Randy was reaching for a doughnut when his wife glared at him. Inside, Randy could feel a defiance surging inside. He reached for the second doughnut and felt smug and happy with himself.
Janet struggled to maintain her composure when Jerry joked about her going to spend her morning with a bunch of “old ladies”. Her anger railed in particular because just prior to his coming in to the room and making the statement she was recalling how he had hurt her by referring to someone else with his pet name for her.
Lisa was furious with Greg because he had chosen to call her while she was getting her hair done and didn’t believe it really took so long to highlight and trim her hair. He had even called his hairdresser to confirm his opinion that it should not have taken so long to accomplish.
Fighting words, all of the examples above could and did lead to long lasting, all out battles between these couples. Their ability to see themselves as the victim in the situation perpetuated the argument. Each part of the couple felt wrongly accused and unjustly treated. They were, of course, all correct.
They had been unjustly treated and had been wronged in some way. So had their partners! When we fall into the game of seeing ourselves as a victim and our partners ad the perpetrators we fail to recognize the others position.
It’s easy to do isn’t it? It’s easy for us to see ourselves as the victim of the wrong. But in reality what is really going on? Both people are feeling hurt, threatened and that they are being treated unfairly.
So what do we do? How do we address the issues when both partners are feeling wounded? It’s tough and requires a great deal of commitment that sometimes, we can’t muster.
When something goes wrong and we feel wounded our brain kicks into a survival mode that prevents us from seeing the situation at hand clearly. What we do is see things purely from our own perspective. This is not because we are terrible humans. This is because it’s what are brains are wired to do.
When something happens and we feel threatened, our brains go into survival mode. What this means is that we go into hyper alert. Adrenaline pumps through our veins and we seek to regain a sense of control.
When our survival is threatened we feel out of control. There is, in fact, nothing so out of control is feeling like we are headed for disaster and death.
But then our brains look to regain control, and we do this by laying blame on someone. Once blame is in place, once we know whom to blame, then we know how to respond to the situation. Our brains can relax (to some degree) because we know what course of action to take.
Once we know who is to blame we know how to respond. If, the person to blame is ourselves, then we know we have to attack ourselves, berate ourselves and punish ourselves until we have learned the lesson to not do whatever it was again. This is the personification of the Victim role.
If the person to blame is someone else, we then get to chose between two responses. We choose to either defend ourselves against the perceived perpetrator, or rescue the victim.
Either way we get a sense of control and power back. When its our spouse we can see them as both Victim and Perpetrator. Our response then, is to rescue them and protect them from our anger at their perpetrative behavior.
An example of this is John, who knew his wife was stressed and tired, and he loved her desperately. One day he came in to find his wife spanking their daughter with a belt.
He intervened and gently told his wife, “Honey, I know work is hard right now. Why don’t you go take a hot bath? I’ll take care of Carrie.” He never held her accountable for her behavior, just tried really hard to make sure that she didn’t feel so stressed.
What’s really going on?
The thing is, John still blamed his wife for her horrid behavior, even though he rescued her from the consequences of it. His anger and resentment built over the years for all he had “protected” her from.
Eventually he left her, taking the children with him, and felt righteous about having done so. After all, she had been such an abusive person.
Now, I’m not saying she wasn’t abusive. What I am saying is that the cycle of abuse happens in an environment of blame. John perpetuated the blame and while he may have protected his children to some degree, he also left them without a mother because he failed to see her behavior as a cry for help.
As Randy reached for the third doughnut he laughed at himself. What is going on here? I’m acting like a child. Then he recognized that his mother had tried to control his eating, and what his wife did was trigger a memory of that. He laughed at himself and told his wife he was sorry for reacting like a rebellious teen.
Janet reached over and gave Jerry a hug. Her lips trembled as she told him how hurt she was feeling and how his comment had made it worse.
Jerry was defensive at first, but then looked at the pain in her eyes and told her he was sorry, that he didn’t mean to hurt her. Then he talked about how jealous he was of the time she spent away from him.
Lisa eventually got it that Greg was not really upset about her getting her hair done, but that his insecurity over her having had an affair a year before had kicked in and he couldn’t stop himself.
Lisa became tearful as she apologized for scaring him that way. She recognized that his behavior was not really as irrational as it appeared.
When we step out of blame; the potential for empathy is endless.