Relapse Prevention

Chronic resentment and anger undermine recovery.

Posted Jan 15, 2020

In all emotional disorders, behavioral problems, and addictions, chronic resentment and anger are potent predictors of relapse.

This post will focus on relationships afflicted with emotional abuse because that is my clinical specialty. But the identified lapses apply to most kinds of relapse. Brief exercises to help prevent lapses from turning into relapses are offered.

Relapse in emotional abuse is deliberately devaluing, demeaning, frightening, or trying to make partners or children feel bad about themselves. Relapse is not only hurtful to victims but self-destructive to perpetrators. Relapse is unacceptable.

Lapse is temporarily reverting to old habits:

  • Blaming (instead of improving)
  • Focusing on what you don’t want
  • Criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling
  • Monocular vision
  • Devaluing more than you value

Blame vs. Improve

Under stress, most people tend to blame more. When blame becomes frequent, it lowers self-value and impairs the ability to create value and meaning in life. 

It’s hard to feel compassion, affection, love, and trust when we feel blamed.

It’s hard to feel adequate as a partner or parent when we blame.

It’s even harder to feel worthy of love when we blame.

All we can genuinely feel is self-righteous.

Worst of all, blame renders us powerless over our own experience. Blamed emotions cannot motivate positive changes in behavior and attitude.

For example, guilt motivates reconciliation, unless it is blamed on the person we've offended or hurt. Then it turns into resentment and will likely make us behave in ways that invoke more guilt. Personal well-being and the health of relationships are sacrificed for the impulse to punish or retaliate.

We function much more efficiently when trying to improve situations. We like ourselves better when we try to improve than when we blame.

Blame vs. Accountability

Don’t confuse blame with accountability. The latter is owning responsibility for your own behavior. The former is transferring guilt and shame onto others. It’s no coincidence that those who most virulently hold others accountable are indiscriminate blamers, intolerant of being blamed.

When we die and go to Judgment…

We won’t be asked what our partners did.

The Habit of Blame

Blaming is a habit that begins in toddlerhood. If it continues into adulthood, we’ll be unaware of how frequently we do it and wonder why other people react so negatively to us.

Entrenched habits like blame can only be changed by developing new habits.

That means associating the impulse to blame with a desire to improve. Better yet, associate the hurt or discomfort that triggers the impulse to blame with the desire to improve.

Exercise:

List three times you blamed your partner or children for something, and describe what you will do to improve similar situations in the future. Always associate past mistakes and injuries with future corrections and healing. When we think of mistakes or injuries without thinking of future corrections—and behaviors that help us heal—we increase the likelihood of making the same mistakes again and again and staying trapped in past pains forever.

Focus on What You Want

A pair of psychological principles show why this is important.

  • What we focus on becomes more important than what we don’t focus on.
  • We’re likely to get more of what we focus on.

When we’re hurt, we tend to focus on what we don’t want.

For example, most partners want a closer, more connected relationship. Yet they focus on what irritates them and on what they don’t like, which practically guarantees getting more of what they don’t want.  

Exercise:

List three things that bother you, focusing on what you want.

Describe what you need to do to get what you want.

Criticism

People are more likely to criticize when they don’t feel okay about themselves. They try to control their environment and the people in it, rather than behave in ways that will make them feel better about themselves.

Because they experience so much disappointment when the world doesn't cooperate with their attempts to control it, critical people suffer from entitlement. ("It's so hard being me, you should at least do what I want!") They consider their right to get you to do what they want superior to your right not to do it.

In relationships, criticism is a complete failure as behavior modification, or else you wouldn’t have to do it so often. In fact, it’s more likely to invoke defensiveness, stonewalling, and resentment than cooperation

Exercise:

Describe the last three times you criticized your partner.

Practice making behavior requests, recognizing that your partner doesn’t have to do what you want. Show value and respect with focus on improving specific future behaviors, rather than criticizing past behaviors.

Defensiveness

Defensiveness harms relationships because it invalidates the partner’s hurt. The subtext is:

“You have no right to be hurt because I did not intend to hurt you.”

“There’s something wrong with you for being hurt by what I did.”

To overcome defensive reflexes, focus on your partner's hurt and not “facts” or intentions. The goal is to let your partner know that you sympathize and you're sorry that you caused hurt. Focus on the fact that you do not want your partner to be hurt. That’s more important than defending your intentions or ego.

Exercise:

Describe three times your partner thinks you were defensive in the past.

Describe how you will validate your partner’s perspective and sympathize with any future hurt. This is even more important when you disagree about facts or interpretations. For example, "I put that insensitively" or "I sounded dismissive because that's a bad habit of mine. I can see how that sounded to you. I'm sorry. You deserve for me to be more sensitive and I will be in the future." 

Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a refusal to consider a partner’s perspective. If we listen at all, we do so dismissively or patronizingly.

Sometimes stonewalling is pouting. Sometimes it comes from feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes it’s punishing—the “silent treatment.” It's always hurtful to the shut-out partner. 

Stonewalling is a habit of retreating under stress, a habit that usually begins in childhood.

Like all lapses, stonewalling damages the person doing it. Acting on the impulse to stonewall tells us that we can't handle adult disagreements, that our capacity to cope is little more than a child's. We confuse the impulse to stonewall with a need to do it. 

I understand the impulse to stonewall; it's a habit I carried from a violent childhood into the early years of marriage. To change the habit, we must start with a core-value-decision that our partners’ well-being is more important than the desire to pout, hide, or punish.

Exercise:

Describe the last three times your partner believes you stonewalled. (Ask if you’re unsure.)

Describe how, in the future, you’ll try to understand your partner, sympathize with any hurt, and express caring, especially when you disagree.

Binocular Vision

Monocular vision is the inability to see the perspectives of partners and children.

When we can’t see other perspectives, the brain guesses. Guesses are always based on how we feel at the moment. When we feel negative, we’ll assume the worst about our partners.

Binocular vision is the ability to hold the perspective of a loved one alongside your own. No matter how accurate your perspective might be, it's incomplete without the perspective of your loved one. 

If you’ve slipped into thinking the worst about your partner, make no judgment about any interaction until you understand your partner’s perspective.

Exercise:

When I feel angry, my partner feels: ______

When I feel resentful, my partner feels: ______

When I feel sad, my partner feels: ______

When I feel hurt, my partner feels:______

When I feel anxious, my partner feels: ______

When I feel frustrated, my partner feels: ______

When I feel rejected, my partner feels:______

When I feel suspicious, my partner feels: ______

Value More Than You Devalue

If you value more than you devalue, life is good, even if a lot of bad things happen.

If you devalue more than you value, life is bad, even if a lot of good things happen.

Exercise:

Describe at least three times when your partner and children have acted on their core values. 

Core Value

Core value is the ability to create value and meaning in your life, the sum of the most important things to and about you. It’s the immune system of the self. When core value is high, we’re healthier and feel better, concentrate more fully and work more efficiently. We’re more compassionate and humane.

When core value is low, we’re likely to:

  • Blame
  • Focus on what we don‘t want
  • Criticize
  • Fail to see other perspectives
  • Devalue more than we value 
  • We may feel inadequate and unlovable

Exercise:

This is what I do to make myself feel worthy of love: (hint, they’re going to be acts of compassion, kindness, nurturing, or affection.)

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

Acts of compassion and kindness I will do:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

See my post "Core Value Narratives." There is also a free workbook on Core Value available for download here.