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.)
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.
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