The Cheap Thrill You Get From Putting Down

Put-downs can be satisfying, but they come at a high price.

Posted Aug 30, 2018

makunin/pixabay
Source: makunin/pixabay

Faye and Chip had been locked in a struggle for power that was taking an enormous toll on their marriage. Because they both were run by the fear of being dominated and controlled by the other, even the smallest issue could become a huge dispute. They were always jockeying to get the upper hand. Faye would indulge herself by letting judgments fly out of her mouth: “I can’t believe you said that! Didn’t your parents ever teach you any manners? You are so rude. You never consider anyone else’s feelings. You’re the most insensitive person I’ve ever seen. Some people never learn.” And Chip was no better. He would give it right back to her: “When are you going to get it right? You never listen! You always interrupt me! You misinterpret every thing I say. You’re just like your overly sensitive mother. I can’t imagine whatever possessed me to marry you!”

If you have ever found yourself saying anything along the lines of the above, then you have been guilty of putting your partner down. Put-downs often provide a rush of pleasure that comes from a brief feeling of superiority and the sense of temporary safety that comes from attacking someone. Pleasurable as this may be, it comes at a high price. In this case, while Chip and Faye were indulging themselves by taking verbal shots at each other, the love with which they had begun their relationship was rapidly eroding. Their efforts to gain the upper hand were damaging their marriage.

By the time they arrived in the marriage counselor’s office, they had suffered a great deal from the effects of the cheap shots they had been taking at each other. Each of them was exhausted from the roller coaster ride of being hurt and angry and then patching things up, knowing full well that it was an uneasy truce, that there would only be a brief interlude before the next flare-up. Neither Faye nor Chip could fully relax in their own home. The level of suffering that they were both experiencing provided the motivation to lower their defenses long enough to finally get the help that they had needed for a long time.

In their marriage counseling, they were introduced to the notion of “win-win.” This is not so much a strategy of success, but an understanding of the essential reality that in any partnership there is no such thing as win-lose; if what you gain is at your partner’s expense, then you both have lost. Like two people riding a tandem bicycle, if one goes down, you both fall. Either you win together or you lose together.

As Faye and Chip gradually became able to understand this, they began working more cooperatively and less adversarially.

When they tried to enact the practice at home, they soon found out that although it is a simple concept, it is not easy to implement change. But because they both wanted desperately to preserve their marriage, they were determined in their attempts to “fight fair.” They became more aware of the triggers for accusation and blame and often succeeded in repairing the damage before it was too late.

They understood that the put-downs stemmed from relationship patterns that had existed in their families for generations, and that the work that they were doing was not simply for themselves but for their children and grandchildren as well. They knew it was up to them to break the cycles that had resulted in so much pain over the years in each of their original families. Their vision of liberating their children from these painful cycles provided the incentive to commit to doing the work that would ultimately bring them more inner and interpersonal peace. Chip knew that it wasn’t an exaggeration when he referred to the effort it took to break his reactive patterns as “Herculean.”

Faye and Chip did learn to fight fairly. They learned to disengage from the habituated tendency to indulge in taking cheap shots. They both realized that they could exercise self-restraint, vulnerability, and emotional honesty to create an atmosphere of respect. As they got used to the experience of increased trust and safety, they became less tolerant of behaviors that had formerly been commonplace in their relationship. Verbally abusive patterns all but disappeared, and they achieved a degree of trust and respect that neither of them had imagined possible. “If we can do it,” Faye said during our last meeting, “anyone can!”