Carl hurried from his office. He felt sick to his stomach, but he really hadn’t eaten very much that day. At first, he attributed it to a virus that was going around the office, but whatever it was, he couldn’t shake it off. Nor could he concentrate on his work, or be civil to anyone. Rather than lose it completely, he decided to leave early, get in bed and sleep it off. He drove home in what he, in retrospect, thought was a cloud. He couldn’t remember stopping, starting or even driving down the street to his home. It was a totally upsetting day and he had no idea what was causing it.
He walked into the house and headed straight for the bedroom. His wife saw him and greeted him warmly, but with surprise. “What are you doing home so early? Are you okay? Is everything alright?”, she asked. That was all he needed. “There you go. I walk in the house and you bombard me with questions. Where am I, why am I, what am I doing? You’d think you’d be happy because I came home early. Instead, you’re giving me the third degree. Stop hanging on me. Just leave me alone and let me go to bed.”
She later informed me that she wanted to asked what had happened, but she was frightened and intimidated by his verbal attack, “for no reason at all.” She thought, “I don’t deserve this. I’m sick to death of his emotional outbursts. Nobody should be treated the way he treats me.” The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. Finally, she gathered the kids up, walked past the bedroom and said, “We’re going out to get a bite to eat. We’ll see you later.” But, it didn’t solve the problem. After dinner at a local pizza parlor, she gathered the kids up, drove them home and put them to bed. She didn’t want to fight, but she knew no other recourse, except, in her own words, to “stand up for myself.” Since their bedroom door was still closed, she fell asleep next to her youngest child. Her last thought was, “I wonder what the morning will bring.”
It’s a story that isn’t really uncommon. I’ve heard of many similar interactions. Although the circumstances differed, in the end, there were still hurt people who didn’t know how to resolve problems and could only see one side of the equation. Let me try to give you another perspective. One that might help you to better understand and to deal with any situation of this type.
Years ago, I thought I’d make a lot of money by developing psychological vignettes I hoped to create for radio and television. Ads that would be instructive, informative and still effectively promote a product. Initially, I wanted to film the following commercial on a mountain, with someone scaling its side. But, since there are no mountains in Houston, I decided we’d do it on a boat. I was thinner then, so I dressed up in a nylon sailor’s costume, all white, with blue docksiders and a blue captain’s hat, and looked very much the part of a sailor, except for the fact that, by the seventh or eighth time we shot it, I was awfully seasick, even though the boat was still attached to the dock. (It’s a malady that has been with me for years.) At any rate, there I stood on the deck and the script went like this, “Hi. I’m Dr. Ed Reitman and I’ve got a question for you. What can you learn from these rigging ropes that will help you in any loving relationship you will ever experience with a spouse, a date, your children, or a friend? I’ll be back in a moment and we’ll talk about it.” After a commercial, the scene returned to the boat and I said, “Imagine, for a moment, that you’re on the boat with me. We’re in the middle of the bay and it’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, there’s a slight breeze, it’s warm, it’s a perfect day and you say to me, ‘Dr. Ed, I would love to jump in the water and go for a swim, but I’m frightened. I don’t know what’s out there and what if I had to get out, or I got tired? What would I do?’ My answer: ‘You see these ropes? I’m going to tie one of them around a life preserver and, if anything happens out there, I’ll toss it to you and pull you in.’ Do you know what your reaction might be? You’re apt to test that rope to determine if can hold you up. You might twist, turn, snap, jerk and even tie it into knots to test its strength. Well, it’s the same in human relationships. Sometimes when we’re frightened and we need someone to hold us up, we’re apt to tie them in knots, jerk them around, snap at them and, in one way or another, test their strength, to determine if they’ll be there and if they’re strong enough to support us, emotionally. The next time you come home to a wife, a child, a partner who’s irritable, upset, grouchy, complaining, or trying to tie you in knots instead of retaliating in similar fashion, stop for a moment and remember the rope. Then, don’t fray, snap or break. Just reassure that person by saying, “No matter how you pull and tug, I’m here for you and I’m strong enough to stand up for both of us. You can lean on me and I’ll be there.”
To think about it in a more specific fashion: Visualize a child who is irritable, upset and angry. He/she can’t tell you what’s bothering him, despite the fact you’re questioning him kindly and with concern. You lift him up, but he squirms even more and says, “Put me down. I hate you.” Your job is to hold him tighter and to say, “You can kick and squirm, you can run, but you can’t get away, because I love you and I’m going to come after you until you love me back.” It works with kids, siblings, friends and family.
That’s what you can learn from a rope that will help you in every interaction you enter. That’s what I’d have you take as a primary lesson for dealing with a loved one who can’t verbalize or articulate what they need or what’s bothering them, but who is actively trying to tie you into knots.