I debated whether or not to post about a small incident with “eternal acquaintances” (borrowed from Kara). I changed my mind when Judy reflected on this topic and the other thoughts that followed – thank you for the great insight. I realized that adult bullying had a bit more to do with this ‘incident’ than I had originally thought.
As mentioned in the comments, we generally don’t use bullying to describe adult behavior. It is reserved for children in elementary school and when they get older we call it “peer pressure”. When we become adults the word changes to manipulation. I often think that the change in word usage drives a disconnect between childhood bullying and adult bullying. Both the same, the only difference being chronological age – not emotional maturity.
My father was adult bulled many times. He lent people money, people who didn’t pay him back. It was significant amounts of money that by the time I was heading to university, there were no savings left for my tuition. His boundaries and our family’s were crossed. We struggled financially throughout my childhood and his generosity extended beyond his means or more accurately, his savings account. I share similar approaches to adult bullying as my father. I have lent friends money to find that I wasn’t paid back. The only positive is that it wasn’t significant amounts and I recognized early enough to learn my boundaries and stop. I don’t blame my father for how I handled money in early adulthood. Only, that I can see how we share similar vulnerabilities and how we both didn’t understand them well enough to recognize when our boundaries were crossed.
I believe that we learn how to approach different types of manipulation by watching others (as involved bystanders) and in an environment that is supportive. Watching how someone who is emotionally intelligent approach a manipulative situation has taught me how to set limits and boundaries with someone who is trying to cross them. Unfortunately, we are not born with this skill set, it is a ‘learn as you go’ kind of skill. Then, we become adults and those that have found manipulation to get what they need and want (chronically) have now fine tuned their skills so the manipulation no longer looks like playground ‘bullying’, it looks like ‘normal’ everyday conversation. Those without the skill set to handle chronic manipulators face the same challenge as children in school – how to effectively deal with bullying?
And with this recent incident, DH and I found ourselves in a predicament in what seemed to be a simple coordination task of getting six “eternal acquaintances” together for one evening and ended up being a lesson in adult bullying.
Background: We used to see Mari and her husband a bit more when we lived five minutes by car from them. The other couple we saw occasionally and always with Mari and her husband. After we moved further away and life happens, it was now three years since we had seen each other.
Mari sent out an e-mail to all five of us suggesting a weekend away on the coast in February.
Boundary #1: After three years of not seeing each other, a weekend away was too ‘forced’ for me. I didn’t feel comfortable spending a weekend with people I didn’t feel a strong connection with and since DH travels during the week, the weekends are our time to regroup, run his errands, etc.
I responded with a suggestion of a dinner in any of the cities that were convenient for all three couples on a Saturday evening (as each of us live about 45 minutes to one hour by car from each other).
Boundary #2: Mari responded with an invite to her house and stated in her e-mail (written so): Option #1: we are to either bring dishes to share with everyone and a bottle of wine OR Option #2, we are to pay Mari for the ingredients and we are all to cook together in her kitchen.
It was clear to me that these were her boundaries, so DH and I responded with our preference for Option #1 – to bring dishes to share and wine.
Boundary #3: I did not hear back from the others and wondered if we were going to even have the dinner as the date was approaching. After some time, she responds with one sentence “Dinner menu is lobster, the other couple likes this idea.”
Lobsters are cannibalistic when food is scarce
I was taken aback at first. I realized that the four had spoken (off the shared e-mail) and set the menu (after asking a clarifying question to her on a separate e-mail). After speaking with DH some things were clear to me about DH and our vulnerabilities (shame). We didn’t want to appear difficult and going against the ‘popular’ vote felt like peer pressure. The ONLY problem is that DH and I hate lobster. Yup, we have tried it many times prepared in different ways and we both don’t like it. And here we were actually discussing the idea of going along with it even when we were PAYING and COOKING to have a meal we didn’t like.
Boundary #4: I e-mailed her and said that DH and I will bring a dish to share with everyone and dessert and wine. And I asked if we could use her oven to re-heat the dish. She replied that using her oven was no problem.
Something I had thought about – what if Mari is simply asserting her wants as I had asserted mine? Intellectually, I thought maybe Mari was simply more self-assured and she had a natural ease of asserting herself while I found it a challenge to type each e-mail asserting my preferences.
Then, the part of me that in the last three years I have become conscious of is my emotional part of my brain, where making decisions with it is equally important as my cognitive skills. I felt ignored. Not because I didn’t get what I wanted BUT because I wasn’t involved in a decision that involved my boundaries. I felt that my boundaries were disregarded. If we are to pay and cook a meal, we should have been part of the discussion and all of us should have come to an agreement. Like ADULTS, not like peer pressured teenagers.
Ignoring is a type of manipulation/bullying (Harriet B. Braiker¹ groups this under Silent Treatment while George K. Simon groups it under Selective Listening – thank you to Caliban’s Sisters for the link). Ignoring is an effective manipulation technique to bully someone into GIVING UP (either to DO something or STOP something). And why do we give up? Infants know how to give up before they are taught. Infants will cry (fight) when in distress and they eventually give up (flight). Not because they learn to self-soothe (they don’t because they can’t tell time and understanding the concept of time is necessary in self-soothing), but because giving up is a protection against other predators. A crying baby will eventually stop crying if you IGNORE it as to not attract other predators. It is a survival tool built into us from birth.
We carry this primal survival instinct into adulthood and it can become a crutch. I am really good at giving up when I’m ignored. Knowing that I choose to flee rather than FIGHT as my default setting helped me see that my FLIGHT tendencies were in direct violation of my rights (having a say in food that I was paying for and cooking).
Lobsters don’t scream when boiled
Mari made it clear in the e-mail that she is a woman of compromise. Her behaviors in the e-mail indicated that a compromise meant our preferences were NOT going to be considered.
After all, everyone got what they wanted – LOBSTER for the four and anything but LOBSTER for DH and I. That is a win-win situation (except for the lobster).
As you can imagine, after all these e-mails, the evening revealed whether this was the case of Mari being assertive with poor communication skills or Mari wanting to control (aggressive) which is the purpose of bullying. It was clear throughout the evening that Mari found my decisions unacceptable. She mentioned that we didn’t chose the LOBSTER three times and once brought up the fact that I couldn’t go to the coast for a weekend. She made underhanded insulting statements and I felt the urge to JADE and explain again why a weekend away wasn’t possible or the fact we didn’t like lobster. I bit my tongue each time and instead focused on my purpose (as opposed to her purpose) of the evening – to visit and socialize with acquaintances and have fun.
Boundary #5: Her attempts to degrade my decisions were a form of social coercion (as comments were directed to everyone at the dinner) and she lied to the other couple. I felt guilty for having gone my own way and asserting myself.
Boundary #6: As we drove back home, DH said it best on our drive back: “I could wait another three years before I see Mari and her husband again.”
Chronic bullying or manipulation serves only one purpose: POWER and CONTROL. Something I hadn’t realized before. Even when each person got what they wanted to eat and the meal preparations went smoothly, Mari kept weaving my decisions into the conversation the whole evening. A chronic bully doesn’t give up easily if they had success with you. When I reflected on the last time few times I have gotten together with Mari and her husband, they controlled everything. When, where, with whom, etc. DH and I were told what we were doing. And in ACoN years, three years are a lot more meaningful and longer than Gregorian years. DH and I learned about manipulation and that as adults we have developed our own sophisticated rhetoric to bullying. It may look and sound different and after you remove the smoke screen, you’ll find that your boundaries are NOT respected. The very core of manipulation and bullying.
I can relate to the meme Judy shared in her post. I need to learn skills about how to handle bullying effectively. Walking away sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t. Depending on the situation and circumstances, we can’t remove ourselves from adult bullies all the time. Children can’t either. Bullies are schoolmates, friends, siblings, co-workers, managers, parents, teachers, coaches, etc. Bullies are human and like the meme said – we can’t get rid of bullying behaviors.
To be continued in the next post. This story has a happy ending. :)
Further Reading & Footnotes
Five Myths Around Bullying by Dr. Peter Thomas, Ph.D.
¹Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life”. McGraw Hill. New York.