June 1, 2018

Dear drama observers,

I saw a client once whose struggles mainly centered around one theme: her husband’s jerkiness. I realize “jerkiness” is a made-up word but it’s just nicer and less vulgar than so many of the other terms one could use. You know, those derived from the combination of body parts and cuss words. This is a family letter so I’ll stick with the more socially appropriate . . . jerkiness.

I’ll tell you something I told her but first some background.

Most people wouldn’t say her husband was a jerk at first glance. He was widely-regarded, financially successful, and good-humored. And kind to his neighbors. In short, people liked him. Indeed, it was that mix of admirable traits that attracted her to him in the first place. But once married, she discovered that what looked normal from afar was far from normal. All that glitters is not gold, as the saying goes.

With her, he would vacillate between extremes of jovialness on some occasions and ragefulness on others. He was sometimes loving and sometimes hateful. He could dote on her this 15 minutes and berate her 15 minutes later. She never knew what to expect from him. It was as though he’d been afflicted with some sort of relational Tourette’s in which niceness could be quickly interrupted by sudden-onset jerkiness followed by returns to niceness. Needless to say, she had to keep her guard up all the time.

I met with him once which was helpful because I got to see the same incongruencies she described. He was pleasant and engaging early in the session but nasty and disrespectful when we ended. After he left, my impression of him was that he’d fallen out of the jerk tree and hit every branch on the way down.

There definitely was something wrong with him and my mind ticked through all the diagnostic possibilities. It could be this or it may be that, I thought. I never could nail down it down specifically but, regardless, his biggest problem was that he never thought the problem was him—it was always her.

She had considered leaving him but for a number of valid reasons which I won’t take the time to get into, she decided to ride it out for the time being. He wasn’t abusive so much as he was jerky. He had never even come close to physical aggression though she did feel beat up by his words at times. She decided to stay but she knew that staying meant figuring out a way to manage this thing. She came to me hoping to find a good management strategy. If she had been in an abusive situation, well, that’s a different animal.

I pretty quickly discerned that she would often fall into a commonly fallen-into trap—that of trying to reason with an unreasonable person.

Here’s what would typically happen. He would misinterpret something she would say or do (or didn’t say or didn’t do), chisel his misinterpretation into concrete, form emotions about his conclusion, and then dogmatically slam her with it all. She would then try to counter his conclusion with reason (i.e. why his conclusion was inaccurate), but he would hear none of it. He wasn’t interested in reason but only in being right. She was attempting to reason with an unreasonable person—and it never worked. And it always left her feeling more exasperated and more . . . alone.

This is what I told her one day. (It’s a silly analogy, so bear with me.) Imagine your dog hated being leashed, so much so that you let him freely roam the neighborhood. But he kept biting people and scaring little children. So, you sat him down one day and said the following:

“Spot, I’m having a problem. This biting and chasing people has got to stop. It’s unfair to our neighbors and could actually get me in trouble for not keeping you leashed. Can you see where I’m coming from? Can you just stop doing that for me, please? That would mean a lot.”

And then Spot said, “Thanks for letting me know and I’m not insensitive to your concerns. But can you try to see this from my point of view? I hate being all leashed up. It’s very painful for me to see those snarky little squirrels and I can only sit there and watch them run away. If there’s puddle of stagnant water just beyond the reach of my leash, I can’t go slurp it up. The leash is so confining. In short, I can’t be leashed and still be me. This is very (gulp) painful for me. Can you not understand that?”

And then the two of come up with a solution that meets the needs of both sides. You decide to put in one of those invisible fences. This gives you what you want (neighbor safety) and Spot what he wants (a degree of unleashed freedom).

It’s a dumb analogy, I know, but it illustrates an important principle: you can’t use reason when the other party lacks reason capabilities. So, what do you do if that’s the case?

Well, here’s what you might do with Spot. Don’t waste time talking to him about it but simply install the invisible fence. If every time Spot tries to cross it and feels a shock, he’ll stop crossing the line. His behavior will change for the better not through an appeal to the reason part of his brain (which he doesn’t possess) but to the reptilian part of his brain which is animated by pain avoidance.

My client had to apply that same principle with her husband whose frontal lobes had been damaged from repeatedly falling out of the jerk tree. He lacked reason capabilities which is why reasoning with him never worked.

Here’s what she did. Whenever he’d attack her with one of his emotionally-laden misinterpretations, she’d say, “Hang on, I’m not having this conversation. I’m done. When you can talk without berating and insulting me, I’ll be glad to talk with you. But until then, this conversation is over.” And then she’d leave the room or go run errands.

This wasn’t an appeal to his frontal lobes where his reason capabilities reside. It was an appeal to his reptilian brain (or shall we say dog brain) animated by frustration avoidance. Cutting him off and leaving him alone in the conversation served the same purpose with her husband that installing the invisible fence served with Spot. She deprived him of the opportunity to “bark and bite” at her.

But her husband was slower on the uptake than Spot. It took many repetitions over an extended period of time for him to finally grasp that mistreating her was to his own disadvantage. He was initially frustrated for selfish reasons but eventually developed the reason capabilities enabling him to see things from her point of view and use empathy to restrain his impulses. He had a leg up on Spot (no pun intended, I promise) in that he developed something Spot could never develop—the reason part of his brain.

I’m afraid this makes it all sound too simple. It wasn’t. She had to do this repeatedly over a long stretch of time and there were unexpected twists and turns along the way. It often seemed her jerk-behavior non-reinforcement strategy was having no discernable effect. But it eventually did. What she hoped for happened. He learned to restrain his relational Tourette’s and treated her nicer. Sometimes, he could now see, it actually was him and not her.

This story had a good ending. But some don’t. That’ll be the subject of a future letter.

10 replies
  1. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    I love this great analogy and suggestion. By disconnecting and walking away, the husband had nothing to chew on!

  2. Adele
    Adele says:

    I suppose they were both pretty committed to the relationship to be able to reach this point. Did you sense their mutual commitment when you met each of them? I realize he was just managed but since he was able to change his behavior, do you think his changed behavior gave him any sense of satisfaction ?

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Yes, they were both committed to making it work but his behavior became increasingly unacceptable to her. For him, he was forced to choose between keeping up his behavior or keeping the relationship. Fortunately, he chose the latter. They still have their moments but both are now glad he did.

  3. Trudi Jane Wyatt
    Trudi Jane Wyatt says:

    I too think this is a great analogy, and letter overall. Thank you. I look forward to the “future letter” that sounds like it will address that other outcomes would be possible in other scenarios.

  4. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    Oh, can I identify with the Spot problem! I had the same issue with a partner. Fortunately, he didn’t live with me so I could send him home, or leave for errands.
    Thanks for validation.

  5. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    Love this analogy! I have been trying to get clients to do this with abusive partners for some time but adding the analogy would be great. Wonder if this would work with abusive alcoholics?

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Same principle but probably a different application. Good question though. Appreciate your comment.

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