The Four Elements of Asshole Behavior

I saw my therapist for the second time yesterday, and we went over the four basic concepts that explain a person’s behavior:

  1. skills deficit
  2. emotions
  3. thoughts and beliefs
  4. contingency

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)

 In simple terms it means that certain responses were rewarded.  So, the question to ask is: Has the asshole response been rewarded? One is wont to deny this.  Who would ever…er…create an asshole? Well, let’s look at this in detail.  If you ask your asshole to clean the bathroom, and s/he throws things at you while shouting invective about your mother, then what will you do? Will you a) Stand your ground and insist that s/he clean that bathroom and leave your mother out of this or b) run for the hills and never make that request again? If you’re a woman and the asshole in question is a man, then you will most likely choose b.  A man would most likely choose b as well.  This is abusive behavior.  Who wants to be abused? This is, however, behavior modification.  The asshole in question has now learned that s/he can throw a colossal tantrum to avoid contributing.
Of course, there is always the Silent Treatment.  “Sure, I’ll clean the bathroom.”  Then, s/he doesn’t speak to you for weeks.  This is also emotionally abusive and very effective.  Once you figure out why you’re being frozen out of the relationship, then you’ll think twice before asking that favor again.
What about feigned incompetence? “Oh yeah, I gotcha covered! Clean bathroom coming right up!”  And s/he acts like s/he’s never seen a toilet brush or cleaning solution.  Ever.  The bathroom is actually more disgusting after s/he’s cleaned it than before s/he began.  You would have to be a moron to ask for help with this task again.  And, voilà, the behavior was rewarded in each case because each behavior garnered the desired response which was getting out of doing the task.
Abusive relationships of all sorts seem to be full of contingencies.  Mine is, and I am rather curious as to what the plan will be moving forward.
It is helpful for me to be able to step back and gain a better understanding of human behavior from this perspective.  It doesn’t fix anything at this point, but I feel less helpless in that I can understand what I’m looking at and experiencing a bit more.  I can see him as a person more than I experience him as an asshole.  This is important.




One Comment on “The Four Elements of Asshole Behavior

  1. Pingback: 5 Keys For Forgiving Yourself For Your Past Even If Others Won’t | Triffany Hammond

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