One thing I’ve noticed over the past few days is just how many times the people in my family say something like “But I’m not going to say that to him/her.” So someone is acting like an absolute asshole and is completely over the line, and the person being put upon complains about it to everyone else, but because he doesn’t want to “feed into the asshole’s drama” or some similar sentiment, he’s “not going to say that to her.”
I think the effect my family believes this has is two-fold. One, and most importantly, it means that the person being put upon does not have to engage with the person he’s mad at. Score one for the person being put upon. And two, it is supposed to deprive the drama-producing person of fuel for their drama fire, thus ensuring the drama will end more quickly than it otherwise would.
But what I’ve recently realized is that, for this strategy to work, it relies on the presumption that the asshole who is not showing any empathy at the moment, is, in fact, having empathy at the moment. Let’s assume that everyone acts in what he or she believes is his or her own best interest, that we are inherently selfish. Let’s say that something is going on–like maybe Person A said he’d buy groceries and Person B discovers there are no groceries. Now, if B is acting rationally, she might consider that Person A has been working long hours and may have forgotten, or got off work after the store closed. B might then decide to get the groceries herself or remind A. Either of these actions are in B’s interest, since they result in her getting the groceries she wants.
Now, say that, instead of doing either of those things, B calls A’s mother and complains about how shitty A is. And now A is livid because it’s not B’s place to drag family members into their grocery mess and it feels like a weird violation of A’s boundaries and A’s mother’s boundaries. And yet, let us say that this spurs A to buy B’s groceries.
In my family, we seem to believe that, if we give B what she wants and never mention how pissed we are at the lines she’s crossed, she will somehow sense the lack of our forthright being-pissed-ness and figure out that we are so double-super-secret pissed that we can’t even talk about it.
And yet, obviously, if she was that kind of psychic–that the absence of information somehow results in the spontaneous acquiring of much more information–she would have known why the groceries weren’t bought in the first place. She would have known that calling A’s mom was unacceptable and upsetting to A’s mom and likely to piss off A’s whole family.
In other words, even though ever bit of information we have about B suggests that she is not a psychic mind-reader who cares about the feelings of others, we expect that she will notice our lack of public performance of anger, psychically discern that we are super-duper pissed, and give a shit, even though she got her way.
It makes no sense.
And the thing I realized this weekend is that, because we do this–have this whole psychic empathetic drama (or failure of psychic empathy drama) amongst ourselves–the asshole is always let completely off the hook. She gets her way and she never has to hear grief over it.
Wow. That’s a lovely set-up.
And I can see how this is an abusive dynamic, right? Holding people responsible for not correctly guessing your needs is abusive. People can’t read your mind and to expect them to somehow know that you’re leaving things unsaid is bullshit. But it also works from the other side, too. This reliance on the un-held fight lets the people being stepped on create a kind of bear cage around the abuser where the people being abused don’t have to directly confront the abuser and potentially end up being hurt worse, but they still get some semblance of emotional catharsis.
But meanwhile, the abuser faces no consequences for her abuse.
And, just to add to the fucked-up-ness, because everyone’s having a vivid emotional life with not only each other, but the versions of each other that live only in each person’s head, the imaginary each others with whom they have these enormous cathartic un-fights with, they feel a kind of intimacy with each other that seems to me nearly impossible to break. They know this other person so well because she takes up so much of their mental real estate that they never quite see that what’s in their head is the doll-house version of her that doesn’t really resemble the real person.
Ugh. It’s fucked up. And it breaks my heart.