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Chapter 6
By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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Responsibility -
There's only one corner of the
universe that you can be certain
imporving--and that's your own self.
Aldous Huxley



Responsibility is the second value that impacts the emotional climate. Responsibility, along with  personal freedom, shapes the emotional climate of your relationships. Simply described, responsibility means taking care of your own actions, not the actions of others.

Responsibility is not something you think, it’s something you do.

Responsibility means authorship.

Responsibility means being the uncontested creator of your life.

Many people find the act of taking responsibility a thrilling experience. When they get the hang of it, responsibility brings true freedom. It’s the chance to script your own life. To be aware of responsibility is to be aware of how you create your own self, every minute of every day.

I have a friend who has chosen to give her time to an organization that helps sick people every day. She is not paid in money but she doesn’t need the money to live, and the other rewards are great.

One day I was sitting in her living room with some other friends when a woman came in and said, “Hey Jane, I got a couple of free tickets to the theater tomorrow. Do you want to go with me to see the play?”

She was surprised by the offer and thought about it for a while. Then she said, “Thanks for the great offer. I appreciate it, but no. I’m committed to taking a patient to the park tomorrow. I will feel more like myself by doing that than going to the theater.”

I can think of two ways in which juggling responsibility can undermine a relationship. Some relationships become paralyzed by the tug-of-war created when two people attempt to force responsibility on each other. Blame is one vehicle used to achieve such an end.

Other relationships become paralyzed by the chains of guilt created when one partner gives away all their responsibility for the well-being of their life to their partner. Martyrdom is the conduit for this shifting of responsibility. 

A woman living in a suburb of Chicago  watches helplessly as her oldest son slips further and further into drug and alcohol addiction. Night after night, he shows up with excuses, lies, and pain. Eventually, things get so bad, she begins to feel trapped and helpless. She watches as the young son she held as a baby slips away.

Eventually she is left alone in the empty house. After a particularly bad day, she looks up from her kitchen table, angry and frustrated. She cries out loud, “How could he do this to me?” She pounds her fist on the table and continues, “He does not take responsibility for himself, it just is not right.” Finally, she says, “My God, sometimes he is just like his father.”

Her son justifies his actions in a thousand different ways. He says, “She doesn’t get it. She doesn’t have a clue. She makes me feel like garbage. I told her I’d be home, but she still locked the door on me. She doesn’t listen.”

In many ways, the relationship between these two is more like two lovers bickering than mother and son. It points to the importance of taking responsibility. The situation is complex and invisible to both of the characters in this example. A solution for these two could only be found through hard work, and, I suspect, the use of a professional therapist.

On the other end of the spectrum, imagine a family living in a comfortable, well-to-do home. The father of the family comes home every day, sits down and reads his paper. The den is his territory. The mother of the family is left alone and spends much of her spare time involved in community activities.

She is considered by others to be the best giver around. If someone becomes ill, she helps. If the local school asks for volunteers, she gathers a group to meet the need. But if you ask her children, they have a different view of her. The woman’s children think she is cold and bitter.

At home, she constantly complains.

"Not one of you really cares,” she shouts at breakfast. “I do and do and do for you kids, but I could drop dead for all you care.”

In real frustration she says, “I’m putting everything I have into this family and I’m not getting anything back. Doesn’t anybody want to help me?”

In fact, this mix of real effort and confused separation from her family only makes the situation worse.

She does not realize the fallacy of her silent one-way relationships with her family. She is too fearful to say, “I need . . . .” So she does for others, silently hoping in her quiet despair that someone will give her the love and emotional nutrition she needs, she deserves, and she is longing to have.

Being responsible, in this case, means making her needs known to her family. In her role, she cannot see the responsibility for her happiness rests in her arms and not with others.

The impact on the emotional climate is obvious and long-lasting. Blame creates an emotional climate of resentment and shame. This emotional climate consists of hurt, fear, mistrust, and emotional distance. The emotional wounds suffered by each person remain infected for long periods of time. Caution and self-preservation dominate a person’s every movement in such a relationship.

Guilt, activated through the passivity of  martyrdom, erodes the well-being of the relationship as well. Guilt creates an emotional climate of disappointment, inadequacy, the sense you are always letting your partner down, and never being good enough. How each person has let their partner down is the theme of this relationship.

The abdication of our own responsibility is not unusual and has a familiar ring to it. For example, alcoholics generally communicate the same message to those trapped in the classical codependent relationship where one partner is a caretaker for the other partner. The abdication of responsibility sounds something like this. “I am going to be sick and you are going to take care of me.”

It happens everyday. Imagine a wife who calls in sick to work for a husband who is too hung-over to go into work. Her actions bother her, yet fear and shame paralyze her. Her constant cover-ups and his continual irresponsibility keep the relationship frozen in anger, stagnation, and decay.

My experiences in the Bridge-Builder groups  taught me something very important about the consequences of avoiding responsibility. I watched people, in the name of caution, not do the things necessary to maintain their relationship-bridges.

They would avoid conflict. They would avoid discussing the important issues of their relationships. They would let the inertia of the relationship run things rather than risk initiating anything. I noticed one thing happen over-and-over again. This observation led to the following principle.

BRIDGE-BUILDER’S TIP

By avoiding responsibility, you will always create the very outcome you were trying to avoid in the first place.

It is odd what avoidance does to any relationship. Time-and-time again I have seen people avoid being responsible. They may not want to rock the boat. They may not want to risk rejection. They may not want to hurt somebody’s feelings. They may not want to be responsible for somebody else’s feelings. But the outcome is the same every time.

Think about it. Have you ever tried to avoid conflict by swallowing your anger only to create anger in spite of your best intentions? Have you ever avoided the discomfort of discussing with your partner the importance of your emotional needs only to seethe with resentment because your partner has not correctly guessed at what your needs are? Have you ever held back in your relationship so as not to upset your partner only to have your partner become upset because they sensed that you were not being emotionally honest with them?

I am reminded of a close friend who became involved with someone he should not have and he knew it from the beginning. After just a week, there was no longer any avoiding the mistake that he had made. Telling his new-found partner he wanted out of the situation frightened him. He feared he would hurt her feelings. He felt excessively responsible for having started the relationship. He did not want to endure the inevitable reactions he knew he would receive when he would try to leave the relationship.

He felt trapped and desperate--longing for, but not seeing, a way out of his situation. Not believing he could get out of the relationship, he ignored the problem and hoped things would get better.

Then something else happened. He called me and said, “I am really having a bad week.”

When I asked why, he responded, “I’ve been depressed, confused, and uncomfortable. I’ve been drinking every night for the last two weeks. I’ve missed work twice, and when I was there, I actually got into a fight. The straw that broke the camel’s back is  I called my old girlfriend, which I swore I would never do again. We got together for old-times sake, if you know what I mean. I can’t figure out how, but my new girlfriend found out and walked out on me.” 

We talked for a long time. In the end, it was clear to us both what had happened. By avoiding taking responsibility for breaking-off the new relationship, he went out and created the circumstances that would allow the break-up to occur anyway.

However, he exasperated the original problem, because now he is in trouble at work, his emotional health has taken a nose dive, and both his old and new girlfriends feel used and hate him. Lastly, he feels worse about himself than ever before.

The circumstances of this relationship were a challenge for him to choose to be responsible. However, the thought of acting responsibly created great discomfort. The discomfort was so strong, he avoided correcting the situation. His avoidance created a string of drama in his life that sabotaged himself and his new relationship--all of which he was trying to prevent in the first place with his avoidance.

Someone else I know desperately wants to be cared about. He has made being in a committed relationship a crusade. He has turned seeking out the right partner into a science. Yet the same thing happens time after time.

He finds someone and very loyally dates that person until things turn serious. When the woman he is dating gets earnest, he begins to see someone new on the side.

The end result is--he dates two people at the same time in order to have an out, or a safety valve. It is a way to avoid his fears of commitment.

You can guess what always happens. Each one finds out about the other and things get messy for everybody concerned. He winds up alone, to start the cycle all over again.

Oh, by the way, the thing that he fears most about commitment? He is constantly afraid that his partner will leave him, and he manages to make it happen every time.

Sometimes we embrace responsibility and begin to enjoy the control each of us can and wants to enjoy.

Remember each of us can exercise control, direction, and guidance over our own lives. Without a doubt, you are the uncontested creator of your own life.

BRIDGE-BUILDER’S TOOLBOX-

I am going to give you a very specific definition of responsibility as it relates to Bridge-Building. It might sound complex, but try it on for size. Responsibility is the open acknowledgment that our behavior is a manifestation of pursuing conscious and unconscious goals.

This concept is very, very, important. Take your time and mull it over. If you can embrace what I have just said, you will find a whole new way of understanding yourself and the choices you make.

Wise men have taught that most behavior in a relationship is in service of  some unconscious or hidden goals. If  I had a dime for every-time someone looked at me and said, “Well, I am not consciously doing that” or “I did not intend to do that,”  I could end world hunger tomorrow.

The point is simple to understand, but hard to see in yourself. In truth, our unconscious or hidden goals influence all of our behavioral choices.

A question comes to mind. How am I suppose to know what my unconscious goals are if they are unconscious?

Every time I am asked this logical question, I respond the same. It seems so deceivingly simple that you will perhaps readily discard this explanation yourself. To discover your hidden goals, all you have to do is see what the consequence of your behavior is. That’s it.

Watch how your behavior impacts your partner. Watch the reaction you get. You may want to take this a step further and watch all the ingenious ways each of us has created to cover up our hidden goals. The next time you have a conversation, watch the interplay. If your partner is crying over something you said, my best guess would be that you intended to hurt your partner.

But so many times we cover things up with the ingenuity of our adult intellect.

Her:  “I didn’t intend for you to take it that way.”

Him: “I was just kidding,”

Her:  “Can’t you take a joke,”

Him: “You are always so sensitive.”

Her:  “You know how hard it is for me to get serious.”

I have a friend whose husband recently returned from a trip to Montana. He and his wife have been married for years, but she did not go with him on the vacation. The first thing he said when he stepped off the airplane was, “Honey, I have great news. While on vacation, I saw the most beautiful vacation home ever. It’s the best. And now, its ours. I bought a cabin in Montana.”

She was furious. There is nothing about the outdoors she likes. But, she knows sometimes her husband does odd things like that. She gets angry every time her husband does something she does not approve of. After she gets angry, she gives in. She explains it to me by claiming she does not want to rock the boat.   She tells me, “It is better just to let him have his way.” 

Perhaps you can see where I am going with this. For the next six months, she will subtly beat him up every day for the original  transgression. She constantly says, “I cannot believe you did that!”

Can you see what her hidden goal is? She does not solve the problem in the beginning because her true goal is not to problem-solve. Her true goal is not to have an effective, harmonious relationship. Her hidden goal is to be punitive and be powerful.

There is nothing more powerful than the wrath of the self-righteous. Nothing is more satisfying to my friend than to say, “I told you so.” She insulates herself from this truth by telling others that she is long-suffering and self-sacrificing.

She may even believe she is well intended when she says that she wants to keep the peace. She does not see the inherent contradiction when she disturbs their lives for the next six months by blaming him. Her hidden goal is to be punitive and powerful through her self-righteousness rather than risk the give-and-take of conflict resolution.

The end of their story, sadly, is through the avoidance of responsibility, my friend misses out on the most satisfying part of life, a relationship shaped by responsibility and mutuality.

The obvious question to all that has been said about responsibility is how does this translate concretely to the emotional well-being of myself and my relationships.

I wondered about that myself for a long time. It had become obvious to me how avoidance always backfired but I still was struggling to understand the underlying principles of how to activate responsibility in relationships. As time went on in the Relationship Bridge-Building groups, I began to notice concrete changes taking place as to how responsible people were becoming.

As the Bridge-Builders became more and more responsible for what they were creating for themselves, the emotional climate of the groups changed as well. Open dialogue, which removed the obstacles between two people, replaced self-righteous indignation and smoldering resentments. Blame and excuses started to leave people’s manner of relating.

Open acknowledgment of other people's feelings and needs replaced long-winded explanations. Patient attempts at listening and understanding how their words and actions were affecting other people replaced defensive justification of a person's behavior.

BRIDGE-BUILDER’S TIP
Provide for your partner the things that you are seeking from your partner.

This tip will take defensiveness and resentment out of the relationship. It will remove the responsibility for one’s well-being from your partner and place it squarely on your shoulders. It will establish mutuality in your relationships.

The spirit of this tip is simple. If you want someone to be open with you, be open with them. If you want respect, give it.

This principle reflects universal truths. You and only you are responsible for the people you attract into your life. You and only you are responsible for the partners you choose. You and only you are responsible for the attitude you take toward the circumstances in your relationships.

You are responsible for getting your needs met in your relationships. You and only you are responsible for the choices you make in how you stifle or nurture the growth of your relationships.

By simply being willing to give to your partner the very things you are seeking from them, your relationship will open up. The inevitable constriction that fear creates in any relationship will give way to a more spontaneous relationship. It is much more work to keep somebody shut out than to merely provide those emotional strokes for your partner that you want for yourself. All you have to be willing to do is to take responsibility for being a giving partner.

BRIDGE-BUILDER’S TIP
If your partner constantly mistreats you in your relationship, how might you be cooperating with the treatment?

This principle, once embraced, will remove much of the resentment and self-righteous indignation from the emotional climate of all the relationship-bridges you build. Blame and shame will become relics of the past.

I emphasize once embraced. This principle of responsibility is something which most people initially turn their head away. However, this axiom cannot be denied.

The premise of this principle is we continually create our lives. Each of us chooses to be constantly in contact with others who are important to us as well as  avoid any contact where we deem appropriate. Our relationships, our destiny, every aspect of our lives are all our own choosing.  Some of us make the choice to avoid responsibility for creating, maintaining, and sustaining these relationship-bridges. We surrender the choices involved with creating our own lives. Consequentially, often times, we feel angry, hurt, unwanted, and mistreated.

As I lead the Relationship Bridge-Building groups, I notice the same thing over and over. Some people will sit week after week, never initiating any involvement with anyone. The pain of their isolation and alienation is always evident from the looks on their face--the loneliness engulfing them reflects how badly they want to be included. Yet, every time somebody reaches out to them, they rebuff that person’s overtures.

These people have built walls around themselves. They deny the importance to themselves of wanting other people to be attracted to them and involved with them. They protest time-and-time again  that they do not know how to relate to others.

They explain their loneliness to themselves in terms of their perceived deficits--“I am boring,” or “I don’t know how to make conversation,” or “I don’t know how to do it right.”

Many people cannot see their own unwillingness to be a friend in order to have a friend. They deny themselves the most simplistic and direct way out of their loneliness.

As such, they are left without that which they say they want. They say they want to belong, to fit in, to be a part of. They say they really, really want to create fulfilling relationships.

But what they want is in conflict with what they desire. What they want is to be accepted and cared about. What they desire is to be protected by building impenetrable walls around themselves.

Their desires inevitably win out over their wants, thereby leaving them feeling powerless and befuddled. Powerless to effect any change. Befuddled as to how it always winds up the same for them.

Ultimately, they spend their lives bemoaning their fate--telling the world about how well intended they are but always winding up with the same results.

BRIDGE-BUILDER’S TIP
You can have only two things in your relationships, intentions and results. Intentions don't count.   

This tip will do away with explanations, excuses, and expressions of good intentions. Things that happen in your relationship will become very black-and-white. Choices made no longer will be clouded by silver-tongued individuals who can talk their way out of any circumstance. Excuses stop and acknowledgment becomes the law of the land. Good intentions cease to be the currency people use for barter.

Have you ever seen someone who wanted something, but could not bring themself to ask for it? I have seen many people who would not take responsibility for getting their needs met. Responsibility in this sense, means being proactive, not well-intentioned. Proactive means initiating a course of action congruent with the goal of getting your needs met, not putting off until tomorrow what you could do today.   

How do you relate to this tip? Do you find yourself spending more time justifying your good intentions rather than actively creating solutions to the challenges you face in your relationship? What keeps you stuck in a cycle of good intentions rather than concrete results?

Use this tip as a springboard to become more active in those aspects of your relationships in which you are falling short of the mark. Go ahead and transform your good intentions into positive results.

BRIDGE-BUILDER’S TIP
Take responsibility for what your behavior means--not what you want others to think that it means.

Follow this tip and watch how emotional honesty and directness will replace hedging and ambiguity. Exposure of your true-self and a feeling of vulnerability will replace managing someone’s impression of what you want them to believe about you. A heightened awareness of what your behavior means will replace ignorance about the choices you make.

I cannot tell you the numbers of time people have said to me, “Well, I do not know what I am doing.”

I want to plead with them and say, “Every last one of us knows exactly what we are doing. We have done it our whole lives. It is well rehearsed, much practiced.”

If your goal is to be responsible in your relationships, then it is time you take ownership of the missing link. The missing link is taking responsibility for what your behavior means--not what you want it to appear to mean.

Being responsible means you have the courage to come out of hiding. Being responsible means you have the courage to be seen for who you are--not for how you want to be seen. It means you are committed to giving up the crutches of rationalization and denial. It means you will trade in the tools of irresponsibility such as passive-aggressive behavior for emotional honesty, passivity for assertiveness, conflict avoidance for conflict resolution. 

There is one thing to remember when talking about the aspects of responsibility in your life, it takes time to learn these skills.

At first, many of us are overwhelmed by the awesome task of picking up the dangling bits of personal responsibility.

A woman asked for my help implementing these principles once. She looked at me and said, “It seems so hard, this idea of taking responsibility. I want to do it. But responsibility is difficult.”

We sat down to talk, but she already had a plan in mind.

She said, “I have found that the best way to reach my goal is to begin each day in a brief meditation. I say to the universe--please help me to recognize where and when I need to take responsibility for myself. Only to recognize the need, nothing more. In time, I can work on taking action. But my meditation helps me to understand. In a way, the comprehension takes away some of the fear. And without some of the fear, I can begin to change.”

The truth is, there are many wrong ways to adopt responsibility and few easy ones. But responsibility well worn is a very powerful tool.

Once you get the hang of it, taking responsibility can be an electric experience. Responsibility brings true freedom. It’s the chance to create your own life. To be conscious of responsibility is to be mindful of how you create yourself.

G.B.U.

Steve



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.

 


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