared it with countless others. I laugh every time I watch it. But my fondness for it has less to do with its message and more to do with its production. It’s well done, clever, and, like I said, funny. Its producers really nailed it. Sorry.

The trouble is that I disagree with its central message: Guys like to fix things but girls just want someone listen to their feelings.

This is problematic on several fronts.

First, it’s been my observation that men and women alike want to be listened to and men and women alike want to problem-solve. Sure, these desires may manifest themselves differently but they aren’t gender-specific. I’ve dealt with lots of men over the years who’ve had affairs. You know what often entices them to step outside their marriages? This–“I found someone who would listen to me.” I’ve never heard a guy say, “When I saw the number of items she had checked off her to-do list, I just couldn’t keep my hands off her.” And, I’ve heard lots of women complain about unsolved problems. “He’s been telling me for years that he’ll fix that broken cabinet, but he never does.” You know what turned her off? This–his lack of problem-solving.

Second, I figure more than a few women felt a little demeaned by the video. The guy comes off as rational and clear-headed while the girl seems a bit dimwitted. Removing the nail would obviously help but he’s the only one with sense enough to see it.

Third, and perhaps this is my biggest concern, I don’t like the way some people misapply the women-are-like-this-and-men-are-like-that message. I worked with a client once who, with her husband, ran a home-based business. He was near genius-level in the business realm but his emotional IQ was in the low double digits. She also had business-savvy along with an emotional IQ at the Mensa level. He had read a book about male-female differences (some of which I agree with, by the way). There were times when she’d express a concern about the running of the business. He would exasperatedly close his computer and say, “I’ve got a stack of things to do over there but I know you want to talk about your feelings, so . . . go.” Yeah. She had to learn well the art of restraining her homicidal impulses.

It’s a great video. Just don’t misuse it.

Inside the Mind of the Manipulator

Perhaps the best way to understand manipulators is to think of them as grown-ups who never fully grew up. They are chronologically older than their developmental ages.

While it’s true that we all have gaps between how old we are and how old we should be, manipulators are profoundly disabled in their ability to problem solve. Now, they may be brilliant problem solvers in some technical area of life. But what we’re talking about here is relational problem solving.

When problems occur in close connections, reasonable people have the willingness and desire to solve those problems and lay them to rest. But manipulators lack the internal equipment to engage in problem solving. For whatever reason, they emerged into adulthood missing the parts needed to solve personal conflict problems.

So, if you’re in close with a manipulator—you’re related to them, live next door to them, or work with them—and they lack what’s needed to resolve the inevitable problems that come with closeness, they resort to the only thing they’ve got—drama. From a manipulator’s perspective, that’s how relationships “work”, through drama participation. The unspoken message is this: “As long as we both stay in our roles, we’ll get along just fine.”

George had a business partner who was known far and wide as a world-class jerk. Pete had been married several times, had no friends, and was on the outs with all of his adult children. For years, people would say to George, “How can you work with that guy? He’s a truly despicable person. I don’t know how you do it!” The truth was, George couldn’t get away from Pete. They were inextricably linked through their business partnership so exiting was not a good option.

In Pete’s view, relational “success” with George was very simple. If a disagreement occurred, George just needed to acquiesce to Pete’s demands. Their relationship was a “drama” in which Pete’s role was to be in charge and George’s role was to submit. As long as that occurred, they got along just fine—according to Pete.

Pete couldn’t be reasoned with—George had tried many times.

Consequently, different methods had to be employed. Here’s an example of one of those different methods. About once a week, Pete would storm into George’s office, slam the door and chew him out. The subject matter was always the same—things were going badly in the business and it was George’s fault. Pete would go on and on making demands, hurling accusations, and spewing venom all over the office.

George would wait until Pete ran out steam and say something like, “Pete that’s all very interesting. Seen any good movies lately?” An enraged Pete would then bluster for a few more minutes and storm out of the office saying, “You’re impossible to work with.” At which point, George would calmly get back to his work and have a productive rest of the day.

It wasn’t easy, but George had developed a way of refusing to play his role in the drama. Pete gained no insight and never became more reasonable. But George felt a little less crazy and exhausted through drama non-participation.