Dear drama watchers,
If you’re a regular reader of The Drama Review—and I think there may be a 12-step group for that—you’ve heard me say many times, “You can’t reason with an unreasonable person.”
I recently came across a similar quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Gestapo for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He spoke of the futility of reasoning with “stupid people,” a term he used in much the same way I use my term “drama people.” He wasn’t talking about IQ-deficiency so much as reason-deficiency. Actually, he may have been referring more to those falling prey to drama people.
“Never again,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “will we try to persuade a stupid person with reasons for it is senseless and dangerous.” Here’s the fuller context:
Reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed—in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical—and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person . . . is utterly self-satisfied and being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack (Letters and Papers from Prison).
But what do you do if reasoning won’t work? I’ve been asked some form of that question in my office for years by people living in close quarters with someone who refuses to participate in the normal reasoning process. If you can’t reason with them, what do you do?
I’ll tell you what one person did. This lady came to see me a few years back for help in dealing with an unreasonable husband—what Bonhoeffer might call a stupid person. Here’s the quick synopsis:
Her husband was minister who was known in some circles as an engaging and compelling story-teller. He could woo small groups or large crowds with tales eliciting both laughter and tears. Like something going viral on the internet, his parishioners would pass on these enthralling anecdotes to their neighbors on Sunday afternoons. For years, my client told me, people would come up to her and say things like, “You are so fortunate to be married to such a wonderful man. I’d give anything if my husband was more like yours.”
But these people only knew the public husband. Privately, he was a profane, controlling jerk. He handled all relational tensions by cussing at her, demeaning her, and trashing her. She saw this side of him as did their grown kids who’d been confronting their dad for years, all to no avail. In fact, they’d even said t0 their mom many times, “we don’t know how you stay with him.”
She’d tried reasoning with him many times but that never worked. You may remember me quoting Thomas Paine who once said, “Attempting to reason with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.” This lady had been slathering antiseptic cream on her husband’s dead carcass for years and it never brought him to life so to speak.
She had indeed strongly considered leaving—many times, actually—but decided to stay for a number of valid reasons. And let me just say here, every situation like this has its own variables and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. What works well for one person may not work so well for the next. She decided that, all things considered, staying put and managing the situation was the best option . . . for her. I’ll give you one example of her “management” strategy.
Every Wednesday evening as they went through the potluck supper line, he would—outside of everyone’s earshot, of course—snipe at her and cuss at her saying things like, “Hurry up, you’re too slow. And put that back, you’ll get fatter than you already are if you eat that.” This would be followed by siting down at a table of admirers who’d be regaled with his wonderful stories as they ate.” This hypocritical display of phony spirituality made her feel like spitting up.
So, one Wednesday night she had an idea. (I wish this had been my idea but it was all hers.) On the way to church, she said the following: “If you snipe at me tonight as we go through the line, I’ll just sit at another table. Just wanted you to know.” Of course, he retorted by denying that he’d ever sniped at her and she was crazy to suggest otherwise. Totally predicable.
Do you know what happened when they went through the line? He was nicer. Now, let’s see if we can figure out why he was nicer. Was it sudden-onset reasonableness? Did he have a Damascus Road spiritual awakening experience of some sort? Had he undergone a sudden, unexpected personality transplant?
It was none of those things. It was his concern for image. If she sat a different table, it might reflect badly on him and he didn’t want to have to explain it. So, he was nicer. His behavior changed not for the right reasons but, the way she looked at it, if it changed for any reason, that made life a little easier for her. That’s a management strategy. She couldn’t reason with him but she could manage his “stupidity” in ways that improved her life a bit.
I have some concern that this story makes it all sound easier than it often is. It’s not. This worked for her but the same strategy might not work so well for someone else. As I said, each situation has its own particularities and management strategies often emerge from trial-and-error experiences.
So, if you can’t reason with ‘em, maybe you can manage ‘em.