I follow the posts of a FB friend who is a psychologist. A recent post got my attention because it involves one of the most destructive things to any relationship: what I call The List.
In her post, my friend describes a client’s question:
The Client asks…
“My daughter got upset with her friend over something minor and texted her friend a list of things that she doesn’t like about her…..I, myself, notice that I tend to save up what friends do that I don’t like and then when I am upset with them about something minor (like not texting me back quickly) I tell them about all of the things that make me mad. I can get mean. I hate that I do that but I do.“
This, my friends, is what I call The List. When someone stores up grievances (sometimes over decades of a marriage or any other relationship) and decides it would be helpful to share them.
The rationale is often, “I’m just being honest!” or some other relationship-killing reason. Well, yeah. But at what cost?
Or this: “I need to clear the air!” Riddle me this: Whose air are you really clearing?
The Psychologist Responds….take a breath
Here’s how the psychologist responded:
“It seems like you both collect grievances—saving up a list of what people have done wrong and then unloading on them. My suggestion is that you not make assumptions about the motives of others and refrain from making mental lists of wrongdoing. After you feel slighted, take a pause and think about what occurred before reacting with volatility or at all. The pause will give you time to calm down and think about what happened. This time allows you to get some emotional distance from the situation and think about what occurred and whether or not it requires a response.
Friends appreciate it if you let some things go. No one is perfect. Keep in mind that you and your daughter may not always be reading the intentions and emotions of others accurately. In these situations, you may benefit from speaking gently to friends before you react. Ask about their feelings rather than assuming. This may save the relationship.”
I can’t remember a single time I have presented a list of grievances to anyone. Never. I just don’t hold on to them. I don’t remember them. Nor do I assume someone’s behavior is all about me. It’s usually all about them and I get that. People are complicated.
If I’m troubled by someone’s repetitive behavior, I look at the bigger picture. I get a vibe–an amorphous feel for the relationship–that guides where I go with it. I might walk out the door after that. Or not. But it is absolutely never helpful in any way to present a list of the way you believe someone has wronged you.
Well, that’s not true. Sometimes it can be satisfying to dump all over someone. A release.
Or is it?
Only if you’re that kind of toxic personality.
Therapists have changed their tune
In the old days, some therapists recommended that clients release pent up feelings in a discussion with the other person. I was once told I should have that kind of talk with my father. I looked at the therapist as if she were out of her mind. Today we (and good therapists) know that this kind of grievance dump can be the worst possible thing if you want an ongoing relationship.
Of course, if you don’t care if a relationship crashes and burns, go right ahead. But it isn’t very nice. As the client above points out, it is often just mean. And being mean doesn’t support anyone, even the grievance-holder.
I do know people who make a habit of presenting lists like this. They are usually struggling, themselves, not sufficiently self-aware to see that their actions simply reveal them to be hard and unyielding, and often, petty and small. And who needs THAT in their life?
Having the last word
I’m usually pretty good with not having to have “the last word.” Especially if I can see that person has their own issues. But also in the interests of maintaining a functional relationship. Pride is very over-rated. And of course, yes, I’ve been burned. But I’ve also been true to myself, which is much more important than momentary distress.
The same day I read the psychologist’s post, I also saw this unattributed quote online and it makes a lot of sense for any kind of relationship:
Any couple who has a healthy, long-term marriage did not stay happily married because of luck.
They rebuilt trust when it was broken.
They got help when they were stuck.
They learned how to communicate.
They made time for each other.
They cared more about their relationship than their pride.
It sounds like a lot of work, does’t it? But it isn’t. It’s just part of any healthy relationship. I’ve done bits of this with every significant relationship in my life. Listening. Forgiving. Making time for each other. Apologizing if necessary.
Maybe our fear of doing this work is why there are so many unhealthy relationships around.
So next time you’re thinking about unloading your grievances on a loved one? Take a pause. Take a breath. And think about what my friend says.
She is very wise.
Here’s the entire post by my psychologist friend: