Tuesday

How to Stop Getting Sucked In

When Jessica* got online with me, she was nearly in tears. Her husband was furious with her, and she was ready to give in.
Cartoon woman asking questions


What should I do? 
(image credit: 
publicdomainvectors.org)

“What should I do?” she asked.

“He wants to buy more toys?” This wasn’t our first conversation about her spendthrift partner.

“Yep. Another set of golf clubs. Even though he already has a set.”

“And he wants to take the money from…?”

“From the money I’m saving to replace my tires. He says the tires aren’t that bad.”

“So, when you disagreed?” 

“At first, he was trying to be nice about it, but when I didn’t agree, he started shouting that I’m a selfish, controlling bitch.”

I couldn’t suppress a giggle. “That sounds about right. And you said?”

“I told him I’d have to talk to you first.”

I had to laugh. “OK, so I’ll be the controlling bitch instead.”

She smiled and nodded. “I just don’t know what to do. I can’t give in, but I can’t handle his anger.”
For the record, money fights are gender-neutral propositions. I have about equal numbers of male and female clients distressed about their partners’ under- and over-spending. 

But the problem in this particular scenario, as common as it is, isn’t financial. The same fight comes up with individuals distressed about disputes over loyalty, health, sex, video games, in-laws, sleep schedules, religion, privacy, and parenting. The full name of this fight is: “I’m incredibly angry and frustrated that you don’t give me what I want, I don’t know how to talk to you about it, and now I’m going to unleash the fury.”

The short version is: “Hold my beer. It’s tantrum time.”

Itching for a fix

No good human is comfortable around adults who are upset or angry or in tears — especially not when that upset is directed towards them. 

We’re not meant to be comfortable around it. If we have a shred of decency, we’re distressed to see other people unhappy or miserable, and we want to fix it. Even if we react badly — by crying or shouting or going silent or storming out of the room — we do so because we’re upset that we can’t easily solve the other person’s emotional state.

But before we react badly, most of us have a least a moment where we try to problem solve. Sometimes we try to talk the other person out of their feelings. Sometimes we offer a bribe or a compromise. Other times we “fix it” by giving in — but then get resentful at having been manipulated. 

Like most people facing an upset partner, Jessica was looking at all bad options. Luckily, I had another path for her.


Jessica was the mother of three daughters, the youngest, Kylie, age four. I knew she was a devoted, caring mom to all her girls, but Kylie was a bit of a handful.

“I’d like to change the subject,” I said. “so bear with me. Tell me how Kylie’s been doing this week.”
Jessica’s face brightened. “She’s such a scamp. This morning she dumped an entire bowl of cereal on the floor because I put the banana slices on the bottom instead of the top. Then she pitched a fit because I told her she couldn’t have a second bowl.” 

“And you made her clean up the mess?”

“Of course! You should have seen her! It was like I’d stolen her favorite toy. She was on the floor with paper towels and the trash can, screaming that she hated me and I was the worst mommy in the whole world! But she cleaned it up.”

“And how did you react to the screaming?”

“Pffftt. I don’t care. She still had to clean up the mess. Then I gave her a hug and offered her some jam for her toast. Two minutes later she was all smiles.”

“She’s so funny. But it’s interesting to me that you didn’t care. Why was that?”

“Well, I care. I just didn’t get upset.”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s just being Kylie. She’ll get over it. In the meantime, there was a mess that had to be cleaned up.”

“So you’re telling me that you love her, but you don’t get emotionally invested in her tantrums. You know she always gets over it, and you’ll give her a hug and some jam when she settles down.”

“Sure.”

“But you won’t give her a second bowl of cereal, or clean up the mess for her, or burst into tears when she calls you a terrible mommy.”

“No way.”

“So the principle here is: You love her. You care about her. You trust she’ll get over her upset in time. But you don’t make an emotional investment in her tantrums.”

“That sounds right.”

“Shouldn’t the same principle apply to adults?”

Little girl having a tanty
If you’re not upset about her, 
why get upset about adults? 
(Image credit: needpix.com)

But adults are different

It’s not uncommon, when I talk to people about ending their emotional investment in other people’s tantrums, for them to say “Sure, that’s fine when I’m dealing with kids. But adults are different.”

Yeah, they are. 

So if you trust that an inarticulate four-year-old has the emotional maturity to get over their emotional upset, if you expect a little kid to “use your words” to explain their emotions…why, in heaven’s name, would you expect less of a full-grown adult?

Why would you invest more emotion in a six-foot-tall baby’s vertical tantrum than you would in a two-foot-tall baby’s horizontal one?

Short answer: If you’re smart, you wouldn’t. If you’re smart, you expect adults to use their words, to go to their room, to settle down, to knock off that screaming. And if they don’t, you tell them — because you can’t spank them and send them to the corner — that you’re leaving the conversation, or the room, until they’re able to do so.

It really is that easy. Yes, it’s scary when grown ups get angry. Yes, it feels terrible when they direct that anger at you. But you don’t have to get invested. In fact, you shouldn’t. Because investing emotion reinforces the behavior. And then nobody grows.

So, ready to pull up your own big-kid panties and do something hard? Here goes.

Your script

Generally, it’s useful, once you understand a principle, to have a script that allows you to implement the principle. I’m going to give you both.

Today’s principle number one: “I don’t invest emotion in other people’s tantrums.”

Principle two: “I have faith that people will be kind and decent again after they settle down.”

Today’s script: “You seem really upset. I’m going to give you some space. If you’d like to talk calmly, I’ll be in the kitchen/garage/bedroom/backyard.”

Alternative script: “This is a subject I’d really like to discuss with you, without the drama, but I’m getting too worked up to be calm. So I’m going to take a breather. I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready to talk.”

Then you cheerfully go to the other room and make cookies. Cheerfully. Just as cheerfully as you would if the culprit were four years old. Because if you’re not cheerful, you’re emotionally invested in someone else’s tantrum. And that’s just not a good use of your energy or your heart.

More from the AiKi Relationship Training Institute

Looking for a good therapist? Check out this article on How to Pick a Counselor — And Bypass the Bullies and Buffoons at the AiKi Relationship Training Institute.

More tips on holding onto boundaries while being a nice person. Read Just Say Yes. To Everything. Even Your Kids.

And read about a better alternative to venting in The Fast Fix for Spinning Thoughts.

AiKi Relationship Training uses a martial-arts metaphor to coach relationship, communication, and life skills. Visit our digital library, schedule training events, and sign up for our newsletter to receive free therapeutic advice for improving your relationships.


LauraMaery Gold, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with couples and parents. She is also executive director of the AiKi Relationship Training Institute and the author of oh-so-very-many books on family concerns. She lives with her husband in a 400-year-old castle just outside of Paris.

* Yes, all client names and identifying details are changed. Some conversations are reconstructed from therapy notes; some are composites; some are fabricated from whole cloth because in real life, people say things like “um” and “like”… a lot, which nobody wants to read.
TL;DR: It’s not you; it’s probably my mother.

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