At times people set the tone in a conversation or an interaction and then accuse a person of behaving in a way that is inaccurate. To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at the strained and hostile conversation I had with a friend about her purchase of a home. This person was about to purchase a home with her mother and sister. Her mother, who had recently gone on early retirement, and her sister who had a minimum wage job. I asked her, had she sat down with them and worked out the numbers, you know, established exactly what each person would be responsible for paying and about how much it would be? Reasonable question, right?
What ensued was about twenty minutes of ducking and dodging as she actively avoided answering the question. She said she didn’t need to do so. She said she already knew what the expenses would be, even though she hadn’t sat down and worked out the numbers; she said she didn’t have enough information to do so; she said it was too soon. When I asked her was there a reason why she didn’t want to sit down with her mother and sister, I was accused of “setting her up” or “trying to manipulate her”; she said I was trying to get her to do what I wanted her to do; i.e., talk to her mother about the finances involved in purchasing this home she’d already confessed she couldn’t really afford and would have to get a second job to make ends meet.
I liken this behavior to something my son does which drives my daughter crazy. He was diagnosed with autism at age two and he loves to play, often without the cooperation of the other person. One of his most favorite games is to run up behind you and do something really annoying and then run away excitedly, screaming in glee. You see, he wants you to chase him. This is his idea of fun!!! Except, half the time my daughter doesn’t want to chase him; she wants him to leave her alone. So to the passerby it might seem as if they are indeed playing tag. However, it’s only the fact that my son is hitting her and running away that gives that illusion.
My friend accused me of badgering her; of attempting to manipulate her into doing what I wanted her to do. Clearly, she certainly interpreted it that way but that’s only because she was actively resisting answering the question. Had she answered the question in whatever way she deemed appropriate, we would have proceeded with or ended the conversation quite naturally. However, like my daughter with my son, she wanted to play tag; but the only problem is she didn’t say so. Instead, she pretended. She pretended that I was playing the “game” with her.
The game went like this: She avoided my question (ran) and I pursued her (asked her the question again or for clarification). She gave just enough false information to cause confusion (lied about her intentions, feelings, misrepresented what she’d done and was going to do). When I asked for clarification, she became increasingly hostile, complaining that I was badgering her and had sinister motives.
All of this was designed and created by her resistance, her reluctance to participate in the conversation, while pretending that she had no problem discussing what I had asked in the first place.
When I asked this friend of twenty-five years if it made any sense that I would want to manipulate her or try to get her to do what I wanted her to do in regards to her purchasing a home, when I asked her had I ever done that before or could she articulate what in the world I would get out of it, she confessed that no, I hadn’t; that it didn’t even make sense and that I wouldn’t get anything out of it.
But still she held onto her baseless belief. Why? She said this is what she felt. She didn’t receive that I cared about her; that I was concerned, she instead felt attacked and she was operating under a rationale that dictated if she felt attacked, it must be true. Surely, that’s often the case. I am one to always council trusting your instincts but in this situation, I must confess, the person I’m describing projects blame whenever she wants to deny something or avoid responsibility. I’ve watched her in action enough times to identify that behavior. But lately I had noticed it was getting worse. She had graduated from college with a Masters Degree in Social Work and begun practicing as a counselor for troubled teens and this person was now using her intellect in personal relationships in a very disturbing way.
A few days later she called and said she realized that the conversation we had took a turn for the worst because she was behaving passive/aggressively and not stating that I had upset her. What had upset her? She couldn’t really say but she was proud that she was now able to state how she felt because she’d never done that before. She wanted me to be proud of her, too.
She went a step further and said she believed I also contributed to the miscommunication by being dishonest about my feelings. I was worried about her, she said, and not communicating that but trying to force her to do things my way. To support this ill-founded contention, she said that she actually remembered me saying something to that effect. When pressed, she couldn’t remember the exact words or when it was said; she alluded to a past conversation vaguely but somehow she was sure.
In truth, I hadn’t said any such thing. The past conversation she alluded to never happened but she was dogmatic; she wanted to believe it was true. I remembered exactly what I said and when I said it but more importantly why I’d said it. She, on the other hand, could not express one coherent thought. She jumbled conversations together and misquoted me. If she did quote me correctly, when she could even remember what was said, she did so out of context. She’d say I said something a day earlier than I had in fact said it. She’d say I said something in response, not to what was actually said, but to a whole different conversation. Sometimes she’d say “It was something like; I can’t remember”. Half the time she could not remember what happened or when, however, amazingly, she was adamant. She was certain.
Sadly, it took me years to realize that she was behaving like my family. My family had always opted to blame me for their own flaws. Hello, nice to meet you. I am the family scapegoat.
If there was an issue they didn’t want to address, the problem then became my desire to “argue” or “ruin a good time” or “live in the past” and not their wish to ignore the elephant in the room. My family, most especially my mother, would say you had said things you never said, that you had done things you’ve never done — whatever needed to be said or done to make what she was saying true, she’d not hesitate. None of it had to be remotely true. I would be a liar, a troublemaker, a miserable person; any and everything she could think of as long as it justified her feelings at the time. I was fat, when I was really thin. I was dumb, when I was actually very smart. I couldn’t remember things clearly, when I actually remembered quite well. With my friend, I had actually recreated the relationship that I had with my family. This wasn’t the first, second or third time either.
I immediately distanced myself from this person, as I had many times before, but as she always did, she tried to reconnect with me. In a heartfelt email, she said she was in anguish over our last conversation. From my perspective, she wanted me to put her mind at ease but she was not going to address her behavior or take any responsibility for it. She said clearly she knew she’d offended me but what was clear to me is she wanted me to alleviate her anguish and make her feel better about falsely accusing me and attacking my character. She did value our friendship. She did like being my friend, but she didn’t know how to be my friend. So, what was it in for me?
The problem, between me and this friend is that she was feeling guilty and she needed me to make her feel better. When I reflected on our relationship, this was something she had done so many times I’m embarrassed to say how many. She’d behave in a selfish, mean and ostracizing manner and then she’d feel bad about it. Then she’d come to me, the person she’d done this to, for comfort. This was just another example of the way she projected her need for unconditional love from a mother onto me. She didn’t want to have the conversation with her mother and her sister about the house because she couldn’t have the conversation with them about the house. They were not interested in helping her or being responsible and she knew it. She knew it but she did not want to know it.
However, because I was not her mother, although she projected her issues with her mother onto me, she could have conversations with me. She could even blame me for her reluctance to be honest and open, her need to avoid talking about subjects that she wanted to ignore. She could do all of that and expect me to still be her friend. In having these conversations, she’d try to manipulate me to love her, forgive her, tolerate her, care for her and provide her with unconditional acceptance and understanding while at the same time she did not reciprocate. She asked for much but did not offer much in return.
Unfortunately, all of her education coupled with her weekly therapy sessions had given her a vocabulary that she used dishonestly. She didn’t really understand what words like: accountability, reciprocating, misleading and intent meant. She knew how to use them in a sentence but they held no meaning for her and never translated into a change of her behavior. The truth is, she told herself whatever she wanted to be true and if a thought popped up that seemed irrational or without basis, she did not miss a beat in accepting it. It was true if she wanted it to be true.
In our last conversation she told me I should know that she gets overwhelmed when she thinks about things too much and should not be surprised that she hadn’t given any thought to what she said, how she treated me or what she could do to make amends. It was so sad. Here was a person who’s sole interest in a relationship with me was to always feel good, at my expense. She was unwilling to give of herself, perhaps incapable. To me, it didn’t matter.
I knew she expected forgiveness and our friendship to immediately go back to the way it was after she’d done something insensitive or mean. She’d always been like that. She liked to be treated as if she mattered but only offered mediocre treatment to others in return. She made no effort to right her wrongs and when her bad behavior was met with withdrawal from the recipient, she panicked and reached out for the very person she’d hurt for comfort. How could I have a relationship with this person? Were we ever having a relationship? How could I honestly be her friend?
I realized, with much sadness, that I couldn’t do it any longer. The friendship was over. I realized another thing, too. As an adult, I’d been having these kinds of relationships with men and women over and over. The universe was trying to teach me how to handle what I could not handle as a child; how to build healthy boundaries; how to not take responsibility for the refusal of others to acknowledge/manage/address their feelings. My mother wanted me to take care of her. My father wanted me to make sure the family was okay. They passed on their job to me. If something went wrong in the family, it was always my fault and I was looked to fix it. But the truth was it was never my fault and I could not fix it. As an adult, I still gravitated to people like this and they to me. Like runners in a relay race, my family/friends/siblings passed the baton of responsibility to me in every interaction. I was responsible for our relationship. I was responsible for how they felt. I was responsible for how I ended up feeling after they hurt me. I was responsible for fixing it and making everything better. I had to learn to put my hands up, step back, and not take the baton. I was not IT. I did not want to be IT. I did not want to play the game.