A Deeper Look at The Passive/Active Concept in Relationships.
Waiting isn’t Participating
Yesterday I talked with Frank and Nicole about their very different life postures: passive or active. Frank and Nicole have been together for a little over two years. They truly love each other. And, one important positive is that they have many of the same values and interests.
But, there is one huge “sticking point” for Nicole: Frank’s passivity. She can’t get past her need to have an “equal partner.” She said at the end of our conversation that she wants that change from Frank NOW or she doesn’t see them going on. Why press him like this? They started talking about his passive behavior a couple of years ago and we have revisited the topic quite a few times since then. She’s tired of waiting.
Frank has been working on this for some time and he’s definitely gotten better with his peers and his boss at work. But, not with Nicole.
Okay, so let’s talk about passivity first. The concept I’m referring to here is “the life posture of passive or active living.” Somewhere in the years between birth and five or six, we all decide unconsciously how we’ll “do” life. Our choices are:
actively (jump in it and live our lives to the fullest). Or, we decide to approach life:
semi-passively (stand on the edge of life and get in it at points where we feel emotionally safe). Or we can decide to do life:
extremely passively (stand on the edge of life and barely get in, maybe only to work but otherwise live a narrow but very protected emotionally safe life). Whichever choice we make, we act it out for the rest of our lives unless we make a conscious decision to change it.
There are positives and negatives for each of these choices but today let’s just talk about the semi-passive posture and how it has impacted Frank’s life.
First, why would the very young Frank unconsciously decide to approach life passively?
There are a few reasons.
First reason: Frank is a second-born child. His older sister, Julie, unconsciously chose to “jump in life and LIVE it.” When Frank came along, he had to decide unconsciously whether he’d get in the “jump in it” area with Julie or not. Instead, he chose the semi-passive position.
Why? Kids won’t usually compete with the ones above them because they’re afraid they can’t “measure up.” (If you look at your present family or think back to your birth family, you’ll probably see an example of this idea there.) This concept is partly why our kids are so different from each other. So, Julie was the “active” child; Frank the “passive” one.
Second reason: Julie was accomplished even as a little kid: obedient, helpful, serious, and Edward, her father, very much liked her enthusiastic, assertive style. His attitude showed in his treatment of Julie; she got a lot of praise for a lot of things.
Frank came along and, even as a little kid, was more “trouble,” not a rebellious kid, just not “with it.” Frank’s dad, Edward: criticized Frank heavily, negatively compared him to Julie, and called him names: clumsy, stupid, lazy. Frank couldn’t seem to do anything right. The really sad, sad thing about this was that Frank believed what his dad said about him. He’s gone through life believing that his dad’s opinion of him was correct.
Third reason: So, from the time Frank turned three or so, he tried and tried to “stay out of the way” and “figure out what others wanted or needed and then do it.” He learned to stay in the shadows, do what he was told and respond quickly to others and always, always to apologize if there was any hint that he hadn’t done what was wanted. So, in relationships Frank learned to be quiet, not to offer anything. Frank is now 48 years old so the beliefs he has carried around with him have had years of reinforcement. Now, as always, he waits to be told.
Frank’s two highest personality types are Pleasing and Comfort. We can see why the Pleasing developed; an obedient child, Frank has spent his whole life trying to get approval from his dad. The Comfort is a natural choice for kids who are scared of their parents or by their own self-judgment.
Now Nicole. Nicole unconsciously imitated her father’s style: the Superiority personality type. He was the strongest personality of her two parents and was an “active” person. Nicole’s mother was an “extremely passive” parent who made no decisions, but was very critical.
What Nicole decided unconsciously was that she could follow her dad’s Superiority because both parents admired her intensity about achieving high goals (Nicole is an MD). But, she responded to her mother’s criticism and her father’s teaching about dress, manners, image and status by Pleasing them. So, Nicole’s two strong personality types are Superiority and Pleasing and she acts both of them out very “actively.”
What’s Wrong in This Relationship?
Unfortunately, Frank took his passivity into adult living with him. And, into the relationship with Nicole.
So, how are these two opposite life postures, “active and semi-passive” acted out in the Frank/Nicole relationship? Nicole has to lead the relationship because Frank won’t. If she doesn’t lead, there is no action, no movement. This means that she has the responsibility of initiating everything between them: any kind of talk, whether it’s about something intellectual or just conversation, any social plans, vacation plans, any other “together” activities, like classes, even sexual cues. This is because Frank wait.and waits .and waits. He does not suggest, start, initiate anything. It just doesn’t occur to him.
To start, I talked with Frank about:
Understanding which thoughts direct his passive behavior,
Gradually giving up those thoughts, and
Building new healthy beliefs that will serve him now in all of his relationships wherever they are, at work, out socially or with Nicole.
He needs the most help in his intimate relationship with Nicole because:
That’s where he feels most vulnerable to criticism or other negative responses, and
That’s where it’s toughest for him to risk making a mistake.
As Frank and I talked about his severe reluctance to speak up or simply ‘act,’ I learned that:
he wasn’t allowed, as a child, to offer an opinion or make a request.
So even now, he thinks he shouldn’t speak up.
Further, he thinks that if he does offer an opinion or ask for something, he’ll come off as boring or he’ll be criticized. He might even be mocked; so he’s avoiding humiliation.
He also thinks he can’t be “forward,” meaning he believes that it’s disrespectful to disagree with others.
Even in childhood teaching a child to be quiet and think of himself as stupid, is just plain wrong and awful. But, when we’re in the adult world these ideas are crippling because they direct weak behavior or none at all. People who appear weak get no respect and are “walked all over” in most relationships, if they have any. Frank has been married twice before and in both of those relationships he was “walked all over.”
Fortunately, Nicole has no desire to treat Frank badly; she loves him. But, at the same time she wants a full-fledged partner who’ll take on half of the responsibility. She isn’t going to settle for less. She, too, came out of a long bad marriage a few years back.
As I confront Frank’s old, illogical ideas, he responds with well-used defenses. Defenses are statements or behaviors that we use to protect our beliefs. All defenses are powerful, some more than others, but all are harmful because they separate us from those we care about. And, many times, we don’t even know it.
For example, Frank’s most-used defenses were silence and avoidance. His unhealthy beliefs were hidden from Nicole’s view (and from himself, too). If she hadn’t challenged them so strongly, Frank and I probably would never have talked. Their relationship would have fallen apart and Frank might never have put it all together.
And, just as importantly for Frank, he wouldn’t have known that:
He had these deep beliefs that compelled him to behave in ways that disrespected him.
He could learn skills that would respect the other person and him and would make all his relationships better, as well as making him a stronger more confident person.
Communication. Frank understood submissive talk; he’d done it all of his life. He also understood aggressive talk; he’d been the target of it all of his life. He didn’t know anything about assertive talk. So, he did the homework I asked of him: he read a couple of books on assertiveness as well as some handouts I gave him. As he learned, we practiced so he could gain confidence.
Frank now has a new skill: Assertive talk.
Self-Confrontation. Frank and I discovered his old misbeliefs when I confronted him time and time again on WHY he behaved as he did in certain situations. As we uncovered the old misbeliefs, his defenses would rise, so we got acquainted with those, too. I wanted him to learn this process so that he could do it himself. And he did. Over time, of course.
Frank now has the skill of Self-Confrontation.
Better Choices for Behavior. When Frank’s defenses rise, I ask him to think of other better choices for his actions. At first, like all of us, he got stuck and couldn’t come up with any. But after a while, after staying with it and practicing, Frank is growing the belief that “he always has better choices than being defensive.”
Yes, we all do. Life is, among other things, a series of problems that need solutions. So, if we understand that there usually are many choices, or at least more than one, we won’t need defenses. We can all become more responsible and love each other more deeply in the process.
Big Thoughts In This Article.
Listen carefully to your partner as she expresses her wants and needs in your relationship. Rather than feel annoyed or scared, get clear what she means. Expect the same from her.
Confront yourself about any of your behaviors that are negative in your relationship. Do this by asking yourself WHY you do the behavior. Your answer will probably be an old misbelief that’s still hanging around and causing you trouble.
Confront any beliefs that don’t help you now in your adult life. Defenses will probably come up. Remember that they, too, are old and have not served you well. Determine to drop them.
As you drop your old beliefs and defenses around them, you’ll need to build new positive, constructive beliefs that will improve your life and your relationships. Good!!
You’ll need to develop new skills to act as a foundation for the new beliefs. Decide not to feel bad about needing additional skills (like Frank needed assertive talk). We all get to our adult years without ALL of the skills that we need. We can simply acquire them. No shame.
Look back at what you’ve accomplished and give yourself a good pat on the back. Or several. You’ve worked hard: (1) gone from having misbeliefs, defenses, and lacking skills, TO (2) discarding old misbeliefs, dropping old defenses, building new, productive ideas, learned new, important skills. Enjoy it all! You earned it; you deserve it! Celebrate!
Warmest regards until next time,