A common conflict trap that people get into in adult relationships is the accusatory, “you made me feel!” game. Let’s break it down:
-Person A does something Person B does not approve of
-Person B has some uncomfortable feeling, immediately attributes feeling to other person, says, “You’re making me feel x, y, z!”
The you-made-me game falls flat on its face, every single time. It’s a losing pattern for conflict resolution. There are a number of reasons for this, the primary being that no one can “make” you feel anything. No one can reach inside your head, move the atoms and neurons and protons around in a special configuration, and then energize them into some recognizable pattern that is a feeling. Adults are separate beings. They don’t have superpowers to imbue others with mood states. Saying that someone, who you’re in voluntary relationship with, has that kind of power over you grants them a superpower they do not possess.
Certainly, people can push your buttons in the anticipation that you’ll feel this way or that. That’s manipulation but you are an autonomous person who can figure out manipulation and then respond with your own free will.
We have to take a moment here to qualify that the child-to-parent relationship is not voluntary. A child doesn’t choose to be born and doesn’t get to choose their parents. And also, the subject-to-ruler relationship is not voluntary, either. Some people recreate these dynamics in their adult, voluntary relationships but that’s an aberration to clear up, not an operating ethos.
Another reason why the you-made-me game falls flat on its face is because it’s petty. People litigate each other out of unconscious habit because it’s the only way to get anything in socialist societies and in childhood homes where there weren’t enough love resources to go around. People just accept the norms of their degraded cultures and bludgeon their personal relationships with all sorts of bad habits. The you-made-me game is particularly petty from a man to a woman because in natural, biological terms, it is the man who sets the direction of the relationship. When he plays this game on a woman, he is probably needing to admit he felt powerless with his mother and now needs to repeat the pattern in adulthood in order to become aware of it again and then resolve it.
People rake each other over the coals for all sorts of trespasses. A man gets with a woman. Finds out she had a sexual partner, or a few, before him, and immediately sets about making his own reaction to the observation HER problem. No curiosity. Or the man goes out with his buddies for some fun, the woman feels anxious because she’s been abandoned before under similar circumstances, and starts pestering the man over the phone until she feels she has power again in the relationship. No curiosity.
People are so ready to make their own problems the problem of the other person. You made me! No, a person’s parents made them, then circumstances formed them, and now they make themselves as adults.
This is not a get-out-of-jail-free pass for readers to go and do unethical things and scoff when the other person has a negative experience of the relationship.
This is a call to slow conflict down, as usual, and get back to describing first feedback – as mentioned in the previous post on this website. Let’s take the earlier example and revamp it with this new concept:
1. Person A does something Person B does not approve of
2. Person B has some uncomfortable feeling, self-reflects on the pain/discomfort/frustration/anger/etc.
This is similar to Stefan Molyneux’s Real Time Relationships but he advised people to share the feedback reflexively in the interests of “making the relationship more honest”. This roped people into all sorts of relational obligations that over time, wore all RTR relationships out. It assumed all relationships need pressure placed upon them to “become more honest” every single time there was an emotional triggering.
This third step is where my approach differs wildly from Stefan’s book, who said stuff in it like that he changes his own behavior in anticipation of his wife having a negative experience of him:
3. Person B decides if feeling is related to relationship, childhood, a mix of both
We have to allow that simply because we are having a negative experience of something, does not mean that the other person is in a condition where we need to act to influence the relationship to “be more honest”. There’s a term, eustress, that is important to introduce here. Eustress is the stress of growing. Growing pains are real. They’re not something that has to be shared every time there is a “negative experience”. Such people who did do this with Molyneux’s book in mind became insufferable wet blankets who had to be propped up every time someone around them took a healthy risk or did something daring, relative to the person’s own security-in-themselves levels.
For people to have a successful voluntary, personal relationship as adults, they need to be bound together in truth. You can only meet in reality. Coming together in an honest manner means that each person is committed, personally and separately from anything to do with one another, to improving and learning according to universal truth principles. When this is the standard for living, people more easily can identify for themselves that a person is trying something out for the sake of their own learning and moral improvement or if they’re up to some BS. Christianity as the dominant ethics of Western Civilization made this all flow so easily because everyone lived for Jesus and such ethics weren’t up for much interpretation, if any.
Let’s say a person is up to some BS and your response to their input isn’t eustress, you still can’t be too conclusive about your feedback. “You’re up to BS!” you say, with righteousness and then off to Fightville you go. No, we have to have a measure of acceptance that something has come to pass and we are addressing our own experience, not attempting to control the other person. Attempts to control don’t work. Telling people what to do, doesn’t work. Adopting a collaborative spirit, kicking around ideas (that include our own emotional feedback AFTER we’ve parsed it for ourselves), and remaining vulnerable and curious do work.
That third step, deciding if the feeling is related to the relationship, our childhoods, or a mix of both is so important. We each know ourselves best of all. You know yourself best. I know myself best. Distinguishing the aspects of an emotional experience that relate to the relationship directly and what is reminiscent of our childhood, spares the other person from us setting our own “childhood trap” on them every time we broach feedback with a person. Read that sentence again. They have no obligation to hear us out on our childhoods, simply because they did something that we feel upset in response to. People serve the relationship a lot better when they share childhood memories as a way of spending the time, not as a to-do every time there’s the beginnings of conflict forming.
Let’s go with a concrete example to illustrate this:
1. Woman feels anxious about man’s drinking, thought is that he’s losing control.
2. Reflects on anxiety, discovers it is fear connecting to a memory of her father being an abusive drunk.
3. Helps herself to take care of the inner child who had to live with an abusive drunk.
4. Feels more at peace with own history. Stops projecting onto man that just cause he’s drinking, means he will inevitably become abusive – even if he is losing control.
5. Decides when to broach feedback with her man, as a person who less scarred by a historically abusive drunken father. Might be as the guy is drinking (which may put her right back in the situation she was in as a child), or might be when her own inner child tells her is a good time.
Do you see how with vulnerability with ourselves as the touchpoint for all emotional experiences, we can take care of ourselves accurately and then allow that to flow into our relationships at our discretion?
Let’s take another concrete example:
1. Woman slams door.
2. Man feels annoyed, thought is that she’s being brutish.
3. Reflects on annoyance, own mother was graceful. Nothing really coming up and not because of dissociation.
4. In spirit of collaboration and curiosity, approaches woman and asks her what was going on for her when she slammed door.
5a. She reflects upon her own experience honestly and then there’s some discussion about the “art” of moving around the home or maybe her childhood or maybe a frustration she has with him, to which they each will respond with self-reflection.
5b. She reacts, doesn’t reflect on the feeling, and launches into some unproductive game – like the you-made-me-feel game or the explain-someone-else’s-emotions-to-them game.
We have emotional responses to each other, all the time. We need to stay sober about the distinction of our own emotional experience and another person’s emotional experience. Conflict can only be resolved with that basic distinction. A commitment to learning, and improving ethically, keeps us collaborative and pulls the relationship out of high stakes. People walk around with fears, insecurities, angers, and rages, irrespective of what another person is feeling. Other people’s behaviors provoke memories for us that are associated with our histories and particular emotions but that does not mean the other person made us feel how we feel.
We can be reactive, stressy minefields and rope each other into emotionally exhausting patch-up work or we can be responsive, self-reflective people who share the “flavor of the interaction” with one another in a non-defended and non-obligatory way. We’re not each others’ therapists. We are each working out, figuring out, sorting out, and such. Little but a nauseous repetition of history gets accomplished when we place our emotional states on the plate of another person in an expectant manner, whether it’s highly reactive or in a well thought-out but philosophically misguided manner.
You get to figure out your own responses to things and then decide how best to serve the relationship’s intimacy. Will you make it beautiful with something lovely and parsed out? Will you infantilize it by granting someone the power that only your parent in childhood had? Will you exhaust it by modifying your behavior in anticipation of someone else’s negative experience, which may or may not be rooted in their own childhood and not in your behavior itself? Many choices!