“We Need to Talk” – or Is It Off the Table?

Once again, Mo has managed to articulate so much of how I feel about yet another topic – the dreaded “We need to talk“.

I’m so right there with you on the urgency of discussing issues as they come up, but sometimes still needing processing time before raising the questions, along with the abject terror and complete panic that any version of “We need to talk”, or “I want to go over X with you” brings up. Once I’m ready to deal with something, though, I really need to handle it right then and there, with no further delay.

The one thing that really is absolutely clear to me is that it is absolute death to a relationship to ever table things when issues do arise, pretty much no matter what else is going on in either person’s life or the relationship. All they do is pile up and fester, and build up a backlog and logjam until they totally drown out everything else, and reach a point where it becomes absolutely impossible to unravel the mess because you end up not even knowing where to start any more, and the resentments have built to an impossible level.

If you take too much time to process before bringing the issue up and working through it together, the moment is past. Life moves on to the next thing. It gets shoved down where it begins building up and festering, and isn’t resolved by the time the next thing comes up.

In her brilliant book Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, Mira Kirshenbaum says that she has never in her entire career seen a relationship survive when “off-the-table-itis” is in play. When people refuse to talk about an issue, and keep on not wanting to talk about it (or more than one issue), relationships die. Period. If your partner “consistently blocks your attempts to bring up topics or raise questions, particularly about things you care about”, off-the-table-itis is at play. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is, whether it relates directly to the relationship or not. Blocking discussion of any sort blocks communications altogether.

Off-the-table-itis is dismissive. It’s inherently belittling and minimizing. It is neglectful and uncaring. It is cruel and unkind. It tells your partner that you really don’t give a shit about them or what they have to say, and speaks far more loudly than anything else you might do or say to the contrary.

Off-the-table-itis is in play when your partner expects you to listen endlessly to his litany of repeated woes (especially when he does nothing to change them), yet shuts you up when you bring up issues of your own that he doesn’t want to hear. When it’s OK for him to drone on and on about the same problems day after day for years, but the second or third time you bring up one of your own, somehow you are just adding to his own load intolerably and he shuts you up. When he acts as if his troubles are more important than yours and should take priority.

And as such, off-the-table-itis is a particularly insidious form of abuse that is not well-recognized for what it is, especially since it may well be couched in such drama as the perpetrator painting himself as the victim, often of issues entirely outside the relationship such as at work or with his family, depicting himself as one who needs to be taken care of more than you do. He then turns you into the bad guy if you want to still sort things out, or protest something he does, thereby only adding to his woes.

When I get hit with that “We have to talk” thing, it sometimes sends me into a blind panic, particularly if the relationship is on shaky grounds and he’s been engaging in clear off-the-table-itis. I may start looping and freaking out, may even run away initially, maybe even screaming. That’s rare, but it has happened to me. But given half a chance, I will calm down quickly and come right back to the table, as long as the other party doesn’t end up going off looping away on his own, freaking out at my own freak out.

And I will usually come back within minutes, perhaps an hour or two at most. Given the chance. None of this days to weeks later after the rest of life and endless stresses calm down stuff.

Actually, I’ll come back pretty much immediately anyways, no matter what he does. But his reaction at that point will determine whether or not the conversation actually ends up taking place. If he’s still there, it will. If he’s flipped out and thought I was blocking things, it may not.

But I will be there, and I will discuss it.

I need to be able to come back to the table quickly to ensure that we both keep the conversation open, no matter what, and to not table things. When issues arise, I also really badly need to be able to address them right then, when they are particularly urgent, and not put them off until later.

If life events are such that a complete discussion is not possible at that moment, at minimum I need reassurance that things are OK – and that my concerns are both legitimate and being taken seriously. Attempts to dismiss my concerns will only make my need to talk about it RIGHT NOW escalate.

Because life and its stresses don’t stop just because they’re piling up, God knows, and putting off discussions until even later in the week (never mind indefinitely) can lead to a total logjam and turn weekends and other time together into things to dread when a pile of crap has built up, especially when you’re with someone who is masterfully capable of twisting everything you both say to the point that you can no longer keep your own thoughts straight on one issue, never mind a logjam that have now all collided together and become hopelessly intertwined.

My father taught me to never go to bed angry at my partner. It’s not always completely possible in busy lives, but it’s a goal I have always worked towards. It’s mostly doable if the communications are open enough, but is completely impossible if they are not, and if one person keeps blocking the discussion. Or has had a history of blocking other issues that have ended up festering, even if they are not related. It is the blocking of communication of any sort that stops it all dead in its tracks.

I’d give my eye teeth and maybe even my right arm to find someone who could handle this the way Mo’s The Dominant Guy does. Who is secure enough to contain my fears and hold me until they abate, and can carry on with the conversation when either of us needs to. Who is both willing and able to meet me at the table like an adult instead of a petulant two year old.

April 30, 2011

When Is Abuse Not Abuse?

One of the things that has struck me as I read and learn more about abuse is how so much of the literature on the subject seems to pathologize a lot that is either entirely normal, or which can easily be explained by other means, ranging from the organic to poor communications skills, to people reaching the end of their rope, and more, some of which cannot be changed, while some of it just requires some training.  Any list of characteristics and behaviors of abusers will always contain items of this type, that can be either truly abusive or not, depending upon the rest of the context and circumstances.

Forgetting is an example.

In her book “The Verbally Abusive Relationship – How to Recognise It and How to Respond”, Patricia Evans reportedly has this to say on the subject:

“Forgetting involves both denial and covert manipulation.

“The declaration by the abuser that what occurred didn’t occur is abusive. Everyone forgets what happened now and then. However, consistently forgetting interactions which have a great impact on another person is verbally abusive denial.

“Often, after the partner collects herself after being yelled at or put down, she may try to talk to her mate about it. He will have conveniently “forgotten” the incident, saying, for example, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not going to listen to this.”

“Some abusers seem to consistently forget the promises which are most important to their partners. Often the partner is truly counting on a very important agreement made by her mate.  He will have “forgotten” the agreement.”

Yes, this is unquestionably often a problem.

Some people just have terrible memories, too, often for clearly documentable organic reasons, such as learning disabilities, fibromyalgia or CFIDS, ADHD, or even dementia, and there are likely other possibilities.  Some just have never had good recall of anything.  Some people only forget an occasional thing, while other people have trouble remembering everything, or close to it.  We used to have a saying that “So-and-so would forget her head if it weren’t attached” for people who are particularly forgetful.

It is also not unusual for such people to even forget things that are important to their partners and other people, even when they are most highly motivated to remember them.

It’s hard for people with steel traps for memories to understand that this is just the way life is for a certain segment of the population, but it is.

Even with a variety of reminders and alarms set up to remind a person who is naturally forgetful, they may still forget.  It can be a real curse on a person’s life, and cause them no end of pain and difficulty.

But does that make the forgetter abusive?

Hell no.  It means they’ve got a bad memory, end of story.  This particular person.

Such people often suffer badly because of that poor memory.  It can cause them many problems in life, both personal and professional.  It hurts badly to see someone they care about hurting because the forgetful person didn’t remember something the partner may have been counting on.  To be accused of not caring about someone else’s feelings because of forgetfulness and a bad memory can be absolutely devastating – especially if the problem has already been explained multiple times, and affects other areas of that party’s life.

The distinction between abuse and not-abuse is actually often largely in the frequency of what is said or done – but also in the reactions when the problem is pointed out, and in the particulars of any given circumstance.

In the case of forgetfulness, does the person ‘fess up once they realize they’ve forgotten something?  Do they accept it at face value, or do they get belligerent and protest and deny it, even when you point the truth out?  Maybe they really don’t know what you’re talking about initially, and dismiss it as a result, but when reminded of it, and particularly if proof or documentation is shown, do they apologize?  Or do they still just blow you off as the example above describes, even when the evidence is incontrovertible?

On the other hand, when you know for a fact that someone has said or done something, and then denies it, even when confronted with evidence, and they still deny it and tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about or the like, as in Evans’s example, then that very much can be abusive.  Gaslighting.  Might be; isn’t necessarily in and of itself.  The continuing denial in the face of evidence and proof kind of locks it in, though.

When your head is screaming that you must be crazy because you know you heard (or saw, or didn’t hear or see) whatever it was, and they still deny it, then you should realize that it is most likely that other person who has the problem, and not you.

In an 80+ year old woman, especially one who is slowing down, this kind of forgetting and denial of what was/was not said or done are more or less to be expected – and excused, much of the time.  Memory loss of this and other sorts is often a part of even early dementia; in fact, this is often one of the first signs of it.

In a healthy 50-something (or younger) highly educated professional man, who prides himself on his good memory?  Especially one whose livelihood may depend upon it?

Not so much.

And if you’ve just told them something – like a new hard limit – and not two minutes later they have totally forgotten it, and start doing the exact thing you just told them was now verboten?  Or they claim that they “didn’t know that was what you meant” when you point out that they’ve just done the very same thing they were doing before, that you had just prohibited?

With this kind of person, you can be much more certain that something else is going on that has nothing to do with organic causes, and everything to do with either actual malice, not giving a shit about his partner, an utter inability to control himself, raging anger at women in general (or men, as the case may be), a deliberate bid to control his partner in a negative way or to make her think she’s crazy (gaslighting), to deflect attention from something else, or some other nefarious reason why he would claim he doesn’t remember something you expected he would – or forgets things you know he ought to have remembered well.

And that, my friends, is when it becomes abusive, particularly when it happens repeatedly, even if the details of the situations in question vary.  Which they will.

When someone who normally does have a reliably excellent memory for other things, for example, seems to go completely (and eventually totally predictably) stupid in some situations, like when he doesn’t get what he wants, there you have a real abusive element.

But just being forgetful?  And denying it when it’s mentioned?  In and of itself, that is really not a problem.  Except when it gets to the point that it is, as discussed here.

Issues such as this are often just questions of degree.  And they almost always require looking at the big picture, and taking all of the elements into consideration.  And really looking to see what the truth actually may be or may not be.

The point, short story long, is that you cannot just accept all of these various lists entirely at face value, lest you start seeing abuse all over the place where it really may not exist – and that is a real danger.  You’ve got to dig beyond the surface of what is said, and get into the details of a particular situation, including context, before you can really know for sure, even if you’re the one living it, never mind if you’re just an onlooker.

It’s also necessary to take backstories into account.

If, for example, someone tells you that his partner was abusive – maybe screamed and yelled at him – did he also tell you that that only happened after he had ignored her safeword multiple times, did things to her that he knew were unsafe, didn’t know what he was doing despite claiming he did, and injured her in the process?  Perhaps multiple times?

Or after he violated hard limits, including those given just minutes before?  Repeatedly?

And then played dumb, saying he “…didn’t know that was what [she] meant by [X]…”?

Or maybe after he cheated on her and got caught, and tried to weasel out of it with some lame excuse, trying to somehow blame it on her and make her into the bad guy instead for calling him on it?

Or maybe he’d been repeatedly wanting to put problems on the back burner to discuss later when he wasn’t under so much stress, but “later” never came, because maybe his life was so full of stress that there wasn’t ever going to be a time when he wasn’t stressed, and she just finally wanted to deal with something now and quit putting things off?  Or so many things got taken off the table in this way that it simply became impossible to ever deal with them all, even if “later” ever did actually come?  And maybe squelched issues had just built up to a breaking point that she could simply no longer tolerate?

What Mira Kirshenbaum calls “off-the-table-itis“, in which various topics are literally taken “off the table” for discussion, for whatever reason, can easily be the death of a relationship, by itself – and can lead to unbearable frustration on the part of the partner who has her issues so removed, dismissed, and not dealt with or addressed.

Someone who screams gratutiously at her partner for trivial reasons like not taking out the trash or wearing a shirt she doesn’t like is quite a different thing from one who screams at him given these kind of legitimate provocations, among others.  It would be nice if we could live life without any kind of screaming at all, but there comes a time when it may be the only thing we have left, and people being people, sometimes we just eventually erupt.

“Eventually” being the key word here.  Not as an initial response.  Not in response to trivial matters.  Not as a steady diet or typical response or way of being in the world in general.  But eventually, at some point, given a lot of provocation, and following many, many attempts to resolve issues in other ways.

Sometimes screaming (or harsh words) may even be used strategically and deliberately on a given occasion, to try to get through to someone who hasn’t been reachable in any other way, by any form of reason and explanation.  Maybe it isn’t her norm, but only an attempt to try another tack when everything else she’s been able to think of and try over a considerable period of time has failed to reach him.

Sometimes a cigar is really just a cigar.

And sometimes it really ain’t.