Recrimination in Relationships and How to Salvage Them
“You look so ugly when you talk like that,” said my mother one day when I was seventeen, “I wish I could record you so you could see how ugly you are.”
I don’t remember exactly what we were fighting about—I had recently been discovered as homosexual and our relationship had become yet more strained under their dismissal and increased persecution. I was a very good kid—I got the best grades in my family, never tried drinking or smoking, was still a virgin (had not even kissed anyone), shuttled my siblings to various engagements, never complained about going to church or neglected my homework, and obeyed curfew with absolute diligence. Yet my parents’ behavior toward me was a constant barrage of preemptive strikes, as if at any moment I might turn rogue, abandon all reason and embark on a murderous crusade of crime, drugs, and failure (I would a few months later finally engage in some teenage rebellion and jump the fence of a water park at night with my friends to go swimming and get caught by the police, so maybe they were right).
Besides learning to hate myself, the biggest lesson I took from this style of parenting was how to proactively hold others to account, to punish unwanted behavior with enthusiastic condemnation or demoralizing threats. Because of the abuse I endured as a child I also ended up gravitating toward friends and romantic partners who demonstrated the same kind of scheming and abuse employed by my parents. But now an adult I also engaged in the same kinds of retaliatory tactics I had learned from them. Instead of avoiding emotionally unstable and manipulative people I was drawn to them and labeled their behavior and made them feel shame for it. Instead of standing up for myself and finding faithful partners I remained with those who cheated on me and shamed and degraded them for it. When anyone ignored or slighted me I called them names which matched their behavior and made them aware of my displeasure. Even though I thought I was as different from my parents as night from day my life had become every bit as volatile, full of cycles of offense and recrimination, which always led to destruction and even more pain and failure. The one good relationship of my adult years occurred by accident after repeatedly hooking up with a boy whom I accidentally fell in love. He was so sweet there was never an opportunity to employ my tactics of recrimination and punishment, but it too was doomed by my inability to resolve the apocalyptic battle within my own psyche, a resolution to which would not occur until many years later.
I regularly come into contact with many people who believe they are justified to harass, cajole, and threaten their partners or other relations when things are said or done which hurt us or fail to meet our expectations. The things they do are wrong, after all—Why shouldn’t we call them out and make them aware of the pain they have caused, or threaten to leave or withhold love and support until their behavior changes? One of my sisters has a stinging talent for shaming people for their poor behavior whenever my family gets into arguments, an aggressive, self-righteous attitude which does nothing to curb the behavior she supposedly resents (and hypocritically engages) but instead motivates everyone to steer clear of her.
We pick up these unfortunate and unhelpful behaviors in childhood as survival mechanisms for adulthood. Learning, for instance, that were I to police and convict my younger siblings for bad behavior it in turn decreased the severity and frequency of my own beatings and harassment, I took this shield into adulthood, my tortured mind still believing that could I display a more virtuous and selfless facade I might protect myself from further harm at the hands of my fellow humans. This kind of thinking and behavior sadly turns out to be self-defeating—The very last thing our loved ones want to know is how much of a disappointment they are. Even if they have done something seriously wrong, like cheating or abusing us, they are trying their hardest and their own behavior is, just like ours, the manifestation of wounds sustained in childhood and the fear of loss and heartache. Instead of finding shelter in our harbors we turn around and show them they are still lost at sea with no safe port visible on the horizon, and there is absolutely no faster way to destroy the love within a relationship than the delivery of condemnation instead of compassion. These people, who are just as lost, alone, and afraid as we are then have no recourse or refuge, and descend to worse places and even more egregious behavior, trapped between the pain of their past and the prison of their future with you.
Of course, bad behavior is never acceptable in any relationship. But the one variable in such situations is not in preventing them, as that is without our ability to control, and indeed it is our fears of their occurrence that motivate our own recriminatory actions, but instead our response to them which can be controlled. If a loved one hurts you and you hurt them back for it you are absolutely no better and just as responsible for the demise of the relationship. Most people engage in “eye for an eye” tactics, even those who think they do not believe in such ideology, because we are often taught to despise and shame people who make mistakes as a way to come out on top. In reality you show yourself to be every bit as cold and unloving as they are, and how can any relationship survive with such back and forth, let alone thrive?
There is no real connection between emotions and actions. It took me until I was thirty-four to realize this, that what I do is not intrinsically coupled to how I feel. I believed if people hurt me I was entitled, nay obliged to respond. But in reality I can exist in my space, regardless of what occurs around me. The work I have done both on my physical health and the practice of personal inventory has severed that connection between events which effect me and how I respond, which in turn has given me greater control over my life experience, not because it affects the outward events, although it does to some extent, but to those which are internal. I have learned to find compassion for others, even when they behave terribly, because this work showed me how to have compassion for myself, and this in turn has empowered me to avoid those whose behavior would hurt me and to remain dispassionate when those in my life do run afoul of my sensitivities.
Although it can help, changing our behavior does not begin with a new mindset. The reason we act this way, as mentioned earlier, is due to the pain and trauma within us which is carried out of our past and the resultant protective behaviors we learned as consequence. We react in defensive ways to spare ourselves further pain and humiliation, and understandably so. It is not possible to will ourself healed or to become enlightened without understanding the scope and depths of our own pain and suffering. That is why practices like personal inventory as described in my book in the chapter Love and Happiness is so important to getting at the root of how we were hurt and the origins of these protective mechanisms. Without this kind of work we fail to understand why we behave the way we do, and if we don’t understand ourselves we cannot possibly hope to understand others. Doing this kind of intensive work on ourselves will in turn allow us insights into the pain we all share, the kind which compels us and our loved ones to act in ways which are in opposition to what we really want, and will thus empower you to enjoin your loved one through support and the bonds of real love rather than one bound by conflict and manipulation. Understanding the depths of human suffering is possible for anyone through this method.
I now understand that those horrible things my parents said and did to me are a result of the exact same things they experienced at the hands of their own parents, and instead of resentment I feel compassion and pity, and that frees my days and nights to exist in peace and love in spite of the failings of my past. You too can have this kind of existence with just a little bit of work and self searching in a practice that is both simple and amazing, empowered to achieve the kind of harmony and love in your own life that you have long been craving. At the very least you can improve your relationships by pausing when bad things occur, refrain from doing and saying things which are retaliatory, and recognize that your impulse is motivated by your fears and that probably you partner (or family members) have acted in the same. The personal inventory practice is described in detail in my book, but I also offer a one-on-one coaching class to teach it via web-cam to anyone who would like personal instruction in the practice.