There is a DBT concept or belief that says: Everyone is doing the best they can in the moment. I remember taking the DBT course and hearing this core belief for the first time. I bristled. I raised my hand. I asked for one of the group leaders to elaborate on that core belief. Were they really going to tell me to believe that everyone was doing the best they could in any given moment? Yes, they were going to ask me to believe that. I like DBT a lot. Many of DBT’s concepts are extraordinarily helpful, but I don’t buy into that core belief for a moment. I don’t believe that a lot of people are doing the best they can.
I’m going to refer to Dr. David Schnarch for more elaboration on this point. Dr. Schnarch is a bit of a pioneer in marital and family therapy particularly in the field of sex therapy. His crucible approach and focus on differentiation and self-validation over anxiety reduction and other-validation are proving to be highly effective in empowering people to grow up and develop into the people they always could and perhaps should be. Schnarch explains:
“A critical assumption in my approach is that clients understand more about their own motives and the reactions of their partners than many therapists give them credit for. We prefer to think clients are so “out of touch” they don’t foresee the impact when they say or do cruel, hurtful, inconsiderate things. This is how we maintain the cherished shibboleth: “People always do the best they can at the time.” Unfortunately, basic decency isn’t something we can take for granted. “Ambivalent attachment” and “insecure attachment” don’t begin to address the depth of hatred, animosity, and resentment that develop in many families and marriages. I use the term normal marital sadism to describe the nonreportable domestic violence that partners often inflict on each other.” (David Schnarch)
Prior to this explanation, Schnarch had elaborated:
“Like most therapists, I continually assess clients’ strengths and weaknesses and gauge my interventions accordingly. What’s different in my work is that while most therapists avoid saying things that their client might find upsetting, I push things further, earlier than colleagues who initially focus on their clients’ frailties, fears, and hypersensitivities. From the beginning, I tune into people’s strengths—their sense of right and wrong, their personal integrity, their willingness to tolerate pain for growth. Every day in my office, I’m impressed by people’s ability to act out of their deepest principles and values, even while thoroughly petrified and unsure of the outcome. I see effective therapy as being grounded in people’s resilience and their highest aspirations, rather than calling forth their fears, insecurities, and immaturities.
Many couples who come to see me are in crisis and on the verge of divorce. Perhaps an affair has been discovered, or arguments are escalating, or one or both partners are ready to leave. Crisis presents powerful opportunities for personal growth and relationship change if therapists don’t rush in and try to make things “stable” and reestablish the status quo. I see my role as challenging clients to confront and deal with dilemmas and conflicts in their current crisis, rather than dampening the situation, or making “security and safety” the primary focus of interventions. I avoid positive reframing to mollify people’s anger and resentments. I make no assumption that people operate out of misguided attempts at self-protection. Instead, I believe that couples’ current instability is their best chance to “clean up their mess” and build a solider relationship.” (David Schnarch)
What many people who are faced with conflict or even forms of abuse in their relationships seem to bump up against in other people or even their therapist is the notion that their partner doesn’t seem to understand the harm they are doing. I recall hearing many family members say this to me when I was in the throes of conflict with my mother. They justified her behavior with excuses like, “Well, your grandfather was just so critical,” or “She went through a lot with your dad,” or “I’m sure she’s doing the best she can.” There’s that idea again. They are doing the best they can. Really? I don’t believe that. Abuse is not someone’s best. When we utter that statement we not only minimize and normalize abuse potentially enabling a harmful situation, but we also speak to the worst in the person who is engaged in the harmful behavior. More than that, we belittle a person’s true best when it does reveal itself by declaring that their bad or even worst behavior is their best. So, the best that person has to offer the world is slapping their kid around? The best that guy could ever be is an addict? The best that woman is at that moment is a homicidal lunatic? The best that father is at that moment is a pedophile? What kind of belief is that? And what kind of thing is that to say to the victims? “Your father was doing the best he could when he molested you.” “Your husband was doing the best he could when he raped you.” “Your sister was doing the best she could when she ruined your son’s graduation party by showing up high.” In no way is this the best of anything. This is the worst of human behavior because these types of behaviors are often done with intent, cruelty, and exploitation on the mind of the perpetrator. They are seething with resentment, anger, and a drive to get their needs met at the expense of whomever is standing in their way. This is what is at the heart of abusive behavior.
I have to address this very issue tomorrow in my therapy session because my therapist is a DBT guy. He is walking the line with me right now concerning my husband and his behaviors. He is starting to imply that he is doing the best he can, or he has done the best he could even in his abusive moments. I have to side with Dr. Schnarch on this issue. I grew up with abusive people. I believed for a long time that my parents were doing the best they could…until I realized that they were not. They were making choices. They were making bad choices that affected others for the poorer, and they knew it. This is the twist in abuse. It’s hard to believe that someone being cruel does it on purpose, but they often do. There is often an element of sadism in abuse. This is why it’s hard to find a good therapist. Many therapists have a hard time accepting that a person actually means to harm someone else, but, sadly, sometimes they do. Humans can be the best beings on Earth, and they can also be the worst.
I am not advocating suspicion. I am, however, advocating true self-advocacy. For a full understanding of what this belief looks like in therapy and in relationships, please read Dr. David Schnarch’s article Mind-Mapping: How We Manipulate the People We Love. It’s outstanding.