In any intimate relationship, there’s a lot at stake. There's the relationship itself, of course. There's also each partner’s self-esteem.
Still another, often overlooked and at odds with the first two I mentioned, is each other’s BS detectors. We need our detectors. We spend long years cultivating them so we won’t get ripped off, hornswoggled, shanghaied, or manipulated.
Sometimes, when the stakes get high in intimate conflict, we say anything we can get away with to maintain our self-esteem—and we demand that our partners believe it. We say, in effect, “Suspend doubt, please. or I’ll have to face doubt about myself, which I’d rather not do.” Asking each other to do this in the name of love is not love. It’s creepy self-indulgence that is bound to peeve our partners, whether they can put a finger on it or not.
Intimate conflict is like a high-stakes game of hot potato, or actually "doubt potato," in which what you shove back and forth into each other’s sensitive laps is self-doubt.
If there’s one thing we are good at, it’s forcing others to doubt in our stead. I’ve been cataloging some classic popular techniques over the years and list 19 of them below. These are rhetorical moves that enable us to win at the game of doubt potato, in which we say indulgently and automatically, “Don’t doubt me—doubt yourself.”
These techniques are generic, and content-independent. They’re mercenary. You can employ them to cast doubt on anyone and on any topic. Many are meta-moves, ways to act as though you're above the fray, even while continuing the fight. They're the equivalent of saying, "I'm done playing," just as you shove the doubt potato into your opponent's lap. These ploys often tend have a moral tone, as if saying, "Only losers like you care about winning and losing—and, oh, by the way, you lose.”
It may seem like I don't have a lot of respect for these techniques, but in two ways I actually do. First, they are quite formidable. I respect them. If I were to name the one aspect of human nature most likely to cause our failure as a species, it would be our alacrity and fluency at employing these and other techniques for deflecting self-doubt. (The second way I respect them I'll save for after the list.)
- "But My Intentions Are Good. Doesn't That Count For Anything?" (Also see, “But I didn’t mean to insult you," and, "I would never intend to be mean.”) Intentions don’t count for as much as actions, and anyway, while few of us would deliberately set out to insult each other, we often intend to do things that would have that effect. Instead of owning the consequences of our actions, though, we pretend we couldn’t have had them since it wasn’t our deliberate outright intention to have them.
- Nicessism. This is narcissism protected by saying, “That’s not nice,” or, “You’re mean,” about anything we don’t want to hear. We pretend that there’s a moral rule that one should always be nice—but what we mean by it is, “Be nice to me always.”
- Condemn the messenger. "Your challenge hurt, therefore you must have delivered it wrong, so therefore I don’t have to listen to it." You claim receptivity, but only to those challenges properly delivered according to your unattainably high double standards. But when you challenge people, you’re just being honest and if they challenge you, they’re not being nice.
- Smugging. Calmly refuse to budge and then, when your partner gets frustrated, change the subject to his hotheaded reaction. This will make him more hotheaded, making it easy to call even more attention to his reaction.
- Youjust-ifications. Deny all but one ignominious motive behind a challenger's criticism. For example: "You're just trying to put me down." Reciprocally, explain your own behavior as being exclusively virtuously motivated. For example, "Look, I was just trying to help." Just is the key word here. It means, “Ignore all other possible interpretations."
- Exempt By Contempt. Claim that since you find a trait disgusting, you must not have that trait. For example: "Me, selfish?! Impossible! I hate selfish people!"
- "How Dare You Compare Me To..." If challenged for behaving as badly as some known manipulators, rather than considering the comparison on its merits, act as though there could be no parallel because there's an assumed world of difference between the behaviors of good people like you, and bad people like them.
- Litmus Paper Tiger. Profess loudly and actively to holding an absolute moral standard, then ignore it and do anything you like.
- Selective Literalism. Attack others for their tone, but when you talk, deny that tone has anything to do with it. "Look, I merely said…"
- Freedom of Speech as Subterfuge. Accuse a challenger of denying your freedoms: "Jeez, I'm sorry I spoke my mind. Next time I'm with you, I'll know better and silence myself."
- Equality as Subterfuge. Appeal to a pretend law that everyone shares equal blame for all problems. When accused of a problem that is largely your fault, say, "It's 50/50, so what about you? You're not perfect! We both contributed equally to this."
- "That's Totally Different!" Equivocations. "I'm not being stubborn. I'm sticking to my principles."
- Misread the Criticism. Distort any case against you so it sounds totally cruel and unreasonable. For example, when challenged for dominating a conversation, say, "Right, so now I'm the next Hitler."
- Minutia And Highfalutia. To evade a challenge, focus on minute details or high-concept generalities on either side of a challenge. If called to task for doing a bad job at work, zoom in to talk about the tiny problems that got in the way ("The paperclips didn't arrive on time!"), or zoom way out to talk about how nobody’s perfect. Basically, concentrate on any scale of analysis but the one on which the challenge itself is being leveled.
- Mind-Reading Rights. Cite a pretend rule that everyone always knows their own feelings and thoughts better than anyone else does. Then accuse the challenger of trespassing: "Don't tell me what I feel!"
- First-strike Advantage. Be the first to challenge. That way when you're challenged back, you can dismiss it as knee-jerk retaliation.
- The Butterfly Punch. In a win/lose competition, accuse the competitor of being selfish. "Why can't we get along?" actually means, "Why can't we do it my way?"
- Sorry-taliations. Say sorry sarcastically, or apologize for anything but your actions: “Sorry you misunderstood me,” or “Sorry you took it that way," or, "Sorry for miscommunicating” (when you clearly meant what you said).
- Throw the Books At 'Em: When challenged on having done something, explain why you didn’t, did, and wanted to do it all at once. “Me, I would never do that. And of course if I did that, well, most people do, and I meant to do that, so you’re just wrong about me."
I said that I respect these doubt-deflection techniques in two ways and here's the second: They're effective because they look just like authentic and honorable moves. That's the problem with decoys and cons of all sorts. To be effective, they have to be indistinguishable from, or at least easily confused with, the genuine article. Lies sidle right up to truths so they won't be noticed. Moral subterfuge hides right next to true morality. There are actually times when each of these moves would be an appropriate justified response, so you can’t always tell whether they’re abuses of power. But you can bet they’re abuses when they start getting used reflexively and chronically.
Can you let the doubt potato sit in your lap for even a minute? If not, you’re probably using these tricks.