Jane’s sister, Betty, seemed to have been born with a vicious tongue.  She attacked everyone relentlessly.  Holidays with the extended family were a misery for Jane and her family.  Nobody, not even their mother, stopped Betty.  Everyone was afraid to complain directly to Betty.  If they did, Betty would turn on them even more spitefully before.

According to Betty, nobody’s children were good enough – they were all ugly, stupid, ignorant, mean or bad.  They were too fat or too skinny; they ate too much or too little; they ate too fast or too slow.  They dreamed too big for their non-existent talents.

Betty laughed joyfully when she pounced on someone’s mistakes, no matter how trivial or irrelevant.  Their choices were always wrong, their clothes and manners were wrong.  Betty always knew better and rubbed everyone’s nose in it.

Some of Betty’s reasons excuses and justifications for why she was so hostile were:

  • “I’m right.  You’re too sensitive.”
  • “Those are my feelings.  It’s my honest opinion.  You wouldn’t want me to repress how I feel, would you?”
  • “I’m doing it for their own good.  You’re too soft on them.  They’ll never get better if you don’t correct them.”
  • “I had to take it when I was a kid.  It’ll make them stronger and tougher.”
  • “They have to learn to take it.  They’ll get it like that in the real-world.”

Of course, everyone can have a bad day and be grumpy.  But with Betty, it was everyday and it was relentless, hostile and mean-spirited.

The family had many reasons, excuses and justifications for why they allowed her to behave the way she did: “That was just the way Betty was and had always been.  She’d probably been hurt a lot when she was little.  She was probably jealous and couldn’t hold it in.  If we say anything, it’ll only get worse and it’ll split the family into warring camps.”

I’ve seen many Betty’s of the world use the same reasons and excuses as justification on one side and, on the other side, many families use the same words to  forgive bullies when they harass, taunt, abuse and verbally, emotionally and physically batter family members or people at work.  Bullying spouses and teenagers, and toxic parents and adult children are masters at giving excuses and arguing forever.

Bullies want us to try to argue with their reasons, excuses and justifications.  The more we argue, the more we’re engaged without their ever changing.  If we make a good point, they’ll change the subject and give another excuse or cite a different time when they were right.  They’ll never admit that they need to change; that’s how we know they’re bullies.

Or, if we challenge them, they’ll explode and make our lives miserable.  And it’ll go on forever until we give up and simply accept the abuse.  That’s how we know they’re bullies.

Or, if we challenge them, their feelings will be so hurt that they’ll withdraw into a very loud silent treatment.  And it’ll go on forever until we give up, admit we were cruel, promise never to attack them again and simply accept the abuse.  That’s how we know they’re bullies.

What can Jane do?  Remember, all tactics have to be designed to fit our specific situations, what we want to accomplish and the limits of our comfort zones.

Jane once asked Betty not to say anything to Jane’s children; Betty was hurting them and Jane had told them take it because Betty was their aunt.  But Betty hadn’t changed.  Finally, Jane decided that she wasn’t going to expose herself and her family to any more of Betty’s abuse.  She’d end the unrelenting negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame and guilt-trips.

She decided to use a stepwise approach that had been successful with a friend who’d acted like Betty.  At each step Jane would get more firm.  About half way along the path, Jane’s friend had changed rather than lose Jane’s friendship.  If Betty didn’t change, Jane would simply avoid any occasion to be together.

Jane’s steps were:

  1. Once again, she asked Betty to stop talking the way she did and to find nice things to say.  She asked Betty to be nicer, kinder and more polite to family than she would be to strangers.  But Betty didn’t stop.
  2. She didn’t debate or argue with any of Betty’s reasons, excuses or justifications.  She simply said that she was asking Betty to change what she said.  But Betty didn’t stop.
  3. She told Betty she wanted her to feel differently but if she couldn’t, she still wanted her to take charge of her tongue and to repress herself; being an abusive bully is worse than repressing herself.  But Betty didn’t stop.
  4. She told Betty that if the brutality continued, she wouldn’t come if Betty was present. That would cause a rift in the family and it would be Betty’s fault.  Betty didn’t stop.
  5. Jane told the family she’d decided that she’d never let bullies treat her and her family the way Betty did.  She had to take charge of keeping them safe from people who polluted their emotional environment.  She asked them to choose the behavior they’d support even if that meant they all told Betty to change or they’d stop inviting her.  Jane reminded them of what Mr. Spock said, “Never sacrifice the many for the sake of the one.”  But Betty didn’t stop.

At each step, Jane felt that she was being more and more firm, and more and more clear about the consequences.  Jane was not making emotional, but idle threats; she did what she’d promised.

Jane decided that behavior was more important than blood.  More important than victimizing her children by subjecting them to their Aunt Betty’s viciousness, was setting a good example by protecting them from abuse.  She didn’t want them to experience the anxiety, stress and discouragement that had accompanied visits with Betty.  That meant they didn’t see Betty any more.  That also meant they saw the rest of the family only on one-to-one occasions when Betty was not present.

Over the years, Jane saw that the rest of the family still made excuses for Betty’s behavior.  Sometimes someone would argue with a specific statement or reason or excuse, but Betty would argue forever and not take back what she said or how she said it.  They still looked for psychological reasons for why she acted that way, as if, if they knew why, they could say some magic words and Betty would be cured and become civil.

Over the years, the same conversations were replayed after extended family gathering except in Jane’s house.  There, Jane and her family had a wonderful time; free from criticism, bullying and abuse; free from the endless re-hashing of Betty’s latest attacks.

Once Jane had cleared the abuse out of her family’s life, they were able to find friends they loved being with.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Ben Leichtling, Ph.D. is author of the books and CDs “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “Eliminate the High cost of Low Attitudes.” He is available for coaching, consulting and speaking.  To find practical, real-world tactics to stop bullies and bullying at home, school, work and in relationships, see his web site (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com) and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGoneBlog.com).

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