More Metaphors Than You Can Shake a Stick At
Choosing an interpersonal conflict for this assignment was extremely difficult, because, as I discussed with my therapist, most conflicts in my life are not with people, but with systems. I previously wrote about a recent outpouring of hot lava from the volcano that is my relationship with my mother-in-law, Elsa, for the midterm. Having done so, I felt rather optimistic about our connection going forward. Acknowledging my conflict styles and how they are different from hers did help me develop a deeper sense of empathy for her. This, of course, is a key component of emotional intelligence. She, by looking at the assessment sheets, had participated in the exercise honestly, and I really thought we might be turning the corner.
However, I chose to write again about this ongoing conflict because, despite my attempts to regulate temperature, the pot has boiled over onto the stove. Given the emotionally sensitive nature of this material, and because I was asked to use a metaphor to describe the conflict, I’ve made the best of this situation by trying to make it fun to write (and hopefully read), at least.
Elsa and I have had an ongoing series of conflicts for upwards of eight years. Over this length of time, we have had topical, relational, identity, and process clashes. I have been in individual and/or family therapy regularly since I was 8, and I’m 36 now. I have gained through this experience a working understanding of how family of origin plays an enormous role in the way different people deal with conflicts. This class, along with that experience, has given me a great number of tools (stop-thought/shift-thought/FIREDRILL…or conflict triangles) to use when I need to control my anger as certain vicious cycles repeat in my life. Every ounce of my self-control was on trial not long after I received my grade for the midterm; the verdict found me lacking. I was the last car in a sixteen car pile-up. I saw the trouble coming, but was unable to swerve in time. I will explain in a moment.
For a bit of background, I need to give some pretty gory details about my wife’s family history. Her father sexually abused her during a four year period from 8 to 12, during which time the mother was a child sexual abuse investigator. Take a moment to let that one sink in. Despite what she calls now her ‘suspicions at the time’, Elsa did nothing to protect Anna or hold her husband accountable; in fact, she never has, even in the face of other stories from women in her life about other ‘suspicious behavior’ exhibited by her husband. When Anna predictably started acting out, she was sent to Guam. Yes, Guam, as in the other side of the world, with the other side of the family, for her entire teenage existence. Not a metaphor.
When I met Anna years later, her father was still lording his high power by constantly making obscene jokes about her body (‘breasts and thighs’), even in the presence of the rest of the family. I found this to be very disturbing, and so I confronted him. I did so mostly because I have experienced sexual abuse also, and am familiar with the cycle of behavior inherent in the actions of a sex offender who has not been held responsible for his actions. My decision to tackle this issue head-on led to essentially four years of arguments, during which time my relationship with her mother slowly devolved. This happened as I realized the responsibility Elsa held for the abuse continuing for so long. I began to see that asking her to change was asking Major League Baseball to lower the average price of beer—not going to happen.
During that four year period, we lived together for one summer, at the very beginning of my relationship with Anna. During our entire marriage we have not lived with them. Being that Anna and I are both full-time students with a child, our financial resources are never enough to cover everything. Since November 2005, Elsa and her husband have provided an immense amount of financial support, which comes in the form of gas, groceries, and pocket money, but never for rent.
I mention rent because of my identity issue with needing to provide in some fashion for the roof over my family’s head. My self-identification as a good father and partner, despite my disabilities, is dearly held. That I even need this help is, in some ways, an attack on this identity; I make an internal effort to deal with those emotional consequences and an external effort to be grateful. Elsa has, with the support and encouragement of her husband, time and again used her contribution through financial assistance as a tactic in attempting to disassemble the coalition that is my wife and I. As a result, I have connected the donkey-like persistence Elsa approaches the ever-impending conversion of my family with, with her dogged insistence that she couldn’t have known better, couldn’t have handled the abuse Anna suffers from -still- differently.
About four summers ago, Anna and I forbade her father from ever entering our house again. This was around the time that our child was born. When we laid down a condition of him visiting, namely that he could never, ever be alone with the child, Elsa couldn’t seem to understand. See, there has never been a confession that by him that he did molest Anna, and his non-acknowledgement was having a very destructive impact on Anna’s mental health, and our marriage. Our thought at the time was this: if Elsa was not going to confront her husband, and, since she even took steps to prevent me from doing so, enough was enough. To repair the damage done, we would at the very least need our house to be a safe space. Also, under no circumstances will I put my child in such a threatening situation. Here I show the power resource of interpersonal linkage.
This decision put an immense amount of strain on my relationship with Anna’s mom. The whole of the Four Apocalyptic Horsemen rode right through the living room a few times. One example of my stonewalling: I, instead of calling her mom, just stopped calling her, or answering when she called. I also began to strongly encourage my wife to begin coping with her victimization. Over the last four years, we have gridlock, and I have emotionally disengaged with Anna’s family. My goal in this part of the interaction was to Elsa and Anna face up to the consequences of her mothers’ enabling ‘ignorance.’ This is all pretty heavy, but it’s true.
This piece of information, along with the previous paper, is included to show the amount of time and effort that my wife and I have put into solving system-level problems with the relationship. Our conflicts with her have not all been about proselytizing; no, my identity as non-believer is by no means under attack because she has faith. My relational goal of a healthy marriage is at risk because she consistently demeans and judges my family for our lack of faith, all while standing by her man. In truth, we have more interdependent conflict issues than my dog has fleas. Our conflicts have been a roller-coaster, with all of the vomit but none of the fun and excitement!
To explain the current nature of the relationship, I must start about a month ago. This was when I overheard Elsa in the kitchen with our daughter, relegating her with yet more whispers about heaven and jesus. It wasn’t until the kid piped up, asking, “When I die, do I go to heaven?” that I, armed with tools from class and therapy, felt triggered. First, I checked my emotions, and remembered to use the emotional intelligence all those years of therapy have provided. Remember, she has her own feelings and issues, I told myself. I used self-soothing talk as an anger management tool, repeating, “Staaaaay cool. Staaaaaaaay cool.” I made sure my wife (who was at the time sitting outside) knew I had overheard what I did and asked for her understanding. I explained that repeatedly going against the universal ‘my rules, my house’ imperative would not be tolerated further without my intervention, particularly given the history.
We came in together, and, using I statements, made known that we needed to talk about what I had overheard, among other things. In a stunning denial of power use, Elsa refused to admit having communicated anything of the sort to our kid. Instead, she immediately began packing up to go, though she had intended to stay at least one more night. This was her attempting to control her power resources. She began storming around the house, leveling personal attacks, telling me to ‘be a man,’ ‘get a job,’ and “I guess Rachel Maddow is your god now!” I didn’t really understand that last one either, until later. I realized she meant that, opposite of her goal for me (come to jesus, bring the family), I had turned to intellectual pursuits, and forsaken the idea of an almighty creator. In her eyes, and opposite her goal for me (and her identity, to be sure), I am Paul on the road to Damascus no more.
Despite this incredible outburst, I knew that what seemed irrational to me was quite rational for her. I was able to keep my temper in check until she, having put everything by the door in her loudest tone of non-verbal behavior, came to stand in front of me and mocked, with flailing motions and what I can only describe as the face of a half-wit, the sign language I have been teaching my family. Here, I failed. Instead of letting the conflict wash over me the way the morning tide does the sea anemone, I lost self-control. I did not keep my inside thoughts inside. I stood up, used a choice phrase of my own, and invited her to leave. “You wanna go?! Go!! But if you leave, stay gone!” This was a quickly escalating spiral, to be sure, a self-perpetuating bad situation fraught with discord, and in this case characterized by contempt. It was made worse because my fear of being disregarded by this woman as unworthy was being acted out right before my eyes. I got angry. My relational goals with every woman in the house felt at stake.
“How dare you!” I jumped up, screaming. “What are you talking about? I’m not mocking you!” “You just did!” This ‘I’m right/No, I’m right!/No, I’m right’ went back and forth for a few minutes, during which she continued to refute the power use. She denied both that she communicated something, and that something was intended by the communication. At this point, I took a deep breath, and remembered my plan of action in dealing with my emotions while in conflict (breathing, empathy, counting to ten, using positive imagery like a playing right field in a ballgame under the lights at night as a cool breeze ruffles my long hair and uniform). (Hey, it works.)
“I don’t want my family around your abuse anymore,” says I, “or the scorning, judging, and stubborn unwillingness to deal with your own fury. You can just stay away if this is how you want to handle things! I wanted to read the paper I wrote about our conflict to you, to process this differently for once!” “It’ll all just be an attack on me,” she shouted, standing by the door she had flung open for the neighbors. “Not at all, it was to help see the process as the problem instead of the person” I intoned as calmly as I possibly could. I was still sitting on the couch with Anna and the kid, who were begging her not to leave, to please sit down and talk things over.
“It’s not like that at all. There are ways to repair the contempt we feel for each-other,” I continued, to no avail. From the door she shrieked, “If you don’t want me around, I’ll just send money then!” And that was essentially that. She must have known then that she was going to actively withdraw her support leaving us in quite a lurch. Saying that she would do the opposite of what she actually intended is the non-verbal, passive approach.
My goals in this interaction were to deal with what I had overheard, read the previous paper to her, and discuss what could be done to repair our relationship. I hoped that by showing her I was making an effort to understand her emotions and actions, she would de-escalate. Instead, her goal became apparent: to exercise her financial power (resource control) in response to feeling threatened, and in response to my not ‘softening my heart and accepting the Lord.’ Before she felt threatened, I am sure she held the same goal.
Because of our incompatible goals, Elsa and I have been in basically a hot war, where we exchanged power currencies during periods where we each perceived interference or scarcity. Now, we are in a cold war, where she has followed through on her threat to withdraw financial support (one major reason I have been missing class since the mid-term…no money, no gas, little food), and my daily life teeters on the edge of financial calamity. It would appear she had the last word, leaving a power imbalance.
If I apply the Relational Theory of Power here, I can see that my family’s dependence on Elsa was equal to the power she held over us. As things stand now, I am certain that her money has been interference with our educational goals, not support. She clearly does not value our choice to better ourselves through education. She said as much with the Maddow comment. This can only be seen as destructive, and not just to the relationship I have and wanted to have with her, but with the goals I share with my wife. My daughter, who is four, is a sponge like every child, and my relational goal with her is to protect her and teach her how to deal with conflicts as they arise. Mocking the Deaf is certainly never appropriate; that she has known for the entire period of our relationship that I am hard of hearing tells me this was not just one more attack, but foreshadowing further harmful intent. I wish my daughter hadn’t witnessed that.
Mine has always been either an accommodating or a compromising style, whether with Elsa or with anyone. Thanks, therapy! However, I can only collaborate with a willing partner, and accommodation is really just half of a failed compromise. With Elsa, I have turned to avoidance as a tactic in the past. When that hasn’t worked, I have scripted nearly every line of every conversation, every interaction. I pre-plan my day when she is over to steer clear of conflict with her. Anna and I have tried various solutions: not allowing her husband to be there and agitate, conditions on the subjects that we discuss, asking her look in the mirror regarding the abuse she allowed to continue when Anna was young in the hopes she would more easily empathize with how it still effects Anna today…all to no gain.
So, time for something different. The macro-level, systems-level way of looking at things led me to see that I had said everything to Elsa I needed to say, except one thing: to handle her conflicts better, she needs to get off the merry-go-round and seek professional help. She needs to learn from her history, perhaps even recognize that she ‘avoids-criticizes’ in a cycle that is unproductive and extremely unhealthy.
My therapist, upon hearing this story, offered to provide a family session (minus the husband—he is NOT allowed near my wife). This will provide a safe and private place for Anna and Elsa and I to be guided through our emotional turmoil to whatever the next step might be. As till now, trying new solutions has been a part of the problem. Also, overuse of a solution can reduce its effectiveness. One example is my use of ‘confrontation’ as a tactic.
Looking long-term? I know I cannot ‘change the other.’ I must take personal responsibility for my emotional transformation; I cannot continue to allow incompatible goals and scarce resources define the future for my immediate family. I trust my therapist to mediate the situation appropriately, and help us all develop communications skills-- like gunny sacking! -- through her pragmatic approach. I trust myself to navigate these delicate waters as well as Twain gave my child self glimpses of the Great Mississippi through Tom Sawyer. I am glad I have the resource of expertise in this situation, thanks to my years in therapy, and the resource of interpersonal linkage, in the case of the therapist. Solutions? Who knows? Honestly, I am happy to have made it here. Therapy can only make this better. I hope.