It would be difficult, if not impossible, to even estimate the number of times I have uttered these words to individuals having problems in their marital relations, “You must learn to stand up for yourself.” Pretty simple words, but you would be amazed at how often they’re misinterpreted, or used to justify behavior that I would not condone. Let me try to give you an example:
Alex is an avid golfer. He can be found on the golf course almost every weekend that weather permits. The game is his passion. It is also his means of escape. He avoids dealing with other problems by focusing on golf. For him, golf is akin to an addiction. As you might suspect, however, this does not set well with his spouse.
Andrea has tried to talk to him about the problem on numerous occasions, but he’s adamant. His position is, “I work hard five days a week to support this family. It’s not necessarily fun, but the job demands it and the rewards, as you should know, are significant. We have a beautiful home, great cars, wonderful vacations and all kinds of opportunities because of my work. Granted, I play golf both days on weekends, but it seems to me that I’m entitled to time out with the boys, to relieve the tension that’s there fifty-sixty hours a week. But, when there’s a special occasion, I’m here for you and the kids. I love you all, that’s why I work the way I do, but I see no reason that I have to sacrifice my weekends, as well. Why should I have to give up all of me? You have all the time you need for you when the kids are in school, so I see your complaining as selfish, inconsiderate and insensitive to my needs and desires.”
It wasn’t a new statement, but it was one Andrea always had difficulty responding to. Over time, her resentment grew. The greater her resentment became, the more reluctant she was to hold her tongue. She carped, complained and assumed an increasingly more aggressive attitude. During her first therapy session, she described her new found determination as indicative of her growth. As I typically do, I questioned her regarding the timing of her decision to enter therapy. “What was the straw that broke the camel’s back?” She thought for a moment, then related an argument with Alex where he drew a line in the sand that she wanted to cross, but was afraid to. The line was his response to her declaration that she was going out of town one weekend a month, with girlfriends, or to visit her family and that, during those weekends, he “would have to take care of the children, instead of indulging his own selfish interests.” “If that’s the case”, he said, “I’ll see you in the court of domestic relations.”
I then asked, “What were you trying to achieve?”
She said, “I won’t have to be trapped in the house or have to take all the responsibility for the kids. After all, they have two parents, even though he doesn’t act like one.”
“Were there any other reasons?”
She hesitated and then responded, “Yeah. It’s my way of showing him I have the same rights as he does. I can do what I want and he can’t control me.” Before I could respond, she looked at me and said, in a highly confrontational manner, “Do you see anything wrong with this?”
At this point, I’d have you consider, was she right? Was he right? Were they both right? My thought was, she had painted herself into a corner. She pushed him to draw a line that she was frightened to cross. I understand why. If she did, it might result in a divorce. If she didn’t, she’d perceive her new-found strength to be erroneous. She literally could not win for losing.
Here’s my answer. “Andrea, one of my goals in therapy is to help individuals develop sufficient emotional strength to stand up for themselves. The problem is, too many people misconstrue what I mean by “stand up for yourself”. Possibly because their early role models for standing up were inadequate, which caused them to adopt behaviors that society erroneously labels as strong and independent. More specifically, society tends to perceive standing up to others as strong, whereas I perceive a person’s strength to be illustrated by their ability to stand up for themself. No matter how credible or courageous your actions may be, when they are motivated by, or involve competition between you and another human being, they fail to reflect strength. Standing up for yourself involves you being the person you want to be, doing the things you genuinely want to do, and saying what you honestly feel and think. When your actions stem from resentment, or involve getting even, you can’t trust your judgement. For example, Andrea didn’t want a divorce. Nor did I hear any indication that she really wanted to go off one weekend a month. There’s nothing wrong with doing so, but she wound up backing herself into a corner. Her position wasn’t one of strength. She created a contest that could have resulted in her and her husband losing the family they had both wanted and worked hard to create. Even worse, the loss of their marriage might propel them into a world filled with potential spouses who, if they behaved with them in the same manner as they dealt with each other, would only result in them getting another divorce.”
“The question I wanted Andrea to ask herself was, ‘How can I get out of the situation I’ve now created while still standing up for myself, without giving ultimatums or threats to Alex?” The primary rule is, never issue finite demands to another person, unless you are ready to back them up. Statements of that type threaten others and cause them to go on the defensive, or to attack. That’s why I didn’t agree with what she perceived as strength. I admire the fact that she changed, but, I believe she went from one extreme to another and that it will require additional growth before she comes to a healthy middle ground. Sadly, she’s still as trapped today as she was before, despite the positive steps she took.
Let me reassure you that I don’t want her to fully accept her present situation. There are many positive steps she can take to help her deal with her present problems and still come out a winner. Look for my next article to discover what they are.