Fighting dirty has destroyed many a relationship. (Please forgive the admitted grammatical incorrectness!) Now, I’ve been making the point that we humans naturally fight and quite a lot. Fighting is simply a part of life, and a much bigger part than many realize or admit. And I’ve also been making the point that neither our anger nor our aggressive instincts are inherently evil. Nature endowed us with both for very good reasons. We’re supposed to take offense at a genuine injustice. And righteous anger is designed to propel us into taking corrective action. But just how we go about that makes all the difference in the world.
Unfortunately, some people simply want to dominate. So, they’re always fighting for position. (See: p. 200 in Character Disturbance.) In some human enterprises I suppose that’s not always such a horrible thing. But it’s a big problem when it comes to truly intimate, mutually respectful relationships. And when a person wants to win, be on top, and in control too badly, they sometimes stop at nothing. Such destructive fighting wreaks havoc in relationships.
Fighting dirty is fighting without principle-guided limits and boundaries. It’s placing winning over everything. And it’s using whatever tactics or psychological “weapons” you can think of to secure the dominant position.
Well over 25 years ago, I was given a gift. Aggrieved relationship partners were telling me some very similar stories. They told me how “crazy” they felt. And they were showing signs of depression. They couldn’t make sense of their relationship partner’s behavior. In their gut, they felt their partner was simply out to win, dominate or control. But they couldn’t objectively prove it. When they confronted their partner, they would deny wrongdoing. Or, they would offer an “explanation” that seemed to make sense. Worse, they would somehow make it seem like they were the victim or their accuser was actually the villain. So, they began doubting what their gut told them must be true. And, accordingly, they ended up feeling crazy.
What I learned from all the stories inspired me to write In Sheep’s Clothing. And at the time, we had no label for the “crazy-making” behavior we now call gaslighting. (See: pp. 133-137 in In Sheep’s Clothing.) (See also: Covert Aggression Causes Gaslighting.) Over a million copies later in several countries all over the world attest to the widespread nature of this phenomenon . The gist of the book is simple: manipulators are a special breed of dirty fighters. They’re covert-aggressors. They use a variety of clever “tactics” to appear benign while getting the better of you. And they cloak their aggressive nature under a veil of civility. They’re adept at the art of impression management. (See also:
For too long the major psychology paradigms overly focused on people’s fears and insecurities. In fact, some paradigms frame every maladaptive behavior as a manifestation of a person’s fears or insecurity. Few paradigms have adequately focused on people’s aggressive tendencies. And fewer still get it right when it comes to understanding the actual typical motives for aggressive behavior. This is tragic. When those you go to for help can’t see the problem for what it truly is, you can’t possibly get the help you need. Worse, you may even end up feeling re-victimized. These days, we recognize this phenomenon. And some refer to it as therapy-induced trauma. (See also: Character Disturbance: Getting the Right Kind of Help.)
I remember the first time someone dragged their serially philandering spouse in for a session in an attempt to save their failing marriage. They’d been in counseling before, to no avail. The husband was, by nature, a sensation-seeker. And he had significant empathy deficits. Additionally, in his eyes, pretty women, were objects to possess and toys to play and gratify with. And in his sense of superiority and feelings of entitlement, he saw those he was able to charm and seduce as fair prey to exploit. Still, the counselor the couple had seen before assumed his problem must be a “fear of intimacy.” Moreover, the counselor assumed that fear was rooted in insecurity and a compensatory need to prove worth.
No wonder this poor woman got no help! The lack of true intimacy and mutual regard in her relationship was no doubt the problem. But it wasn’t rooted in her partner’s fear or insecurity. I would have to confront some very different issues before things could get better. And along the way I’d have to develop the art of benign confrontation. (See also: Learning to Confront Benignly and Effectively.) I’d especially have to confront this woman’s partner’s penchant for fighting dirty. It was just one of the many manifestations of his character disturbance.
Next week I’ll be talking about fighting fairly and constructively. And I’ll have some examples to share.