Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting: How to Raise Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool, teaches that when we freak out with our kids and try to control them we give them only two choices: either comply or defy. In practice, it’s more accurate to say that we inevitably teach both. We teach our children to defy when we try to control them, and we encourage them to make it look like they are complying when we emotionally react to them for breaking the rules. The result is raising children who know how to break the rules while making it look like they are complying with them. Many of us who grew up with emotionally reactive parents learned our lessons well. The implications for how we treat “the rules” (and our spouses) in our marriages are profound.
How it All Starts
Growing up in emotionally reactive families is like growing up in a pressure cooker. Children are wholly dependent on their parents and when parents are rigid, controlling, mean, or manipulative a child’s brain goes into action. In the formative years, children’s brains grow neural pathways from repeated, emotionally intense interactions, whether positive or negative. These pathways are much like well-worn wagon trails with deep grooves. As we grow and then go through life, the paths we choose and the ways we interact are largely governed by these grooves. Our wagon wheels fall into what is familiar. When what is familiar is to defy while making it look like we are complying we create some pretty interesting dynamics in our marriages.
Normal Marital Sadism
I recognized this penchant for hiding the defiance in my own behavior recently. We were visiting my mother’s home, and we had just finished the dinner she’d prepared for us that included no less than 3 new recipes, all of which called for heavy doses of cheese and cream. I’m lactose intolerant. I’ve told her…many times. While cleaning up the table, I noticed a piece of gooey-cheese-laden potato my 8 year old dropped on the floor. I stood there staring at it, not so shocked, but definitely unnerved, by what I was thinking and feeling. No stinking way was I going to pick it up! She (my mother) could rot in hell for all I cared, and, in that brief moment, my stomach robbed of a promised meal, I hoped she would! Leaving the little, dropped bit of potato on the ground was revenge, plain and simple. And it made me feel good.
You would be mistaken if you thought my insignificant little piece of rebellion an insult to my fellow miscreants across the globe. I wonder now how many little bits of potato I left for her as I was growing up. How many do I still leave? If the worst torture occurs one drip at a time, then that makes me quite the sadist.
Do I do the same thing with my husband? Of course I do. The phrase normal marital sadism (NMS), coined by David Schnarch, author of Intimacy and Desire, has taken on a whole new meaning. But don’t feel bad for my husband just yet. His version of NMS is as juicy as mine!
What’s your version of Chinese water torture? In what ways do you make it look like you are complying with your spouse’s wishes while dripping subtle (or not so subtle) screw you messages around the house? If you can’t find an answer just ask your spouse. I’m sure he or she would be happy to help you figure it out!
Meanwhile, here’s a helpful list of common ways people torture their spouses:
- Knowing you’re angry with him but denying it’s true
- Fading into the wallpaper instead of making decisions
- Lying when you know they know the truth
- Hanging around waiting for them to screw up and then pouncing on them when they do
- “Forgetting” things that are important to them
- Being late perpetually
I could go on…but I’m curious what you might add to the list!
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