Paula told Chad she wanted out; that there was no way she could live any longer in their fourteen-year-long marriage. Chad, who throughout their relationship, played the role of the acquiescent, compliant spouse who granted Paula’s every whim, was dumbfounded. When he finally realized she was serious, all the resentment he had stored away the past fourteen years issued forth like an erupting volcano. He depreciated her, devalued her adequacy as a mother, and listed numerous incidences where she let him down. Even more, he enumerated every instance where he had given in, described every gift he had ever given her, and recounted every good deed he had demonstrated. His reaction was understandable. He was hurt, resentful and wanted the pound of flesh he had previously been too frightened to extract.
Chad’s remarks weren’t limited to his wife’s ears alone. He wanted to ensure that his children recognized their mother’s shortcomings and would side with him in the war that was just beginning. Three years later, the battle still raged on. Their lawyers argued continuously, and countless dollars were expended to fuel their conflict. Time and time again they agreed to a settlement, only to find one or both parties reluctant to follow through. As a result, their agreements were disbanded and the process started all over again. In the end, three issues remained to be solved: several pieces of furniture, the amount of child support to be paid and the length of time it would be paid, and rent on a storage unit. Neither would budge. Each was vitriolic in their condemnation of the other. He shouted, “You wanted to leave. You hurt our children, therefore, you should pay.” She pleaded, “Why do I have to pay to leave? You can still earn a very good living. I’m the one that will have to struggle financially. It’s selfish of you to want to see me experience any more pain than I already have.” Once again, the clock ticked; the attorney’s bills grew, their resentments mushroomed; and their children suffered collateral damage. No matter how much criticism, guilt, and condemnation Paula threw at him, Chad held his ground. His thinking was, “I spent fourteen years bending and I got nothing for it. I’m no longer going to be Mr. Nice Guy.”
When I was finally able to visit with Chad alone, I didn’t argue. Quite the contrary, I agreed. I could see that he had reason to feel hurt, to be angry and resentful, and to blindly rush in and do battle. In his shoes, I could see myself sharing his feelings and even could picture myself impulsively behaving similar to the way he had.
“What do you want?” I asked. “Do you want to hold on to this marriage?”
He was vehement. “Absolutely not.”
“Do you want your children hurt, confused and emotionally stressed?”
“Of course not.”
“Is the stance you’re taking and the behavior you’re demonstrating going to curtail or improve the situation you’re in, emotionally? Is it going to make your life better, decrease your children’s pain, or open the door for you to start a new life?”
After a decided pause, he looked at me, shook his head and stated, “No. It’s only going to continue the situation.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
He paused once again, then said, “If I give in, it’s like I give up. I go back to being the wuss I was all fourteen years, and maybe all my life.”
I replied, “Your battle isn’t between you and your wife, it’s between you and you. It’s not a case of standing up to her, it’s a case of standing up for and to yourself.”
His eyes opened wide and he said, “This is crazy. I would never do this in my business. I learned a long time ago that if a deal isn’t any good, you should take your losses and get out. Yet here I am, staying in and increasing my losses. I really don’t care about the furniture. I don’t care about the money. I’d rather give it to my kids than to the lawyers. I know what you’re saying. It makes sense. I’m going to take the high road, but inside, it’s hard not to feel I’m giving in.”
In the course of my practice, I cannot begin to count how many times I’ve said to patients, “Whenever you are faced with a confrontational situation, don’t attempt to stand up to someone, you only need to stand up for yourself. There is a decided difference in the outcome of any interaction when your goal is to stand up for you, as opposed to standing up to someone else. When you stand up for you, you needn’t be angry or confrontational. Although your opinions may differ and your positions may be at far extremes, your only chore is to communicate where you’re coming from, and to behave and set limits on the basis of what is best for you in the long run. Whether you wind up giving in or not, the very fact that you had the courage to state where you were coming from, what you desired, and what you were willing to do, whether it was to bend or stand up straight, you will feel proud for having behaved in accordance with your own best interests, as opposed to your need to compete with someone else. When you act out of that frame of thought, your interactions don’t result in one person feeling themself a winner and the other a loser. No matter what happens, if you’re able to clearly explain where you’re coming from, what you’re feeling, what you desire and what your limits are, you will know inside that you stood up for yourself, that you risked being vulnerable, and honestly communicated what you felt. As a result of this behavior, you learn that to live comfortably with yourself, you don’t have to win over someone else, just over you. The rule is, when what you’re doing is best for you, you’ll no longer feel controlled by others, or trapped in situations. You can hold your head up high, because you have integrity with yourself.