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All People Are Difficult, But You Shouldn’t Be Too Difficult

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT

As a couple therapist, I know how difficult people can be. Actually, as a person on this planet and a romantic partner to my wife, Tracey, I count myself as one of those difficult people. Indeed, in no way do I put myself above any of the other annoying people out there. Yet here I am, writing about how to be less of a pain in the ass. Well, while I know I can be difficult, I know how not to be too difficult. And the line between them is actually clearer than you might think. Here’s how not to cross it.

When I work with couples, our goal is for them to become secure functioning. Secure functioning partners are least difficult with and toward each other. That’s because they understand their purpose: To ensure each other’s absolute, unequivocal sense of safety and security. Partners are equal stakeholders in this endeavor, therefore, they agree to make life easier for each other, not harder. That’s one of the main principles of secure functioning relationships.

Oh, wait, you think you’re not difficult? Let me tell you, you are. Here’s why:

  1. Your brain. Though a very impressive organ, your brain is prone to lots of errors, especially in social situations. For example,
    • Your brain all too often conflates social cues (faces, voices, movements, postures, words, and phrases) with real danger.
    • Your brain is mostly automatic, memory-based, and therefore confuses current events with previous experience via a lightning fast memory and recognition system.
    • Your brain constantly replaces missing evidence with made up “facts.”
    • Your brain imagines things that are not there.
  2. Your biology. Your development plays a considerable role in how difficult you are. Your biology affects your ability to:
    • Manage your impulses.
    • Tolerate frustration.
    • Shift your attention at will.
    • Manage your state of arousal.
    • Socially-emotionally act and react appropriately under stress.
    • Make decisions.
    • Override what feels good for what does good.
    • Remain self-aware in real time.
  3. Nature. You are genetically predisposed as a homo sapien to be aggressive, self-interested, and prone to dislike people who are “too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.”1
  4. Nurture. Your experiences and memories shape who you become.   If you experienced any trauma, especially in early childhood that remains unresolved, you are likely to be hyper-reactive to threat cues, both internally and externally.

This is not an exhaustive list. The ways to be difficult are limitless. However, that you and I are difficult is not a problem. It’s when we cross the line and become too difficult, that is the problem. How does focusing on secure functioning help?

Secure functioning partners co-create their own kind of social contract which protects them from each other. These are “golden rules” in that they are, if agreed upon, undisputable and therefore help partners rein in difficult behavior.

One golden rule could (and should) be, “We protect each other in public.” Keri and Dave, for example, agreed to this principle. They both decided that it served both a personal and mutual good. In the example below, they are out to dinner with another couple. Dave is an actor and he received news that he won a co-starring role in a major motion picture. He told Keri that he signed a non-disclosure agreement and to keep it to herself.

Keri: [to the other couple] The other night Dave got news that he’s doing the next (fill in the blank).

Dave: [turns his head away in anger]

Keri: What? [raising her shoulders and hands in a disdainful, questioning manner]

Dave: [quietly in her ear] Remember what I told you earlier. Don’t talk about this.

Keri: [out loud] Oh come on. It’s great news. I’m proud of you.

At this point, Keri has stepped over the line and has become too difficult. That she reflexively said something that he explicitly told her not to say breaks an agreed upon principle. However, that she continued to violate the principle when reminded by Dave – that is what defines being too difficult. It also shifts Dave’s experience of Keri from annoying to threatening.

Here’s how it should have gone:

Keri: [to the other couple] The other night Dave got news that he’s doing the next (fill in the blank).

Dave: [turns his head away in anger]

Keri: [covering her mouth in horror, turns to Dave] I’m so sorry. I forgot. I’m so sorry, really I am. [to the other couple] I just betrayed Dave by telling you that. [back to Dave] I am so very sorry I did that.

Dave: [to couple] I’m under an NDA so no one is supposed to know this. Keri’s very excited for me about this. Please, keep this to yourselves.

Keri: [whispers in Dave’s ear] I’m so sorry.

Now that is an example of repair and recognition of being difficult.

Other examples of being too difficult include:

  • Persistently not releasing your partner after a satisfactory repair.
  • Not being willing to bargain with your partner.
  • When bargaining, not providing alternatives following the word “no.”
  • Being unwilling to admit your wrongs and make amends.
  • Being unwilling to see your partner’s point of view.
  • Not being curious.
  • Persistently stubborn.
  • Persistently inflexible.
  • Persistently conflict avoidant.
  • Continually failing to check with your partner when discussing them in public.
  • Continually disregarding your partner when together in public.
  • Persistently (and unapologetically) failing to keep your word.
  • Persistently talking too much.
  • Persistently talking too little.

Again, this is by no means a definitive list. But notice the wording in here. It’s not about reflexively doing something that makes you difficult for your partner. It’s about the refusal to stop when cued that makes you too difficult. It’s also about the refusal to repair the hurt and makes things right.

We are all fundamentally automatic creatures – all day, every day. Our brain cannot possibly remember the countless changes in behavior our partners require under various circumstances. That’s why telling your partner to never again embarrass you in public, while understandable, can never work. Your partner will do something again, and likely without any malicious intent. It will be far more effective to remind your partner just before entering a public situation. “When we go in, please don’t make any jokes at my cost, okay?” If your partner is not too difficult, they will comply. If they don’t, well, now you have a problem. If they slip (which should not happen), and remain unapologetic, it’s likely time to move on.  

Because we are all mostly automatic, we shouldn’t be faulted for many of the knee-jerk behaviors we do without thought and, at times, without intention. We are, however, responsible for what we do after we do something stupid, thoughtless, or insensitive. We are all difficult in one way or another. The challenge for secure functioning couples is in not crossing the line to becoming too difficult.

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NOTES:

  1. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 18). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

3 Comments

  1. Like it! Outlines our humanness: we are going to make mistakes. Calls on our responsibility to be grown up and apologize for our mistake. Thanks, Donna

    Like

  2. Maggie says:

    What are your thoughts on an avoidant using emotional abuse similar to what listed under characteristics of narcissism: gaslighting, blameshifting, can’t be “wrong,” splitting, using angry voice though claiming not angry, concerned only/primarily with their sense of safety, using pain to create distance. Do you have any experience where a person this hard shelled and willing to protect at almost all costs to significant other can ever see past this singular insular self protective reality?

    Like

  3. Peter says:

    Maggie, Tatkin answers this above: It’s time to move on. Direct quote: “If your partner is not too difficult, they will comply. If they don’t, well, now you have a problem. If they slip (which should not happen), and remain unapologetic, it’s likely time to move on”.

    Like

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