Sometimes people find themselves in a position where they feel like a victim, where the cards are stacked against them and they are guaranteed to lose no matter how good or right they are. This can happen in any number of life circumstances. One that I am very familiar with as a relationship counselor is in intimate relationships, like marriage or similar committed long-term partnership.
Many couples who come to counseling are locked in a dynamic where one or both people believe that they are the victim of an unfair or unreasonable partner. When you are in this place, you believe that you give your partner more than they give you, or that what you give them is more valuable than what they give you. This seems to have been going on for so long that you are convinced that they have no interest in giving you what you need. You feel disappointed, frustrated, and probably even betrayed. Whether you acknowledge it consciously or not, you also feel powerless, because none of your asking, demanding, complaining, or appeals to reasonableness have been able to get your partner to change – even if they sometimes acknowledge that things need to change.
When you get to this place, you can start to see yourself as a victim of your partner. Your partner seems to have all the power in the relationship. You believe that you have already done everything you can to make things better, and it hasn’t worked. Your partner can decide whether or not to change, but they are not listening to you, so you have no say in the matter.
In this position, where your partner seems much more powerful than you, it is easy to start attacking from a victim position. This is where you start lashing out hopelessly at your partner. On some level you no longer believe that your partner even cares about your wants or needs, so nothing you do really matters. The only thing left is to vent your frustration.
When this is happening, part of you doesn’t really believe that you can hurt your partner. One reason is that when you feel powerless compared to your partner you may unconsciously see your partner as an adult, and you feel like a child. Young children think that adults are all-powerful, so your child self can’t imagine having enough strength or power to hurt your adult partner. Another reason is that, since you perceive your partner to be unaffected by you, you likely don’t believe that anything you say or do can do any serious damage to them.
When you are in this place, it is easy to take off the gloves and emotionally hit your partner with everything you’ve got. You want to hurt them, because at least that would show that you matter to them.
People in this place are in fight/flight/freeze mode. They are, quite literally, not thinking rationally. They often say things about their partner that they would never normally say, sometimes things that they don’t even really believe are true. Unfortunately, your partner will believe that you believe what you say.
The worst case scenario is when you are both in this state of mind at the same time. You both believe yourself to be powerless and treated unfairly in the relationship. You both believe that the other person is the only one with the power to change things. You therefore both lash out in helpless frustration, not realizing that you each are very capable of hurting the other.
This sounds pretty bleak, and indeed it is very harmful. You do not have to stay stuck in this place, however.
In order to change this dynamic, you need to de-escalate your brain out of fight/flight/freeze mode, and then get yourself to where you can interact with your partner without going right back into that mode. Until you can do that, you can’t do any useful work on the relationship.
When your brain is activated into fight/flight/freeze mode, it makes you believe that you are in danger, and the only important thing is to neutralize or escape the danger. In this case, your partner appears to be the danger. Your partner can’t simultaneously be a source of comfort and safety and a source of danger, and the primitive danger-processing part of your brain is going to assume danger.
The “natural” thing for your brain to do in this case is to try to get your partner to stop being dangerous. The usual way to do this is to disempower your partner and/or get them to acknowledge that they are threatening you, often in the form of trying to get them to admit that they are wrong or that their behavior is bad. Unfortunately, this is the best possible way to convince your partner that you are a threat to them, and will encourage them to defend themselves by attacking you.
The quickest way to defuse this kind of situation is to acknowledge your own responsibility. When you can say, “I understand why you are upset with me right now. I said something that was upsetting,” you are telling your partner’s brain that you are not a threat. This requires sincerity. Humans are very good at recognizing insincerity in others, and your partner will probably recognize it if you don’t mean what you are saying. If you say something like, “I understand why you are upset with me, but do you understand that what you said was just as bad?” then your partner is unlikely to hear, much less believe, the first part.
In order to do this, you first need to defuse your own fight/flight/freeze response. This article addresses Reducing Your Reactivity.
We would all prefer that our partner be the first one to de-escalate and reach out. However, if you insist that your partner go first, then you are back to giving them all the power and making yourself the victim. Although the more primitive part of your brain doesn’t understand this, you are actually more powerful when you are able to acknowledge that you share responsibility for the problem. Doing so also requires that you analyze the situation to discover what you contributed to the problem, and that will help shift you into thinking with your more advanced brain instead of reacting with your primitive brain.
You may be better at this than your partner is. You may have to set a boundary and insist that your partner get professional help (such as counseling) or go with you to couples counseling. Keep in mind, however, that most of us are quite poor at assessing our own skills and behaviors compared to our partner’s. Being convinced that your partner is the problem does not mean that it is true.
There is a complex dance between you and your partner’s conscious and unconscious minds, and doing it well requires considerable understanding, patience, and practice. Timing is important. If your partner is extremely activated, the most skillful response may fall on deaf ears. Knowing your partner is also important. Some people really need a time out when things get heated, while others interpret withdrawal as abandonment. There is no single “right way” to engage in this process, and only by exploring and practicing with your partner – with professional help, if necessary – can you develop dance steps that work for you, your partner, and your relationship.
NOTE: Some people are victims of physical or emotional abuse or exploitation. This article does NOT apply to these situations. If you are in an abusive or exploitative relationship then changing yourself will not change the situation. If you suspect that your relationship is abusive or exploitative, please reach out to a mental health professional, domestic violence shelter or hotline, or other appropriate assistance.