Allow me to tell you about two men, John and Michael. When I met them, they had both been married for more than ten years, and they shared the painful bond of each being married to a consummate victim. Despite being intelligent, articulate, and successful in many areas of their lives, these two men were utterly beaten down in their marriages and clueless about what steps they might take to change their condition.
Let’s begin with a look at Michael’s wife, Sandra, who began complaining with her first breath every morning: Michael didn’t wake her up, he woke her up too early, he woke her up too late, he didn’t fix breakfast, he fixed the wrong food, he didn’t say something nice enough to her, he didn’t get the children ready for school fast enough, he didn’t make the sun rise at the correct angle. There was always something wrong, it was always Michael’s fault, and she was always unhappy about it. This resulted in considerable disharmony between them and great unhappiness for Michael, who was beside himself. He had read shelves of self-help books without relief. He had even read Real Love, but he didn’t know how to apply what he’d read to his own situation.
First I talked to Michael a little about Sandra’s behavior, so he could understood her. I helped him see how she had always seen the world as a victim and manipulated everyone around her with guilt and anger to get what she wanted, which was mostly power and safety.
“Do you know how afraid you are of Sandra?” I asked.
“Afraid? I’m not afraid of her,” he said.
Most men do not like to be told that they’re afraid of anything, much less of their wives, so it was understandable that he would resist this notion.
“I apologize,” I said. “I didn’t mean to use the word afraid. I meant to say terrified. This woman snaps her whip, and you bark like a dog. She has a chain in your nose and pulls you anywhere she wants you to go. With a single word, she can stop a conversation, stop you from being happy, and pretty much make you do what she wants. True or not true?”
“That’s not true.”
“Really? Why are you and I having this conversation. Did you come to me to report that you were happy with your marriage?”
“Absolutely not. You told me you were miserable beyond description. So, are you doing what you want in your marriage?”
“So, if you’re not doing what you want in your marriage, there’s only one feeling that could be keeping you from doing what you want. When people really want to do something, but they don’t, what feeling stops them?”
“Yes!! And you were reluctant to admit that because you have a judgment that being afraid is somehow weak. I understand. But until you see what it true, you can never change. You are simply afraid of Sandra. Most people are afraid of their partners, and that is what keeps them from being truly intimate. You’re far from alone in this. What are you afraid of? When Sandra barks at you, you’re afraid to respond to her. What are you afraid could happen if you did try to respond?”
Michael could not answer that question, and I was not surprised by this. People rarely have a clear understanding of their fears, which often have deep roots in the past. Moreover, their fears distort their thinking, so fears make a mess of everything. We talked until Michael freely agreed with all of the following:
1. He was afraid that everything his wife was saying was right: that everything he did was wrong, that he was a complete screw-up, and that he was the cause of all her unhappiness. He had learned that if he tried to argue with her, she just proved in greater detail—she presented even more evidence—that everything she said was true.
2. He was afraid of not feeling loved. He was afraid of her disapproval. In virtually every interaction with her, she attacked him and loudly communicated the “I don’t love you” message, so he did whatever he could to avoid that message. He learned that if he backed down from her, she stopped blaming and attacking sooner, so the “I don’t love you” messages stopped sooner. It’s ironic that at every opportunity victims scream that other people are hurting them and are failing to love them, but in response to their pain they hurt other people and fail to love them—the very crimes they condemn.
3. He was afraid that their relationship would never change. Sandra had been acting like this for many years, and if he said nothing, at least he could hope that she might change with time. Each time he spoke to her, however, he received plentiful confirmation that she was on an undeviating course of misery and despair. It was very discouraging to him.
“Michael,” I finally said, “you don’t have a relationship with Sandra at all. You’re a prisoner—a hostage. Sandra just owns you.”
“I never saw any of this,” he said. “It’s embarrassing.”
“Of course you didn’t see it. It’s all been quite unintentional—for both of you. So if you didn’t see it, there’s also nothing to be embarrassed about. The question is, Do you want to continue like this, or do you want to change it?”
“Oh, I want to change it. I’m tired of it. But I don’t know how to change it.”
“Of course you don’t know how, or you would have long before now.”
I first explained to Michael that helping Sandra to stop her victim behavior would be a very loving act on his part. Sure, it would be a relief for him not to be attacked constantly, but it would also be an enormous benefit to her. As long as she was acting like a victim, she could never be happy. Victims are constantly buying Imitation Love with their behavior, so they can never feel unconditionally loved. If we can help them see their behavior and stop it, we introduce the possibility that they might begin to feel Real Love and genuine happiness.
Further, I wanted to demonstrate to Michael that he played a critical role in her behavior as a victim. “Michael, why do people behave as they do?” I asked.
At first he looked confused, but then he began a discussion about genetics and training and culture. I stopped him after a couple of sentences and said, “Let’s make this simpler. On the whole, people behave as they do because they get something from it. Babies cry because their parents come running and give them whatever they need. Thieves steal because it gives them a livelihood and a sense of power. In short, we behave as we do because our behaviors get us what we want, and if a given behavior begins to consistently fail to produce a positive result, we tend to give up that behavior. When we were infants, we cried to get what we wanted. When we became older, most of us were told that crying was no longer an acceptable means for accomplishing that end—in fact, many of us were punished for crying—so we gave up that behavior and learned other ways of getting what we wanted.”
“The same is true with victims,” I continued. “They continue their behavior because they GET something from it. When Sandra acts like a victim with you, she gets your attention, your time, your sympathy, your guilt, your cooperation, your frustration, your helplessness, and your complete involvement in her emotional drama. She becomes the queen of the hour, and in her distorted world, that seems like a lot. In the absence of Real Love, all that Imitation Love seems like it’s a lot better than nothing at all. But it’s really killing her. Somebody has to finally cut off her supply of Imitation Love. Somebody has to quit rewarding her for this game she plays. You can’t stop her from acting like a victim. You can’t control her, but you can stop rewarding her behavior.”
“How do I do that?” Michael asked.
Then I explained to Michael what he might do on the occasions when his wife acted like a victim and began attacking him (and I’ll paraphrase here).
1. First remember why she’s attacking you. She’s only responding to emptiness and fear. She’s just drowning. It’s not about you.
2. Remember that you don’t need her to love you in that moment. You never need any one particular person’s love. You have other people who do care about you. This will require that you tell the truth about yourself to other people who are loving you unconditionally.
3. As soon as she starts acting like a victim or attacking, interrupt her. This might sound rude, but it’s important not to let her go on and on. Why? The idea is not to prevent her from attacking you. It’s to help her. The more she spouts her venom without interruption, the more she stays in a pattern that keeps her from feeling loved and loving. In addition, she interprets your silence as agreement with what she’s saying, and then she feels even more justified in her victimhood—which again will keep her in this unproductive way of living.
4. First indicate that you have genuinely listened to what she was saying. This is very easy to do. Victims usually make their point in the first few seconds they speak, and then they repeat it over and over again, with only slight variations. That’s why interrupting them makes very little difference. I’ll give you some examples of what really listening to her looks like.
5. Point out to her what was true or not true about what she said, rather than responding to the emotions or attacking of what she was saying.
6. Describe the choices available to her—more productive choices in her behavior—the choices she obviously does not see. Victims feel victimized precisely because they feel as though people and circumstances have left them with no choice but to react with misery and Protecting Behaviors.
This is a general description, the application of which will become clearer shortly. I also told Michael that he couldn’t hope to experience any success with this if he didn’t feel loved himself. So I recommended that he tell the truth about himself to some friends, or that he participate in the conference calls on www.RealLove.com. If he didn’t feel loved himself, he would interact with Sandra in an unloving way, and then it wouldn’t matter what words he used with her. She would only feel attacked or manipulated, and she would respond with increasingly victim behavior.
Michael had been in a rut with Sandra for a very long time, so changing the way he interacted with her was not easy or smooth. The first few times Michael tried what I suggested, Sandra erupted like a volcano. She was not about to give up her long-established pattern of behavior easily. But Michael persisted, despite his fears, and within a couple of weeks he began to experience quite a number of successes.
One afternoon, for example, Sandra walked into the kitchen and launched into a loud and bitter tirade about the condition of that room. It was a “horrible mess,” it was “never clean,” Michael “never helped her with anything,” and so on.” The mess had been created by their two children, whose job it was to keep it clean, and she was upset by the mess, the fact that the children created it, and that Michael didn’t more closely supervise the kids to make them do their work.
After perhaps twenty seconds, Michael raised his hand and said, “I would like to see if I’m getting the message of what you’re saying. May I do that?”
Sandra looked surprised but said, “Okay, I guess.”
“The condition of the kitchen is unacceptable to you, and you’re quite unhappy about it. Does that pretty much sum it up?”
“Well, that’s not all,” she said. “You never—”
“Oh, I know you want to repeat what you said and drill it in, but I pretty much got the general message. Now, let’s look at some of the details. You said the kitchen is a ‘horrible mess.’ I certainly understand that it’s less than you’d like it to be, but would ‘horrible mess’ be accurate? I see a few things out of place on the counter, and a couple of places need to be wiped up. If there were an outside ‘kitchen critic’ here to judge the place, would this be called a ‘horrible mess,’ or would it be called ‘mildly untidy?’”
“Well, okay, so maybe not horrible, but—”
“Okay, so not horrible. Everything in life is a decision we make. You came into the kitchen and made a decision to call this a horrible mess and then, based on that assessment, to blow up—to thrown away your happiness. Now we’ve discovered that it’s not really a horrible mess. So, now you have a choice to make. Choice A: You could realize that your initial impression was a mistake and decide to give up your anger, since you’d be angry over nothing. Choice B: You could continue to be angry, even though the kitchen isn’t really a horrible mess. That doesn’t make much sense to me, since you’d be choosing to throw away your happiness when you could simply choose to be happy instead.”
Sandra made a horrible face as she could see her entire life of victimhood slipping away, and she was not about to let this happen without a fight. She said, “I’ve changed my mind. I can’t live with a mess like this. I do think it’s horrible.”
“Fine,” Michael said. “You have the right to decide what is horrible to you. So, we’ll back up and call the kitchen horrible. Doesn’t matter. You still have a choice whether to be happy or not. No matter what the condition of the kitchen, you can still choose to be happy and loving, or you can choose to throw it all away and be blaming and miserable.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. If somebody makes a mess in my kitchen, of course I’ll be upset.”
“You say ‘of course’ as though there were no other choice, but it’s obvious that there is another choice, because I can describe other choices. For example, I am standing in the same ‘horrible mess’ that you are, and I am choosing to realize that our two children are just kids. They are learning to be responsible, and in the process they will make mistakes. If they haven’t learned to be responsible, in fact, it’s probably mostly our fault—that we haven’t taught them well, that we haven’t applied consequences consistently, and that we haven’t unconditionally loved them well. So I can hardly be angry at them for what I haven’t taught them. I also realize that I need to teach them lessons in responsibility, and they certainly won’t learn these lessons better while I’m angry at them. They’ll only feel unloved and defensive. Anger will only fill our home with a tension that will destroy love and any possibility of happiness and learning. Realizing all that, I choose not to be angry. I don’t know why you’d want to make the unhappy choice—being angry—but it’s there if you want it. I’m just pointing out that you always have a choice in all this. What choice do you want to make?”
Michael then went on to examine other phrases that she had used, such as “never clean,” and that Michael “never helped her with anything.” He freely admitted that the kitchen wasn’t as clean as she would like all the time, and then he asked her to look at whether the phrase “never clean” was accurate. It was not. He also admitted that he had often failed to be the loving partner that he wished to be, but he helped her see that “never helped me with anything” was simply not true. Then he outlined the choices available to her, which involved choices about happiness, follow-up with the children, and lessons with the children on responsibility during regular family meetings.
Sandra was somewhat confused and frustrated by this conversation, but she did stop her blaming and attacking on that occasion. Michael continued to have interactions like this with Sandra over the succeeding several weeks, and about two months after my first conversation with him he called me.
“It’s been five days,” Michael said.
“Since what?” I asked.
“Since Sandra had a fit with anybody over anything.”
“Wow, that’s impressive. How long has it been since she’s had a run of non-victim days like that?”
“Judging from what her family says, I’d say since she was four.”
Michael then described one event after another, easily a dozen occasions, where Sandra was inconvenienced and had had plenty of opportunity to express her anger, but she didn’t.
“What’s it like around your home now?” I asked.
“It’s so much happier that I can hardly begin to describe it. And Sandra is like a different person. Almost unrecognizable.”
Michael was afraid of the victim tools that Sandra had honed over the years, but he exercised the faith required to change the way he had always interacted with her—despite her initial resistance, which was intense—and the results were hugely positive. He removed her usual rewards for acting like a victim, and she responded by deciding that it wasn’t worth acting like a victim any longer. That required enormous courage on Michael’s part and a decision on Sandra’s part to stay in her marriage and try something different. She could have decided to become more of a victim and eventually leave her marriage, but she didn’t.
I mentioned earlier that I would be telling you about two men, so now let’s turn our attention to the second man, John, who was similar in age to Michael and married to a woman whose behavior was quite comparable to Sandra’s. Much as I had with Michael, I encouraged John to break the cycle of victimhood with his partner, so that Real Love and happiness could replace the blaming and misery that had long characterized their relationship.
But John was too afraid of his wife to do what I suggested. When he tried to interrupt her tirades, she became furious, and he immediately backed down. When he did that, she was promptly rewarded for her attacking and learned—once again—that victimhood was the way to survive in the world. John could not exercise enough faith that if he persisted long enough on a course of love and truth, the pattern of victimhood could be broken.
Why did John fail? Perhaps he couldn’t feel the love of others while he was being attacked by his wife. Perhaps he had just been wounded too badly in the past, so when his wife attacked him, the sum of the old wounds and present fears became too painful to bear. Perhaps he got enough reward from his own victimhood that he was reluctant to give that up. It’s hard to know the exact origins of fear in a given case, but his fears were understandable in a general way, because the onslaught of a victim is certainly frightening. Victims often terrorize the people around them, using every means at hand, until they get what they want.
The stories of John and Michael highlight the effects of victimhood, and also demonstrate that we can always make choices to change this behavior and to find happiness in our lives. Inconvenience, pain, and injustice will always occur. How we are affected by these conditions, however, is always a choice we make. We don’t have a choice about being victimized, but we always have a choice about feeling and acting like victims. Always.
Moreover, we can change the way we interact with the people who act like victims toward us. We must understand that we cannot stop people from acting like victims, but we can certainly change the way we respond to them, thereby freeing us from the bondage of these sick relationships. In many cases—like that of Michael—we can stop our interactions with victims and point out to them that they do have choices other than blaming and misery. With some victims, however—like with our bosses—it may not always be possible for us to point out their behaviors or their alternative choices. But we can always choose how we feel about the blaming of a victim. We can remember that the victim is empty and afraid and responding to a lifetime of not feeling loved. The victim is drowning. The victim’s behavior isn’t about us. In short, we don’t ever have to feel personally attacked by a victim.
It’s all about choice, isn’t it? Happiness is a choice. No matter what happens to us, we can choose to feel loved and loving and happy, rather than feel like victims or act like victims. And no matter how much people act like victims around us we don’t have to accept their invitations to be miserable with them. We don’t have to accept their blaming and accusations and guilt. We can choose to be happy instead. Why not make that choice?