How Are You Teaching People To Behave Towards You?

by Annie Kaszina on December 9, 2007

 Last week the son of a dear friend came to stay, ‘on his own’ as he put
it, ‘with Maria’ (not her real name) his girlfriend.   

Needless to say my antennae were already
quivering…

what kind of relationship could this be when
he describes himself as coming to visit ‘on his own’ with another person?

I’ve known this young man for most of his
life.  G. is, as I know him, in many ways a delightful young man.
However, if I had to make a choice between him and a nunnery, I’d take the
nunnery every time.

Why?  G. is not an
abusive man.  It is not his intention to hurt, humiliate, diminish or
terrify his partner.  Insofar as anyone can ever be sure, I would be
prepared to bet that he will never raise a hand to her, nor ever systematically
set about destroying her with words.  In his own way he is quite
caring.

And yet… Much as G. sees his partner’s good
points, he sees her shortcomings rather more clearly. He also feels free to
comment on them with a view to ‘perfecting’ her.  Maria sees that G. has
much to recommend him and believes that acceptance of his criticisms, niggles
and perfectionism is the price she has to pay.   

Now I could hide behind some cosy form of words
that justify my own stance if I chose, but I won’t.  I simply refuse to
accept that it is ever a good idea to accept a partner’s sacred right to judge
negatively.   

If they want to judge themselves by the
yardstick of perfectionism, that’s fine, I wish them joy – although I have yet
to discover when perfectionism ever leads to joy.  If they set higher
standards for their partner than they do for themselves, as commonly occurs,
then the writing is on the wall and clear for all to read; their partner can expect
a life of ongoing misery. 

So how do two fundamentally nice people end
up in a relationship that will become progressively more damaging to one of
them?  I believe that we teach people how to behave towards us.

The first time I heard that statement it was
directed at me, by a counsellor, shortly after I had ejected my abusive
partner.  It made me feel hurt, angry, blamed and diminished.  How
could I have taught my partner to be vile to me?  How was his bad
behaviour my fault?  After much puzzling and raging I dismissed the whole
idea.   

Observing Maria from the sidelines it started
to make more sense.  Maria never taught G. to speak critically towards
her, any more than any abused woman ever taught an abusive man to behave
badly.  What Maria did teach G. was that criticism and listing of
her faults would be accepted gracefully.   

Doubtless she thinks that that is the best
way of handling and, one day, turning around a less than ideal situation; her
acceptance will one day dissolve his harsh edges.  There is a kind of
other worldly logic to it. 

What he sees is that she has given him carte
blanche to continue.  Why would anyone go to the trouble of stopping and
changing tack when they can simply carry on going in the direction they habitually
take.   

Something that I have become increasingly
aware of is that many people are not terribly good at ‘joining up the dots’; we
don’t always connect up the different bits of information we have.  I was
told this week of someone who went to view an unfurnished apartment.  She
liked it and wanted to rent it.  However, she had a problem: would she be
allowed to put a bed in it? 

Ok, so that’s an extreme case, but most of us
are guilty of the same kind of … what?  Maybe, in the end, it’s
a dangerous degree of passivity.  We transfer the initiative for
safeguarding our own best interests into the hands of another person who is –
allegedly – wiser, stronger, better, more authoritative, more credible.
Just think back to how you initially viewed your abusive partner and see which
words come up.

It is said in sales circles that a sale is
not lost at the end of the selling process, it is lost at the beginning.
Suppose the same were true of relationships also.   

Suppose that bad relationships are made at
the very start when we allow the relationship to begin on the wrong
footing, when we ‘settle for less’.  It may be a ‘romantic’ relationship
in which we think we will iron out the difficulties further down the
line.  Or it may be a friendship or business relationship where you think
that just for now you’ll let yourself be put upon or pushed
around.   

The only thing is, when you try to assert
your wants, needs, priorities and tastes that other person isn’t listening,
because they have already learned from you what they need to know.  Having
learned that you will settle for less, they will surely keep you to it.

So, how do you keep
other people from pushing you around or putting upon you?  By teaching
them a different way of behaving towards you.

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