When I think about being aggressive, there are obvious examples that come to mind like someone being violent physically, being rude or insulting. When David Richo talks about aggression in this section of the book, he sheds some light on being aggressive in ways that I have never really considered aggressive, but knew were less than productive ways of operating. While there are a number he discusses, I want to talk about the ones that caught my attention the most.
First, he talks about using “you” statements vs “I” statements. If you are a therapist or have spent any time with one, you are probably familiar with this concept. The idea is that if you start sentences with “I”, you are owning your experience, you are less likely to seem to be attacking someone and you are discussing the only realm where you really do have absolute authority of the truth (your own experience). If you want to have any chance of productive communication, there is little room for insulting or making statements about the other person. For example: “you are a jerk” is definitely going to lead to a fight whereas saying “I feel angry about how you are talking to me” has a way better chance of leading to an actual conversation. Insulting someone and even making “you” statements are aggressive ways of being.
Another aggressive habit David Richo talks about is blaming. Blaming is something that comes up a lot in my work with couples. It is natural for people to come in saying that their partner is causing problems because that is how they experience it. The trick of it is that their partner is not actually causing a problem, it is that they are experiencing something uncomfortable that their partner triggered. Right away, that takes blaming out of the equation for productive dialogue because blaming tries to focus on fixing the problem in the other person, but there is no fixing something in someone else because you have no control anywhere except in yourself. Anyway…. the interesting thing about what David Richo is saying is that blaming is aggressive because it “usually masks a demand to do something ‘my way’” (p. 180). Think about that for a second. Blaming really is making someone else wrong for doing/thinking/feeling something. So, I want to take it a step further by saying that blaming actually is also overlooking where you might have space to grow and assumes that you considered every possible perspective and have landed on the determination that you are right and your partner has pretty much nothing to contribute to broadening your perspective. Really? Who wants to be like that? Probably no one that is reading this.
Finally, I want to talk about what David Richo says about being secretly separate. He identifies many ways we can distance ourselves from people: “competition, excellence, one-up-manship, running, judgments, secrets, intellectualizing, being right, being super anything” (p. 182). Here’s what really caught my attention:
“The choice to be separate is not aggressive in itself. It becomes aggressive when we pursue it as a secret agenda of our own while our partner believes we are committed to intimacy and cooperation” (p. 182).
Really consider for a second if you have done this. I consider myself to be a loving, considerate human being and partner and, reading this, I am clear that I have committed this aggressive act without even realizing. Think about how it feels on the receiving end of this. It is a betrayal and the physical feeling that accompanies the betrayal does feel like the impact of something aggressive. And, I feel like it is aggressive in the sense that your partner, while believing you are committed, may also be committed and vulnerable. Their heart may be open and vulnerable so that there can be intimacy in your relationship, then that secret agenda is a violation of that openness. What does that do to how safe they feel leaving their heart open to you or to someone else in the future if it is not a good match between the two of you? I always tell my clients, in love and relationship, aim to use one of the rules of camping: leave it cleaner (better) than how you found it.
So, if you are being aggressive in ways you didn’t realize, it’s OK. Build your awareness, clean it up, grow as a human being and partner and learn ways to be assertive rather than aggressive. I’ll write about that next week.
*This post is written in response to a section in David Richo's book "When Love Meets Fear: Becoming Defense-Less and Resource-Full".