Dealing with the Crazy ex-Spouse

For those who will be dealing with ex’s and Oh Craps! this holiday season, a little help.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Run from the anger alien!

Question: My husband’s ex-wife is making our lives miserable.  She calls my husband’s cell phone at all hours screaming at him.  She keeps taking this whole mess back to court, saying that we’re attempting to alienate her children and we’re abusive.  What makes me nuts about this is how she tells everyone I caused everything. She left him for another man!  I’m sick of defending myself.  Yes, I started dating my husband before the divorce was final, but how does that make me a homewrecker?  She was living with a guy and avoiding her children ’till I came along.  Now it’s like she’s in some weird competition with me.  How can I stop the craziness?

Answer: Some people connect better through anger.  Your husband’s ex-wife WANTS everyone to be angry.    If you hate her,  you’re thinking about her all the time.  She has your undivided attention and she’s not likely to give it up.

You don’t understand this.  You have a normal life where you get the attention you need from people actually liking you.  I’m betting that your husband’s ex-wife has few friends and unrealistic expectations of people.  She probably didn’t think her marriage was over just because she walked out.  That might have been her way of getting her husband to pay more attention to her  and be more intense with how he expressed his feelings.

She can’t feel at a normal level and she attempts to have people dial up the heat until they are out of fuel.  When she figures out that all resources have been consumed, she will move on like a conquering alien army looking for the next planet to eat.  You interupted this process.  Don’t feel bad.  You’re presence in this family has re-energized your husband and made him more attractive to his ex-wife.  It might not have happened had she moved on to a new victim, sorry, partner.  You got there too early for that scenario since she was still prodding your husband to do something combustible.

You must cut off the fuel.  And the cut-off has to come from the both of you.

  1. Get an alarm clock.  Your phones will no longer be by your bedside at night unless they are turned off.  If you must, get a second phone that is for emergency or job situations.  Guard the number with your life.  Phone calls are taken during decent hours only.  If you answer the phone tired you are most likely to become angry and fuel the anger sucking alien.
  2. Get a good lawyer who is willing to do the worrying for you or, make court prep a regularly scheduled weekly activity that has a time limit.  Do not spend more than 2hours per week on this mess.  These cases will tend to go back to the same judge time after time.  Keep a log of; phone calls, problems, refusals to exchange, and any negative statements the children repeat to you.  Do NOT cross examine children, ask them what their mother said, etc.  If they tell you, say “Oh, really?”  and go write it down.  When she takes you back to court, bring the log.  Judges don’t get elected for being stupid and they are rarely able to suffer fools gladly.  The ex-wife will be wearing out her welcome with the judge, let her.
  3. Who’s everyone?  And why do you care?  If the lady who lives under the overpass and throws old donuts at cars starts talking about you, is that going to be a problem?  You are making this situation worse by defending yourself against her accusations.  Learn to roll your eyes.  Do it often.  You already think she’s crazy, what does that make you if you’re taking her seriously? When you defend yourself to someone, you have made them a judge of your life.  This woman has no right to that much power over you.  Smile and act vague.  At the very least it will irritate the crap out of her.
  4. Figure out who you are actually angry at.  My best guess in these situations is your husband.  Write down what you want him to do about this situation and take it to someone who’s dealt with an ex.  Let them tell you which of these expectations are realistic.  Take the realistic ones back to your husband and start a conversation.  He’s been running and ducking this for years.  He’s tired and wishes it would go away, so phrase the opening of this conversation to appeal to those two needs.
  5. If people are that easy to predict, use it.  What do her children wish she would do with them?  Tell them you’re planning to do it and wait.  She’ll get to it first and you can go ahead with the things you really want to do.  Surprise is key here.  The kids will tell their mother everything and that needs to be OK!  You’re plans will have to be surprises or last minute.  Learn to act faintly ditzy so that last minute plans don’t seem like a stretch.
  6. No matter what she does, you and your husband need to respond as though you are smoking weed and have no motivation.  Vague, benign, faintly, slightly bored, yawning, disinterested.  Whether you are telling her that Monday is striped socks day for little Johnny, or you’ll call the police if she comes on your property again, use the same tone of voice and the same body language.  Practice acting stoned with each other.  It will be something you both get a laugh out of, and you could use that right now.


Reach out for help.  You’ll need a place to vent and some accountability on your actions so you don’t accidentally fuel this anymore.  Once you’ve cut off the fuel, expect it will take a while to get her to cut the behaviors.  Your family has been a regular feeding ground and aliens don’t give those up and move off without a fight.  She’ll fight, you’ll smile benignly and she will eventually get frustrated and move on.  Keep that stoned smile plastered on your face and reclaim your planet for peace!

How to ruin your child!

Now I’m aware there are good kids out there being raised right.  I also know there are children who get raised by loving parents doing everything right and the kid still hares off into all sorts of crazy.  There’s also some children out there being raised by well-meaning but not terribly effective parents.  The kids who are terrorizing the rest of the school and making life hard on everyone.  So forgive me if I sound cynical, pessimistic, or really sarcastic.  I’ve listened to too many kids talk about being; raped, bullied, beat up, ostracized, stalked, slandered,  poisoned, drugged, and run over by their peers.

Think I’m exaggerating?  I’ve been a therapist for 17yrs.  You do not want to know what I’m leaving out.

And the kids doing some of the worst behaviors were not physically abused, sexually traumatized, or raised by drug addicts.  These are “nice” middle and upper class children who were more subtly allowed to get warped.  You cannot take all the credit or blame for your child.  He or she has their own choices to make.  But if you are doing one of the following, I can pretty much guarantee problems will be coming for your family.

In the hopes that you will be able to see yourself in some of these and save yourself from the outcome, here’s 10 easy ways to completely ruin your child (and by extension your happiness, any hope of decent grandchildren, and the future of the species.  No pressure.)

  1. Give them EVERYTHING!  Never even suggest they work for what they want.  The good stuff should always be free and a fit should get you what you want.  When this ceases to work because peers and bosses do not find this behavior attractive, your child can experience depression at a much higher rate and be unable to take effective steps to help themselves.  When you’ve never had to help yourself, you don’t know how!
  2. Let them watch adult themed shows with sex and violence.  They’re going to deal with that eventually.  Give them a head start!  Seeing so much death, destruction and confusing sexual innuendo will help your children feel overwhelmed by their surroundings and unable to reach for real intimacy.  They will be more sure that bad things are going to happen and feel less able to take care of themselves.  As a bonus, if they get into porn they will fail to develop any real skills for sexual intimacy and be even less likely to make you a grandparent!
  3. Don’t allow your child to fail.  Failing and surviving will give them skills that might actually get them out of your house.  Fear of failure will paralyze your child into a fetal curl in your basement.  Children figure out that failure must be the worst thing that could happen when you NEVER let them even get close to it.  They will continue to rely on you to save them as long as you are willing to take away their right to learn and grow.
  4. Tell your children they’re smart, constantly, without ever commenting on or asking for hard work.  Your kids will expect problems to be easy and think hard work is what stupid people do to make up for being brainless.  When your child inevitably hits the moment that brain power alone won’t get them through, they won’t even attempt perseverance!  They’ll give up and move back into that sweet cocoon you’ve got set up in the basement.
  5. Helicopter in to rescue them from any discomfort they may face at school, with friends, at church, or on sports teams.  The ability to withstand discomfort and be graceful under pressure takes practice. Don’t allow your child any room to grow in this area and they will still be whining about how people don’t treat them nice when they’re 35.  Better yet, they may feel justified to give in to road rage, screaming fits in public, and any other number of embarrassing public acts.
  6. Completely ignore any issues they have at school, especially bullying and sexual harassment.  Better yet, tell kids it’s their fault and related to the way they look.  Unbalanced reactions that reflect your own need to avoid conflict or prove how right you are, are sure fire ways to screw things up!  Be sure to act surprised when the school calls about your child attempting to seriously hurt someone, the failing grades, etc, etc.
  7. Have an extreme reaction to their emotions.  Either pay so much attention to feelings that they are the center of the universe and a reason for everything, or discredit all of them and act like John Wayne crawling through cactus.  This can include being scared of your child or making sure they’re terrified of you without any mitigating attempts to show love and acceptance.  Your child will learn to either over-emote to an unappreciative audience, or be the unassailable tower of solitude and emotional distance.
  8. Don’t ever teach them any of your values in an attempt to let them find their own.  Obviously, we all slavishly followed what our own parents said.  When you give a child something concrete not to do, they know right where to start their rebellion.  Without guideposts of some kind, your child will just keep right on going with their behavior until they can get hurt.  They’ll also be confused by the multiple choices of belief systems about their own self-worth, their place in the universe, and the worth of other human beings.  Of course they don’t need some way to evaluate all this information and come up with a working model for themselves.  Just let them founder around!
  9. Let someone else do all the work, say a grandparent, without having the power or the long term stability.  That way your child can grow up confused about who’s in charge and acting out against everyone.  If you do this sporadically enough, your child won’t even be able to trust that relationships last and bad behavior doesn’t mean abandonment!
  10. Pick a favorite out of a group of siblings and do a LOT of comparison.  This way everyone can be turned against each other, you’ll completely ruin any attempts at cooperation or group cohesion, and all the kids will suffer equally whether or not they got picked to be the golden child!  The repercussions can last into adulthood as your children perceive all situations as a winner take all grabfest with no room for cooperation!


These are all the worst case scenario. Doesn’t mean they can’t happen.  If you see yourself doing one or several of these, get some help.  It’s easier to stop if you have someone helping you be accountable.  And just so you know, number 9 was my issue during my son’s first year of life.  I let him be raised by a caring friend who finally got tough with me and made me rethink the whole set up of my life.  It was NOT pretty!  But I can’t thank her enough for getting in my face about the issue.  Correct these, hold yourself and others accountable to raising children right, and remember that you won’t be perfect.  Just keep striving for effective.

See you back here next time for the blog on ways to make your child resilient and able to live through any of the above!

Help! My family won’t support my parenting.


You put your child on a gluten free diet and your grandfather took her out for pizza.  You tell your parents “we’re trying a new church as a family” and they take your children aside to warn them about how Mommy & Daddy are going to hell.  You’re so grateful for a diagnosis that helps you deal with and explain your child’s behavior; until your family starts casually mentioning all the ways you did things wrong in pregnancy and how your parenting is really not helping.  You tell your teens, “No drinking!” and your sibling takes them both out for a beer.  If these sound outrageous, be very thankful you haven’t had to deal with an unsupportive family.  Read on to help a friend who has.  Oh, and every one of these examples is true.

It’s not just controlling &/or self-absorbed family members who will act this way.  Normally sane, functional people will become grandparents, aunts, & uncles and promptly turn a corner  onto the dark side.  Having children of your own changes all the dynamics in your family, but your family may not cooperate.  Children are a sign that the future is coming and it’s time for everybody to grow up.  Older family members may even see your children as a sign of age creeping up.  Various family members may be threatened by your independence, the way you respond to your children instead of them, or even the way that children force you to finally stand up to family members.  Who’ve often had it coming for YEARS!  We’re all more willing to do the hard stuff and go through the conflicts if it’s for the sake of our child.  If there are changes that need to be made in the way your family acts towards you or continues to treat you, children will bring that problem to a head.   When in doubt, choose your kids.  They need you more than family members have a right to interfere with.

Another issue that may effect multiple family members is denial.  If your child has issues that you are dealing with, the rest of the family may feel threatened.  Nothing says get your own poop in a group faster, than a close relative attempting to do just that.  Guess what?  Lots of people have poop all over because they do NOT want to deal with it.  These folks are convinced that pretending it’s not there is working.  They don’t want to hear about their behavior, it’s effect on anyone else, or the slightest hint that they could actually change the way they’re not dealing.  You’ll tell these family members about your child’s autism diagnosis and they’ll say, “I’m not autistic!”  These are also the grandparents who yell at you for insulting their grandchildren and tell you it must be the bad parenting.  They will also make multiple comments about “their” grandchild being just fine and you’re wrong about that diagnosis.  Like you made the diagnosis without the benefit of Dr.s or anything!  Obviously, this is crazy talk.  Treat it appropriately.

There are two types of non support that tend to come from the folks who raised you.  You deviate from the way you were raised and they get upset.  They’re either taking your every motion personally or they’re just so self-absorbed they can’t see the use of new techniques.  Either way they will be a pain.  You probably know already which you’re dealing with.  The personalizers have been martyring themselves at Sunday dinner for years now.  When you tell them about what you’re doing with Jr, they make it all about them.  “You never did think I was a good mother.”  “Why do you need all these new fangled ideas?  Wasn’t how you were raised good enough?”  When your martyred parent refuses to follow your rules, and feeds your child a combo of sugar and caffeine that acts like kiddie-crack, you will hear a variation of, “You think I would hurt my own grandchild?!”  Yes, you do.  And no amount of playing nice is going to cover that up, nor should it.  You make rules to protect your child.  If people won’t follow those rules, they are potentially harmful.

Self-absorbed parents are going to take your parenting personal if they notice it at all.  The most likely scenarios are you insisting they give up a bad habit while around children, not use corporal punishments like spanking, or follow new food rules.  This grandparent will defend themselves for about three seconds, “I’m fine, what’s the problem?”.  After that they tend to go on the offensive.  “I never had this issue as a parent, what’s your problem?”  “That kid just needs a good beating to toughen them up.”  “I’ve been smoking for 45 years and I’m still alive, you just believe everything you read ’cause you’re gullible.”  These guys are not changing for you, their grandchildren, or the chance of peace on earth.  They don’t care because they don’t see any options besides their own.  Don’t reason with them unless you just needed the frustration.

Here’s the list of things you can do in order of effort you’ll have to put in and the likely negative response from family members.  Some of you are going to need to jump straight to the end and just plow into the opposition.  Your children are worth it and the peace of your future is worth it.

  1. Reassurance.  Your parents or other loved ones may just need to know that you love them and appreciate what they’ve done.    Some people worry that any change in you means a change in your feelings towards them.  It’s needy and a little annoying, but relatively easy to deal with.  Tell them, “I love you, I am so glad you are my, parent, brother, sister, cousin, etc.  I will always appreciate that my family has given me the strength to parent like my children need me to.”  You will need to overtly state that your parenting is not  a negative commentary on theirs.  (Unless your parenting is a direct attempt to be as different from them as possible and you’re still angry.  Skip down to #3 and come back to this one if you ever get less angry.)
  2. Educate.  Older family members or more conservative ones, may not like the changes because they don’t understand, or adhere to an older set of solutions.  Tell them about the process you’ve gone through to come to this point.  How many diets, dr.s, diagnoses, etc before you found something that worked.  Point out ways that your child is doing better or your family is doing better because of the changes you’ve made.  Let them know they don’t have to agree with you, but you’d love for them to understand how you came to your decision.  Remember that you took a while to change and your family will too.  Don’t be put off by total disbelief or disdain.  We all react to new ideas pretty negatively the first time we hear them.  But somewhere after that 5th to 25th time, we’re sold.  Bring it up calmly and drop it quick.  Multiple exposures works, but slower than you will want.
  3. Recruit your children.  Diet changes, religious decisions, and other major issues are not something you’ll want to force down your child’s throat.  No matter how young they are, relentlessly point out the positives by your words and your actions.  If you change the way a child eats, do it for the whole family and treat it as an adventure.  Laugh more.  Be OK with making mistakes and draw your children into preparations so they feel important.  Get your children involved and give them ownership of the changes.  Relatives who come in trying to mess with what you’ve done will listen to your kids more than you anyway.  You will benefit from having kids who try to cooperate rather than sabotage, and who are happier overall.
  4. Set boundaries.  Of course you should already have boundaries and rules in your home.  I’m talking about the formal process of laying out the rules and consequences for non-compliant family members.  Let them know you are serious, you are acting in the best interests of your child, and the specific expectations you have for that relative’s behavior.  If you are married or partnered, this needs to be done as a team or the relatives will figure they can get what they want by going to the other guy.  Yes, it is the same behavior your 4yr old uses to get a cookie from mom after dad has said no.  We tend to go back to what worked when we’re under stress.
  5. Recruit help.  This can mean getting some other family members on your side or just opening up about the situation to some supportive friends.  It can also be a time to suggest family therapy so a professional gets looped into playing the referee and you don’t have to.  Be prepared for anger and bad behavior if your naughty relation figures out you’re getting the rest of the family on your side.  Be prepared for the same reaction if all you wanted to do was educate the family.  The people who are most likely to undermine your parenting are also most likely to be paranoid and wildly defensive.
  6. Limit the interactions.  You’ve done everything you can and your parenting is still not being supported.  This is a safety issue.  When your child is 15 and wants to get in a car with a drunk driver they NEED your voice in the back of their head.  Your children will face multiple situations that could kill or permanently harm everyone involved.  If they think you’re stupid and not worth listening to, they are less protected and more likely to get hurt.  Please don’t think that your parenting is anything less than life or death.  Respecting you is a safety net against stupid/dangerous/harmful behaviors.  Do not let anyone mess with that.  It is totally within your rights and responsibilities as a parent to tell your mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, uncle or aunt that they are no longer welcome in your house.  It’s better to tell them to go away now, than to blame them at the funeral.  If you do chose to have some contact with these people, do it in settings that you feel comfortable with and get support.  Have your partner, your friends, your worship community or a mental health professional present.  Don’t go it alone if you can’t tell them off alone.


Not all families are born.  We have to make them around us sometimes. Whoever they are, put people in your children’s lives that are respectful and helpful.  Everyone will benefit.

Controlling People, really care about their own feelings.

But you don’t have to.

You’ve probably been convinced that you should.  You spend lots of time and energy apologizing for holding someone accountable because they say, “I didn’t mean too!  You act like I wanted to hurt you!”  You enter the conversation wanting an apology and leave it apologizing to the person who hurt your feelings in the first place.

Now how does that happen?!

Simple.  You’ve been trained to care about other people’s feelings.  And whoever did the training didn’t differentiate between empathy (I understand you have feelings too) and agreement (your emotions are so important that I’ll do what you want).

You’ve also gotten shafted on motives because you don’t see the difference between an explanation and an excuse.  The ice on the road may explain why my car runs into yours, but it won’t be an excuse for driving too fast in icy conditions.  I’ll still have to pay your deductible and my insurance will go up.

Here are the ways understanding these differences helps you.

  • Valid explanations of motive and emotion no longer mean an excuse to use/ abuse/ ignore you.  Emotions just are.  They are not white-out for mistakes made against you and neither are motives.  Thank people for their pure motives towards you and then continue to stand up for yourself.  Whether or not people love you, they still need to treat you with respect.  If they’re not, how do you know it’s love?
  • You can empathize and understand feelings because you no longer think it means you must agree.
  • You can relax when other people start yelling about their feelings because that doesn’t mean you need to be guilty for holding them accountable.  Part of the usual anxiety is thinking about how you need to apologize later.  Guess what?  If you are calmly stating the facts without sarcasm or degradation, you do not need to apologize.
  • Accountability is totally behavior based. If you agree to let someone off the hook because of motives or emotions, you are showing mercy.
  • Mercy is for special occasions and unusual circumstances. It cannot be demanded.  Controllers think they deserve mercy and you must give it to them.  They cry, scream, and call you names when you don’t immediately let them off the hook.  You no longer have to let them escape accountability and call it mercy.


Understanding these will help you avoid being manipulated by controlling people, spouses trying to win a fight, co-workers & bosses, basically anybody who is willing to use their own emotions to excuse their behavior.  It also will help with the people who believe they cannot be held accountable when, “It was an accident!”  Accidents are a sign of poor planning.  They will continue to happen as long as you do not hold people accountable for their actions.

Emotions are valid, they just aren’t a valid excuse.

Motives will be judged by God, the rest of us have to go on behaviors.

I will empathize knowing I do not have to agree.

I will be understanding while I hold others accountable and insist on being treated respectfully.


photo by y3rdua flickr stream

Passive Aggressive and Out to Control YOU!

Are you ready to stop them?

Don’t defend yourself.  The passive has been setting you up to defend yourself, vigorously, so they will look more victimized by you.

Don’t power struggle.  Just keep smiling, it will irritate the passive more than anything you have to say.  Get frustrated and they will feel victorious.  Take it personally and you’re wasting energy.  They treat everyone like this sooner or later.

Make any statement that you need to and follow it with silence.  Do not beg, bargain or attempt to bribe the passive aggressive.  The more you talk, the less powerful you will sound.

You can also show your personal strength by probing their statements with out fear.  “Jane, you said you’ll be happy to take on this project, but you sound angry.  Is there something else you’d really like to say?”  Passives gain power through silence, lack of communication and misunderstandings.  Make it perfectly clear that none of that works

Your own view of the events is more important than what you are being told.  And you don’t care about what they say, how they paint the picture, or the promises they make. You care about the history of actions they have built up with you.  Never hear the words and forget the history.  You decide on actions from here on out.

Be Candid and happy to help them by describing their specific behavior.  They’ll deny it and you’re going to be fine with that. “oh good! I was so hoping I was wrong.”

Make parallel conversation and then redirect to the actual subject. Talk about a subject that’s close to the craziness they’ve been bringing up and then swing back  to the subject before they can interrupt.  “OMG, that is exactly like the time my grandmother drank all the Christmas nog and now we need to look at the third issue before the board.  Mary Ellen don’t you have a report on that?”

Passives will tell you all about how your ideas won’t work.  Put them on the spot.  “I’ve noticed you have a number of opinions on this so I’d like to hear what your solution is to this.  We have about five minutes do you think you can fill that?”

Now that you’ve asked for their opinion, they will say at least two or three completely contradictory statements.  And you are going to overuse the phrase, “I’m confused.”  You will not say things like, “You are so full of …..”  You will want to say that, but you will talk about your confusion instead.  You will follow that with factual statements about the three opposing things they’ve sworn are the same, or the differences between their words and their behavior.  Keep this utterly factual, do not raise your voice, and do not use these words; always, every, & never.

When you deal with a passive aggressive you are not  having a conversation with a logical person.  It won’t matter how logical you are, how well prepared.  They aren’t looking for a hole in your argument, they’re searching for the hole in your emotional armor.  Once your irritated or upset, they’ve found it, and now they’ll mess with you.

They will use technology to hide.  They looove e-mails and texts.  Text them back that you need a face to face meeting and then use your new skills to stop them cold.  Your e-mails all need to be backed up so you can access and use them as evidence if necessary.

Leave a paper trail of everything you do with the passive aggressive.  Take notes of every meeting and then e-mail them to everyone who was there.  Cover not just your a_ _  but your whole person.  Record and send to multiple people on every interaction you have with them.

Do not rely on the passive aggressive to get anything important done.  Record that they said they’d do it, send that e-mail out to multiple people, and then record all the various parts of the two to three back up plans you’ve got in place.

Now go forth and conquer!


Photo by Alan Cleaver_2000 flickr photo stream


Someone at work, is out to get you.

You even know who they are.

You didn’t want to believe it, so you’ve made up excuses for how rumors swirled, letters got misplaced, and situations you had calmed down suddenly fired up again.

Someone is mad at you, possibly blames you for a stalled career, or maybe their home life sucks and you’re a good target.  Whatever it is, you are not imagining this.

You might need to look like you don’t know what’s going on, but don’t fool yourself.  You have a target on your back and someone is gunning for you.

Here’s your battle plan.

  1. Remain calm.  This will be seriously irritating to whoever wants you agitated.  Think carefully about how you sound when you’re being the business version of you.  Practice producing this tone of voice no matter what else is going on.  When your co-workers are devolving into juvenile delinquents, you will still look and sound adult.  This is important.  Who do you want to believe?  The guy screaming like a howler monkey denied sex and bananas or the adult who’s calmly describing the situation?  Your boss doesn’t like rabid monkeys either.
  2. Recruit allies.  These do not all have to be in the workplace.  You need some allies that are outside of the situation and can give you an alternative viewpoint.  Having friends and allies can make the miserable creatures most likely to target you think twice.  Loners are easy to pick off and have no one to hand out repercussions later.  People with friends come with built in possibilities for extended reach and negative consequences to anyone hurting them.
  3. Document  everything you can.  Now is not the time to take it easy.  The more you document, play by the rules, and then document some more, the more difficult it will be to bring you down.  Co-workers on the attack will look for something you’ve done that falls outside of the rules.  Never mind if everyone does it and they’ve been doing it that way since the company was founded.  If you don’t have written permission for it, expect to have it thrown at you in some nasty way.  If you need to break the rules, get someone higher up the chain to sign off on it or forget it.  Don’t waste your time documenting other people or trying to bring your attacker down.  You’ll look like a jr high girl in a cat fight if you do.  Take care of you, take care of your allies, make sure your actions are positive for the work place.
  4. Make an escape plan.  Do you have some money saved up?  Do you know what you’d do if your job ended tomorrow?  No?  Get busy.  Having vindictive co-workers is one way to be reminded that we all need a back up plan.  Living paycheck to paycheck will put you in a desperate place.  You are more likely to take other people’s crap and be sending out signals that scream, “Potential Victim! Please Target Me!”  When you know you could walk and be perfectly OK, your backbone will magically harden and your skin will grow teflon like qualities.
  5. Deal calmly and directly with your attacker, do not fight them.  No screaming, no yelling, no sarcasm.  There is no faster way to make your enemy look like an escaped mental patient than to remain calm as they get louder and more outrageous.  Your boss may not care who’s right, who’s better for the company, or who’s working the hardest.  The boss WILL care about who’s easiest to deal with.  Let your behavior be non-defensive, goal directed, and calm.  You will be amazed at the stuff you get away with saying when you say it calmly while smiling.


Most of all, trust yourself.  I see way too many people in my office who didn’t trust their gut feelings until it was too late.  At the very least, check your bad feelings with someone you trust.  If you’re wrong and you’ve done the five actions listed here, no harm done.  You’ll look better on the job and have allies who will prove useful later.  If you’re right and you take these five actions, you will either save your job or have a better option to move to.


Photo by; Adam Cohn, flckr creative commons.

Identify and Deal with Passive Aggressive Behavior

Last week I answered a question from a woman talking about divorce.  You may have noticed that I didn’t deal directly with her questions about her husband’s behavior, but wrote about divorce, ultimatums, and asking yourself tough questions instead.  That’s prioritizing.  Deal with the hurting angry person in front of you before you move on to the hurting, angry behavior of the crazy person somewhere else.  Deal with your own pain before you attempt to deal with someone else’s.

But then you still have to deal with that other person at some point.  So let’s identify passive aggression and how it may exist in your life, then we can talk about how to effectively short circuit that behavior.

Ways to identify Passive Agression

1) The tone of voice is nasty but the words are fine.  Sometimes, the words are exactly what you’ve been wanting to hear.  Just never in that tone.

2) The person speaking looks either sainted, or martyred and on their way to sainthood.

3) Lots of victim statements.  “I never get what I want anyway.”  “You only say negatives to me.”  “I’m done.  I can’t live like this anymore.”

4) Extremes!  You can hear these coming from the words; always, never, & every. 

5) You get cast as the bad guy, wet blanket, person who says no, etc.  This is done with lots of sighing and very few direct statements to you.

6) Sulking, pouting, and hiding out in bedrooms or bathrooms.  Let’s face it.  Nobody needs THAT much time in the bathroom.

7) Excuses, lots of excuses for job performance, chores that aren’t done, responsibilities they accepted and won’t complete, etc.

8) Their “help” usually slows the process down or stops it completely.  This is then your fault and you never let them help you anyway, so why should they try? (Say that last bit in a hurt tone to get the real effect here).

9) Ambiguous statements about their intentions so you can’t hold them accountable later.

10) Blaming whatever happens on someone else, or on the flip side of this, “It’s all my fault.  It’s always all my fault!”

11) When you try to confront on any of the above behaviors, the other person will act hurt, ask you to give them examples and deny everything.  They will also try and guilt trip you about how you never appreciate them and always have to bring up the negatives.

If you recognize these behaviors in people you have to deal with at home or work, God Bless you.  You’re dealing with a passive aggressive.  These behaviors may be part of a larger problem of self-centeredness, repressed anger, or lack of empathy.  They can also be a sign that the person you’re dealing with has gotten away with this brattiness for years and expects it to work on you too!  Let’s stop’em cold.

Think of cold water in your face.  It’s a shock.  It’s not what you expected. It’s uncomfortable.  Passive Aggression works because people respond in usual ways that the perpetrator of this behavior expects and plans for.  You need to do the verbal equivalent of cold water in their face.

Shock – Say something bizarre, off topic, or innapropriate to the time and setting.  Once you’ve thrown them off guard, go back to the original conversation and act like you never said anything.  The Passive Aggressive says, “You never say anything good about me.”  You say, “I think about farting in my bosses office every time I’m in there.”

Unexpected – What have you typically said back to this person?  Spend some time figuring that out so you don’t do it again.  They’ve said, “I’m done. I can’t live like this anymore.”  and you’ve typically told the  m to calm down, everyone wants you to stay.  Switch it up.  “Can you describe exactly what you’re done with and how long this will last?”  “There’s the door, I’d appreciate it if you locked that behind you.”  “I think you should be more mad.  Why don’t you go knock on the bosses door and tell this to him.”

Uncomfortable – Passive aggression is all about three things; getting reassurance without having to responsibly ask for it, getting your way without having to reciprocate, and being controlling while having all the benefits assigned to victims.  Stop giving this person any of the payoffs. 

This will sound mean at first and it will be met with resistance.  “You don’t really love me!” expects the response, “Of course I do!”  Instead, “If you need reassurance there is a nicer way to approach me for that.”  “Somedays you are harder to love than others.”  “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Do not give reassurance when it is asked in a negative or combatative manner.  Let the other person know you are willing to reassure, when you are asked appropriately.

Passive aggressive behavior is about wanting other people to help you without the responsiblity of helping them back.  You scratch my back, and I’ll whine about how you don’t scratch it like you used to and accuse you of being “tit for tat” when you want anything in return.  The expected response to “(deep heavy sigh) Oh, ok, I guess I’ll have to spend my only day off on cleaning up the back yard.” is something about how you don’t want them to loose their only free time.  Stop giving in, it only encourages all the bad behavior.  The new uncomfortable response is, “It’s your choice what you do with your day.  The back yard needs to be cleaned.  If you’re not willing to do that, I do not want to hear your opinion of how I did it.”  Or, “I’m glad that you’ve given up your day off to get that done, I’ll make sure everyone stays out of your way.”  They may not clean up, but they will never again skate out with permission from you to enjoy their day while they leave you holding the bag.

It’s aggression.  Passive or not, it’s still about wanting to control the situation and using bad behavior to get there.  This person is not a victim and they do not need any more excuses.  Statements that are all about poor-dear-me-my-life-is-so-bad, are designed to ellicit your helpful response.  Stop helping.  If your spouse looks at you and states, “I never get anything I want” in the defeated tone of voice designed to make you feel guilty, look right back at them and say, “Well I get a number of things I want.”  Smile and walk away.  If your co-worker says, “That’s ok, we can go to McDonalds.  I can’t eat anything there, but I need to loose weight anyway”  look right at her and happily say, “Thank you!” 

You do not need to give in to people who won’t ask directly for what they want.  You don’t have to scream at them and you don’t need to fight with them either.  Imagine you’re throwing cold water and be prepared to shock, do the unexpected, and make the behavior uncomfortable.  It will take time, but you can teach people which behaviors you will actually put up with and which ones will get doused.

Picture by Eole, Flickr Creative Commons

When and how to give an ultimatum


Question: My husband will rage at me, refuse to talk for hours or even days, and then act like nothing happened.  When I try to ask him what happened, or tell him that I don’t like this behavior, he makes statements about how bad his day, his job, even his life is and won’t address what I’m saying.  I’m sick of the melodrama and the constant sense that my feelings don’t matter as much as his.  Should I be thinking about divorce?  We have children and I don’t want to hurt them.  What can I do?

Answer: Any good counselor faced with the divorce question is going to start by investigating further.  How would it hurt the children?  Are they being hurt right now by the exposure to your fights?  Why are you thinking of divorce?  What have you already tried?  Does your husband know what you’re thinking or would he be surprised if you walked out?  Find a friend you can answer these questions in front of and get feedback from, or get out a pen and paper and start writing.

Most women that I have seen in my practice who go through with a seperation or divorce have been thinking about it for 1-3 years before they actually go through with it.  Their husbands have been aware of the severity of the issues for less than half that time.  Women don’t tend to like confrontation and they are trained to smooth the waters.  This can really backfire on them in a marriage.  A relationship this intimate will generate some disagreement and require you to be adamant about your boundaries.  Men are NOT trained to smooth the waters and avoid conflict in this culture.  They’re trained to avoid failure and loss. 

Women in my office are often at wit’s end because their husbands will fight endlessly and refuse to communicate.  Your husband seems to feel that he can “win” the fight by pointing out his greater victimization and probably accusing you of being hard, lacking empathy, not caring, etc.  My guess would be that he also pouts when he can’t convince you to leave issues alone.  If this were his only set of behaviors, you would have already left him.  You will need to evaluate both the good and bad in this man to properly evaluate whether or not the relationship can be saved.  At this point, it may be difficult to remember good things.  Get some mutual friend to remind you of his good points.

If you are getting out of this marriage, do it with class.  Give him the warning you would want to have and the behavior changes you would like to see.  If you’re worried about this being an ultimatum, it is.  Every time your husband walks into a store and looks at his favorite stuff, he’s facing an ultimatum.  The store refuses to let people just walk out with that good stuff.  If he truly wants the latest gadget, he has to pay the price or have the cops called on him.  It is an ultimatum and he does just fine with it.  He pays or he walks. 

The reason most women don’t give ultimatums is the fear that he’ll walk.  It doesn’t work better to hang in there resenting the crap out of him until you up and leave without warning one day.  That’s unfair.  Give the man a choice, realizing you are taking a risk.  Get support from friends, don’t tell family members too much if you think there’s ANY chance the marriage will survive, and find some time for yourself.  If he’s willing to pay the price of keeping this realtionship, get help!  This will be a huge change for both of you and a good counselor, mentoring couple, or pastor can be sanity saving.

If he decides to walk, let him go.  He may be attempting further manipulation and just making a threat.  He may be totally serious and it’s better to get this done now before you hate him so desperately that your children suffer the backlash of it.  Kids can come out of divorce just fine.  They will be eaten up and spit out by constant parental fighting and divided loyalties.

Be strong and calm in what you say.  Be consistent in how you act.  Be willing to take risks.

Photo Attribution: The Italian Voice by Creative Commons License, Flickr

Why Do I have Irrational Anger Over Simple Conversations with my Parent?

QUESTION: My mother sends me e-mails that drive me crazy and the worst part of it is I don’t know why. I see her name in the in box and start getting frustrated. I’m sending you the latest e-mail. Please tell me why I get so upset!

ANSWER: If this communication was from someone you just met and you were this upset, the issue would be yours. But it’s from mom. So we know you have a long history that can supercharge each and every word she writes.  What’s really frustrating about messages like this is how normal they seem to someone who doesn’t know the history. If you show it to a friend, you may hear that you’re over-reacting, or that your mother just seems concerned.

So the first thing is to trust yourself. Even if you can’t verbalize the reason this bothers you so much, accept that there is a reason.  Go look at yourself in the mirror and repeat the following, “I am a sane, intelligent adult. There is a reason I am so upset by this and I am going to find it.”

Now review your history with your mother. What messages did you get about your abilities, strengths, weaknesses, and personality? Sit down with a piece of paper and write this out.  What did she tell you about your future? Can you be successful without her? Were most of her statements to you negative or positive? Actually write this down so you can see it on paper.

Negative statements sound like, “You’re going to get pregnant by the time you’re 16!” “You always make the same mistakes.” If you brought home six A’s and one C, you got punished for the C and were never rewarded for the A’s.

Positive statements sound like, “You are going to make the right decision eventually, I trust you.” “I see you learning from your mistakes and I know you will be a stronger person.” “I am so proud of you for all the A’s you made.”

If you haven’t had positive messages from your mom, then you are naturally adding in all the negatives to what she wrote. So take the original message and write out what you actually hear her saying.

I think it might go something like this. Your mother’s hidden messages are in parenthesis.


Hi Rebecca  (I hope you appreciate that I‘m taking the time to write to you),

Golly (I am either an innocent abroad or being completely sarcastic by using this word) I am so concerned about you  (because you are failing at your marriage and I told you not to get married in the first place),  you are so in my prayers  (because I know only God can help you now since you won‘t listen to your mother & it makes me feel better to bring God on my side. He‘s on MY side you know. He‘s seen everything you‘ve done and He‘s not happy with you either).

The emotional part must be over the top (I told you that you‘re unstable, but will you listen to me and get the kind of help I would approve of? You‘re probably going to break down and expect me to come rescue you),  but even the logistics and keeping your job going during this transition has got to be so hard  (I‘m still amazed you‘ve managed to keep a job and I don‘t really believe you‘re that successful. You must be ready to break down and let all that go finally. You should just admit you can‘t make it on your own and come live with me. I am so much better at taking care of you). I am so relieved your cousin is coming to help you  (At least there will be SOMEONE there who knows what they‘re doing. Not to mention that your cousin will tell me everything so that I can tell you what you did wrong later).

Love to you.  (I won’t actually say that I love you since you don’t appreciate that anyway. I just have to throw love your way and hope that some of it sticks to your ungrateful hide).


Golly, that sounds like something you’d be upset about, now doesn’t it?

Trust yourself. Write out the historical messages. Rewrite the original message to include the hidden messages.  Now you can decide how to respond, without fighting yourself and what the message really means. Happy writing!

You can do these same methods for any seemingly innocent message that drives you to crazy with the radio turned up too loud.  Don’t show the amended message to the person who sent it.  They will deny all of it and start the crazy making messages about how oversensitive you are.  The writing exercise is to help you understand what you are responding to, so you don’t feel overwhelmed when it happens.  Remember, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  If you’ve never had your feelings validated by this person, that won’t be starting now.  Validate your own feelings and then decide how you want to deal with this person.

How To Stop Taking Things Personally with Friends

Friends don’t always like you.

Tonight I had an uncomfortable conversation with one of my best friends.  There were pauses where she would normally have been rattling away.  Subtle voice changes too.

When a friend is talking to you they will usually sound safe.  There won’t be any censoring or processing going on.  If you’re noticing pauses where there weren’t any before and the word choices are slightly more presentable for public consumption than usual,  your friend is angry and probably at you.

I used to take this so personally I couldn’t even figure out what was going on, much less deal with it.  Nowdays I ride it out.  This involves letting the other person talk, asking questions about what they just said, and generally making the conversation a safe place for them.

So after about 20 minutes of this I found out that the really funny story she had told in public (all female, but still) at least three times, was not a story that should have been told in public with her husband there!  Once she was able to let me know that I had made at least several hours of her life really irritating, I was able to apologize and make appropriate agreements about my big mouth for the future.

So we get to still be friends and that’s awesome.

Things to be learned – Trust your gut that something is wrong, but don’t point it all at yourself.  Sure, she was mad at me.  But I never would have been able to get at what if I had been defensive.  I have a lot of friends because I assume its their problem until they tell me otherwise.  Sounds like I’m being narcissistic, but it allows for what’s really going on to surface, and the problem is usually NOT about me.  If you do spend all your time thinking you are the issue, no one has a chance to tell you what their actual problem is.

Whether or not you meant to screw up, really is not as important as the fact that you did.  Stop arguing about your motives.  Assume that other people will realize your motives were pure and you are just a goof.  Apologies are not confessions.  They are treaties that state you will not willfully engage in the same behavior now that you know it hurt someone else. Whether or not you were wrong to do the behavior is only relevant to guilt, shame and finger pointing.  Move past that and make a treaty not to do the behavior to this person so that you can continue to be friends.

If the person is not worth the effort to make that treaty, empathize with their pain and find a new friend.


Things to Remember

1) Anger is not the end of a friendship

2) Allow the other person to talk it out

3) Don’t take it personally unless you absolutely have to

4) Apologies are not confessions, they are treaties about your future behavior