Saturday, June 11, 2011

You're Asking For It

In a recent advice column by Dear Abby, A 19-year-old woman complained about the way her two younger sisters were treating her mother. When the writer was 4, the mom had gone to prison for eight years, but the experience of jail had somehow turned Mom's life around. At 38, the mother had a college degree, a loving husband, a good job and a new home.

The two sisters said that they did not want to be part of the mother’s life, but they never failed to call her at holiday and birthday time to pick up the gifts they know Mom has bought them. Afterward, they would not contact her or answer her calls and texts until the next holiday. From the letter writer’s perspective, this repetitive dysfunction interpersonal interaction would leave the mother depressed and feeling used. If the writer tried telling them to stop this, they would tell her to get out of their business.

In her answer, Dear Abby opined that the two younger sisters were manipulative, selfish and self-centered, but correctly pointed out that the mother was enabling them to behave in this way. Abby astutely said that the mother might be giving and giving out of guilt, while the sister may be taking and taking in order to punish her.

On the surface, the younger sisters were in fact being manipulative, selfish, and self-centered. But - just maybe - they were really responding to what they believed the mother needed and wanted them to do. Perhaps Mom was feeling so guilty for being in jail during their childhood that she was actually inviting the girls to abuse her in this way. They may have been “helping” her to atone for her sins. The mother's "need" for this was evidenced by the fact that Mom kept giving them stuff in spite of their mistreatment of her.

Under this interpretation, the sisters are giving the Mom the punishment they think she feels she deserves, while taking the heat off the mother by looking like they are the villains in the story. They are the ones who appear to be “acting badly.” For a parallel situation, please see my post, Your Spouse’s Secret Mission.

We have all heard the expression, “You’re asking for it,” as when a child defies a parent’s orders knowing full well that he will be spanked. Now of course, this is said as if it were meant facetiously, as a sort of a joke. After all, why would anyone be “asking” for a spanking?

Not a good tattoo for a criminal

What I propose here is instead that people really do mean this. They really think people are in fact asking for it when they do something knowingly that will surely lead to a negative consequence. Why else would they do that? The individual who says, “You’re asking for it,” however, does not know why the “asker” is doing so. He or she has to come up with some sort hypothesis to explain it. Maybe the other person is mad, bad, crazy, guilty, or just a masochist.

So why is the phrase said as if it were being said facetiously? The answer is that the person uttering the phrase knows he or she will be attacked for offering this theory seriously.

For example, let’s take the case of one not-uncommon type of abusive husband. In my most recent book, I describe the case of a woman who was married to a hyper-jealous and hyper-possessive husband with a history of violence.

One day in a fit of pique, she torched his prized vehicle and then had sex with his best friend. She then went home to tell him all about what she had done - in the nastiest way she could think of - and blamed her misbehavior on his inadequacy as a husband. So what happened next? Duh!!!

Before I go on, let me add a caveat. I am not suggesting that this guy’s behavior should be excused. One should not beat someone else up no matter what the provocation, except perhaps in the case of Osama Bin Ladin. So don’t write me a nasty note!

Now, if this husband were to tell, say, a marital therapist, that his wife was “asking for a beating,” what response would he be likely to get in return? The therapist would almost certainly exhibit an angry and disgusted facial expression and accuse him, perhaps in a sugar-coated but still easy to spot way, of trying to justify his vile behavior through rationalizations and deflecting the blame for his own shortcomings onto his victim. The average abuser generally knows better than to subject himself to that - unless he actively wants the therapist to hate him.

Such a reaction would hardly be limited to a therapist. Most people would attack this guy unless they were afraid of him or somehow complicit. Better to use the phrase facetiously, no?

Now, “asking for it” does not have to be this clear and dramatic. Subtle behavior can draw out hostile responses just as well as can gargantuan provocations.

The great Eric Berne, founder of a type of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis (TA) and author of the best-seller, Games People Play, describes a “game” that he calls Kick Me : This game is played by people whose social manner is equivalent to wearing a sign that reads “Please Don’t Kick Me.” The temptation for everyone is almost irresistible, and when the natural result follows, the person cries piteously, “But the sign says ‘don’t kick me.’” Then he adds incredulously, “Why does this always happen to me?”

The mother in the Dear Abby letter might have been acting in such a manner with they younger daughters, while acting very differently with the eldest daughter. If this were the situation, the eldest daughter would probably not understand what the younger sisters were really reacting to, and blame them. Just as they would want. As I have pointed out in previous posts, people are so thoughtful that way!

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