What’s Healthy Interaction Look Like?

by Dr. Irene

Rushing out of the house to catch the 7:52 into the City, Ben spied a box of Italian Linguini on the counter. “Yum,” he thought, his mouth watering in anticipation of tonight’s dinner. He looked forward to pasta all day. Here’s what happened between Ben and his partner Joanne when Ben came home that evening:

Joanne: “Dinner’s ready! I made your favorite chicken dish!”

Ben: “Oh, oh… Great!”

J: “What’s wrong?”

B: “Nothing. I just thought we were having pasta… and have been looking forward to pasta all day. But I love your chicken.: (Ben’s communication is clear. He answers Joanne’s question while he is careful not to hurt her feelings.)

J: “Oh, I’m sorry honey… I can make some pasta as a side dish…” (Joanne is “sorry” that Ben is feeling disappointed. It doesn’t occur to her that she has done anything “wrong” – because she hasn’t! )

B: “Would you do that for me?” (Ben accepts Joanne’s offer and is appreciative. He would do the same for her.)

J: (Smiling) “For you? Anything!”

How easy was that!

Here’s the same interaction between a Victim and an Abuser. Notice the difference:

Victim: “Dinner’s ready! I made your favorite chicken dish!”

Abuser: “Again? How many times have we had chicken this week? Do I look like a coyote to you?” (Quick to complain and attack. Disregard for Victim’s feelings, since he’s just upset and doesn’t mean anything by it. The Victim is expected to know this and not feel attacked.)

V: “I’m sorry… I thought you would be pleased…” (The Victim, feeling attacked, is thinking she messed up…again.)

A: “You thought, you thought… You don’t know how to think. That’s your problem.” (Unnecessary cutting remarks. He’s just blowing off steam. No reason for her to get bent out of shape. But she does…)

V: (Trying to be assertive) “Don’t talk to me that way!”

A: “Why not? You can ask me to not talk to you that way, but did you think to ask me what I wanted for dinner? (Challenging the victim and changing the subject.) Of course not! All you care about is what you want for dinner. Don’t you ever forget: I pay for that food! But that doesn’t matter to you…” (Me-me-me. Only the Abuser’s feelings count. He throws a little guilt in the pot for good measure. The Victim’s reaction to the Abuser’s mis-behavior is turned around, against her. This interaction went by too fast; she knew something went wrong, but felt lost. The fact that she was spoken harshly to is lost forever.)

V: “But…but… ” (Feeling unjustly attacked and feeling the need to explain herself, so he’ll understand that she meant well:) “You’re always happy when I serve this dish. I went to a lot of trouble to make this – because I thought this would make you happy!”

A: “You thought? You don’t think! You ask! That’s what you wanted to eat, so that’s what you made. You don’t care about anybody but yourself! When is the last time you asked me what I wanted for dinner? Well? When? You don’t remember do you?” (The Abuser wanted pasta for dinner, but he still does has not said this. The victim is supposed to know to ask – or not ask, as the whim may be. The attacks and the guilting continue.)

V: (Thinking…) Well, I did want chicken… After all, I had originally planned pasta. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I have been selfish… (The victim is second-guessing herself, again. The victim takes the blame, or appears to, in order to preserve some peace.) “Let me make you a little pasta now…”

A: “What are you nuts? I’m hungry. It’s too late. Let’s just eat and get this over with.” (The Abuser chooses to hold onto his anger. He is quiet and sullen throughout dinner and the rest of the night. He will remain this way until he’s done showing her how upset he is over her selfishness.)

Notice the self-defeating and irrational underlying assumptions Victim and Abuser buy into:

The Victim believes that it is her job to please the Abuser. The Victim forgets that she has a right to be pleased. as well. Therefore, she feels inadequate that she did not anticipate him, and guilty because she pleased herself by making a dish that she wanted – even though she knew it was a dish he especially liked. She lacks the verbal and cognitive skills to spot and react to his game playing.

The Abuser believes that it is her job is to please him. He takes this to extremes. Whenever an opportunity arises where he feels displeased, it is her fault. She is to blame and is punished by a display of his disappointment. He takes no responsibility in communicating what he wants. In fact, he goes out of his way to prevent her from giving him what he said he wanted, because dwelling in the anger / blame / pity pot is apparently more satisfying than getting what he originally wanted!

Go figure!

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