Some notes from this excellent article, written about married relationships, but with concepts applicable to any relationship. There are three parts that I found most applicable.
As I read the first, I thought about how I spent years – decades, really – trying to somehow earn a place in my own FOO, and how those attempts almost always started with my sister, and how they were always unsuccessful:
…partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
Boy does that feel familiar.
Yet my sister (and apparently others) got upset over the fact that I didn’t make the “right” bids at the last reunion: “I know that I specifically asked you about your knitting classes, and whether you were doing anything with the house. In contrast, you did not ask me about ANYTHING — how difficult would it have been for you to say, When does school start for you? or, What are you teaching this year? or, How do you feel about being a grandmother? It was interesting that the universal post-reunion comment last year was that [you] did not ask anybody anything about what they were doing”
The fact that during the first 12 waking hours of that weekend, I had been deliberately snubbed by her, as well as attacked and yelled at by my youngest brother, of course had no bearing on this at all…
Why would anyone feel like asking someone anything, when they have made it plain that they can’t even be bothered to give you a hug after not seeing you for a year? Or when the first thing they do when they see you (again after a year) is invite you out for a walk, and then yell at you?
Yet it is expected that I will continue to be interested in THEM, no matter how they treat me. And the obviousness of the score-keeping is just disturbing.
Of course, not every interaction with every FOO member has been horrible. There have been good times, with some people. But the alliances that those people have with the other ones prevent them from being allowed to extend any bids, or accept any that were made.
Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there.
I wrote about this idea before, with respect to my parents’ relationship. But it’s also applicable to a scapegoat. Blaming and criticizing the scapegoat is so important, it’s nearly impossible to admit that they could ever do or be right.
And finally, there is this section:
One of the telltale signs… inability to connect over each other’s good news… being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality. How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship… in general, couples responded to each other’s good news in four different ways that they called: passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive.
Let’s say that one partner had recently received the excellent news that she got into medical school. She would say something like “I got into my top choice med school!”
…In the third kind of response, active destructive, the partner would diminish the good news his partner just got: “Are you sure you can handle all the studying? And what about the cost? Med school is so expensive!”
Reading this just stopped me in my tracks, because once again — there’s a name for it. I recognized this behavior long ago, but I didn’t know what to call it.
Years ago, in April 2008, I got an email from my FIL that simply said, “Funny pictures of cats with captions,” and it had a link to a website where I was fortunate enough to fall into a group of the funniest, cleverest, and above all, kindest people I had ever known. I’ve traveled the world to meet them: New Zealand, England, and The Netherlands, as well as too many meetings to count in the US. (This year, we’re going back to England to spend Xmas with a couple of them.) Many of them have supported me steadfastly through this journey of jettisoning people who refuse to love me. They have, in fact, become, in large part, my new family.
In 2010, I was pictured and quoted in the New York Times after attending a Mariner’s baseball game with the site CEO and hundreds of other fans. Can you guess what my FOO’s reaction was to my fun and awesome news? Oh yes. Passive constructive, at best. I especially remember my sister greeting my news with less than lukewarm interest — which was odd, given that she seemed to appreciate that I would email her a selection of the funniest postings every week. (Of course, that was of some benefit to her. Being happy for me about the article was, of course, asking too much.)
But it goes a lot deeper than that. When my husband and I were planning our trip to New Zealand at the end of 2008, I was hesitant about posting anything about it in the group. I distinctly remember that being an issue for me. For weeks I was actively resisting my natural impulse to post about the trip. Not because of safety: because, I realized later, I was expecting to receive criticism, jealousy, disinterest — anything but “active constructive” responses.
I was afraid of ruining my new-found friendships with my good news.
How fucked up is THAT?
The reason I know that’s what I was expecting is that I was both shocked and overjoyed when the responses were, instead, overwhelmingly “active constructive.”
My friends were EXCITED for us! My friends wanted us to post pictures! No one was jealous of us being able to go on such an exciting, expensive trip. No one was telling us how crazy we were to be meeting up with an online friend. Everyone was so positive and happy for us. Not one negative or jealous thing was posted on the website.
And I was grateful, as well as stunned.
One member in NZ privately contacted me, and offered her help with the planning. We ended up going to meet her, and we stayed at her house, watched a beautiful sunset off her back deck, met her cat, and spent New Year’s Eve and Day with her. What a great time. (She didn’t even get upset when we accidentally backed the RV over a small retaining wall and crushed it.) We had the World’s Most Not-Northerly Cheezemeet. She died of breast cancer a few years later and I still miss her. But I’m so glad we had the chance to meet in person, even if only for a day, and I got to hear her voice, which was beautifully deep and rich, with that wonderful New Zealand accent.
That experience of getting a friendly, kind, “active constructive” response from a bunch of people who at that time were essentially acquaintances was the very beginning of this journey.
That was when I started figuring out that the way my FOO acted towards me was not the same. They did not act towards me the way that nice, normal people, with no axe to grind or psychological baggage about me, acted towards me.
Side story: In fact, the one person attached to my FOO who has always treated me similarly is also a person with no baggage about me: my BIL. My sister’s husband has always been kind to me, and I was able to recognize this even at the age of 13, when my oldest niece was born, and my siblings and my mother and I all traveled to their home for the baptism.
During this visit, one evening after dinner “the boys” were going to watch a Dirty Harry movie (this was back when VCR’s were a new-fangled thing and watching ANY MOVIE YOU WANTED, or at least any one they had at the video rental place, was incredibly novel).
I wanted to watch too, but my mother didn’t want me to, saying I was “too young to understand it”. I now think what she really wanted was for me to “help her with” (in other words, “do”) the dishes in the kitchen.
But my BIL stuck up for me, saying I was plenty old enough to watch the movie, and he even let me sit in his recliner with him, and I remember him telling me, “If there’s anything you don’t understand, ask me and I’ll explain it.” I’ve always remembered that small kindness, probably because it stood out like a fucking beacon from my normal familial interactions.
Getting back to the NZ trip: in contrast, I know that not one person from my FOO ever asked us about it. How’s that for scorekeeping? But you have to understand that this was a huge event for us: a three-week trip to the other side of the world, further than anyone else had ever gone, except maybe my father during his days in the Coast Guard — as well as it was in celebration of my husband’s earning his first sabbatical. Lots of milestones.
And I remember that we brought our laptop full of pictures to the next reunion, hoping to share about our wonderful trip, and finding no one cared.
And it’s not that they aren’t capable of doing it. Now that I know the difference, I know it happens between others in the family.
You would think that all these clues would have added up a whole lot sooner for me, but what this shows is that up until I met my online group, I had very little “normal” to compare and contrast with my lifetime of experience. In the same way that an abused kid grows up thinking abuse is “normal”, the three negative modes of response were what I was used to, and what I thought was more-or-less “normal” among people who professed to love each other. I’m so thankful that I found a place to learn otherwise, and real friends who truly love me, and who will hug me tightly whenever and wherever we happen to meet.