I saw my therapist for the second time yesterday, and we went over the four basic concepts that explain a person’s behavior:
- skills deficit
- thoughts and beliefs
In the context of my marriage, I am attempting to lay down a history which is, of course, solely based in my perception and narrative, and he is trying to help me understand it from a perspective that is not based in pathology i.e. “Your husband is a narcissist of the fragile variety.”
I tend to view people through pathologies because I live in a household full of pathologies. “Your daughter has mood disorder NOS,” and “Your youngest daughter is HFA-ASD with SPD and GAD,” and “Your daughter has schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.” I often better understand people through the filter of the DSM-V, and that can be dehumanizing. It isn’t really fair to sit down with a therapist and ask, “So, what is he?”
Well, he’s a person. He might feel to me like a giant lizard a good deal of the time, but he’s a person. I might even call him “Lizard Man” when he’s displaying amygdala-driven behaviors, but he’s still a person. Remembering that is really important so that I don’t engage in splitting (seeing someone as all-good or all-bad).
So, for my therapist to get a better picture of my situation, we had to answer the question: Why is my husband such an asshole? All my friends are asking it. I’m asking it. I may as well type it out loud. So, why? I know that there are readers who have very asshole-y spouses and are wondering the same thing. Let’s dive right in.
Skills deficit: I deal with enough mental illness in my house to be very familiar with the idea of the skills deficit. What does this mean? It means that a person doesn’t know how to act because they were never taught. We’ve all been there except we were usually kids and teens. When I was younger, my mother would make me sit with guests in the living room and entertain them. I would moan about it before the guests were scheduled to arrive. “C’mon, Mom! I don’t wanna!” And, my mother was sure to put me in my place with a very stern, “Oh, you will sit yourself down in that living room and talk to Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So until I say otherwise, do you understand me, young lady?” I did just what she said rather than experience my mother’s wrath; and this is one way that we learn skills. We are parented. We learn how to take care of someone who is sick by helping a sibling or parent. We learn how to navigate awkward social scenarios, how to host, how to engage in small talk, and all the rest of it. Our friends in high school might push us to try to talk to that guy or girl we like, or they might drag us to some stupid party we would rather avoid. This is, however, how we learn the skills and overcome our own internal inertia that seductively whispers, “Oh, wouldn’t you rather stay home in your disgusting pajama pants and watch a John Hughes movie? It’s so comfortable here. It’s so cold and unwelcoming…out there.” The point here is that it’s not easy to learn these skills because these skills are often learned in uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking situations. We’d rather not, but if you don’t learn them, then you can count on being an asshole later in life simply because no one taught you not to be; or, worse, you never cared to learn better.
Emotions: The emotional component seems to go along with at least one of the others. If we pair it with a skills deficit, then we end up with something like, “I don’t understand why you want me to visit you in the hospital. What am I going to do? Just sit there? There are doctors and nurses and people there to look after you (skills deficit), and I feel angry that you constantly insist that I come there and sit with you when it’s clear that there is nothing for me to do and quite obvious that I have better things to do elsewhere (emotions).”
I have had a similar discussion with my husband in years past. He had a clear skills deficit in How To Be in An Adult Relationship. He also had the anxiety and anger to go with that skills deficit. He didn’t understand what he was doing wrong, and no one was going to tell him otherwise.
It is important to note passive-aggressive behavior here. That is an emotion-driven behavior. Anger becomes covert going deep like a submarine in the ocean, and what appears on the surface of the person is the anger bubbling up from deep within–under their emotional ocean.
Thoughts and Beliefs: Everyone struggles with this one, and thoughts and beliefs almost always pair with Emotions. Let’s go for something obvious and relatable. Most women have thought and then believed that they looked fat. What is so harmful about this line of thinking is that toxic emotions almost always follow the internalized belief. If I were able to look at myself and think, “I think I look fat in these pants,” and then move on, then I might be okay. This is seldom the case. What often follows is a cascade of emotions like self-loathing, shame, and anger directed at myself for even feeling like this.
In a relationship, when one partner is engaging in asshole behavior, s/he may have Thoughts and Beliefs about that behavior. I’ll name a few:
- “I don’t have to help with laundry because that’s women’s work.”
- “My husband should know what I want before I ask.” (this is a Theory of Mind problem)
- “I earn a good living and support my family financially. I shouldn’t have to do anything else.”
- “I have been ‘on’ all day at work. I shouldn’t have to be ‘on’ when I come home.”
Passive-aggressive behavior falls under this category as well because this behavior is also about beliefs. The passive-aggressive person has a belief about anger which causes them not to be able to express their anger openly which is why it becomes covert resulting in passive-aggression.
Behavioral Contingency: This is the most complex. It is:
that possibility that there may or may not be a relationship between an individual’s specific response and the frequency and regularity by which that response has been reinforced. Already, there are expectations on the consequences of behaving in a certain way and these, in turn, shape the behavior. (Psychology Dictionary)