March 28, 2018
Sometimes people find themselves in a position where they feel like a victim, where the cards are stacked against them and they are guaranteed to lose no matter how good or right they are. This can happen in any number of life circumstances, especially in relationships.
Couples who come to counseling are often locked in a dynamic where one or both people believe they are the victims of an unfair or unreasonable partner. When you are in this place, you believe you are giving more than you are getting, or that what you give is more valuable than what they give you. When this goes on for so long you are convinced your partner has no interest in giving you what you need. You feel disappointed, frustrated, and probably even betrayed. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you also feel powerless, because none of your asking, demanding and complaining have been able to get your partner to change – even if they sometimes acknowledge things need to change.
When you get to this place, you start to see yourself as a victim of your partner. Your partner seems to have all the power in the relationship. You believe that you have already done everything you can to make things better, and it hasn’t worked. Your partner can decide whether or not to change, but they are not listening to you, so you have no say in the matter.
In this position, where your partner seems much more powerful than you, it is easy to start attacking from a victim position. This is where you start lashing out at your partner. On some level you no longer believe that your partner cares about your wants or needs, so nothing you do really matters. The only thing left is to vent your frustration.
When this happens, part of you doesn’t really believe you can hurt your partner. One reason is when you feel powerless you may unconsciously see your partner as an adult, and you feel like a child. Young children think that adults are all-powerful, so your child self can’t imagine having enough strength or power to hurt your adult partner. Another reason is you perceive your partner to be unaffected by you, and don’t believe anything you say or do can do any damage to them.
When you are in this place, it is easy to take off the gloves and emotionally hit your partner with everything you’ve got. You want to hurt them, because at least that would show you matter.
People in this place are in fight/flight/freeze mode. They are, quite literally, not thinking rationally. They often say things about their partner they would never normally say, sometimes things that they don’t believe are true. Unfortunately, your partner will believe that you believe what you say.
The worst-case scenario is when you are both in this state of mind at the same time. You both believe yourself to be powerless and treated unfairly in the relationship. You both believe that the other person is the only one with the power to change. You therefore both lash out in helpless frustration, not realizing that you each are very capable of hurting the other.
This sounds bleak, and indeed is very harmful. You do not have to stay stuck in this place, however.
In order to change this dynamic, you need to de-escalate your brain out of fight/flight/freeze mode, and get yourself to where you can interact with your partner without going right back into that mode. Until you can do that, you can’t do any useful work on the relationship.
When your brain is activated into fight/flight/freeze mode, you believe you are in danger, and the only important thing is to neutralize or escape the danger. In this case, your partner appears to be the danger. Your partner can’t simultaneously be a source of comfort and safety and a source of danger.
The “natural” thing for your brain to do is to try to get your partner to stop being dangerous. The usual way to do this is to disempower your partner and/or get them to acknowledge that they are threatening you, often in the form of trying to get them to admit that they are wrong or their behavior is bad. Unfortunately, this is the best possible way to convince your partner that you are a threat to them, and will encourage them to defend themselves by attacking you.
The quickest way to defuse this kind of situation is to acknowledge your own responsibility. When you can say, “I understand why you are upset with me,” you are telling your partner’s brain that you are not a threat. This requires sincerity. Humans are very good at recognizing insincerity in others, and your partner will probably recognize it if you don’t mean what you are saying. If you say something like, “I understand why you are upset with me, but do you understand that what you said was just as bad?” then your partner is unlikely to hear, much less believe, the first part.
In order to do this, you need to defuse your own fight/flight/freeze response. If you don’t know any ways to do this or find it difficult, consult with a counselor for help.
We would all prefer that our partner be the first to de-escalate and reach out. However, if you insist your partner go first, then you are back to giving them all the power and making yourself the victim. Although the more primitive part of your brain doesn’t understand this, you are actually more powerful when you are able to acknowledge that you share responsibility for the problem. Doing so also requires that you analyze the situation to discover what you contributed to the problem, and will help shift you into thinking with your more advanced brain instead of reacting with your primitive brain.
You may be better at this than your partner. You may have to set a boundary and insist that your partner get professional help (such as counseling) or go with you to couples counseling. Keep in mind, however, that most of us are quite poor at assessing our own skills and behaviors compared to our partner’s. Being convinced that your partner is the problem does not mean it is true.
There is a complex dance between you and your partner’s conscious and unconscious minds and doing it well requires understanding, patience, and practice. Timing is important. If your partner is extremely activated, the most skillful response may fall on deaf ears. Knowing your partner is important. Some people really need a time out when things get heated, while others interpret withdrawal as abandonment. There is no single “right way” to engage in this process, and only by exploring and practicing with your partner – with professional help, if necessary – can you develop dance steps that work for you, your partner, and your relationship.
NOTE: Some people are victims of physical or emotional abuse or exploitation. This article does NOT apply to these situations. If you are in an abusive or exploitative relationship, changing yourself will not change the situation. If you suspect your relationship is abusive or exploitative, please reach out to a mental health professional, domestic violence shelter or hotline.
Article Written by: Tod Fiste, LPC