Monday, October 12, 2009

Hillary Clinton: Cashing in on Humiliation

This month O Magazine reports on the horror of witnessing two people trying to destroy each other in public. Two people fighting, two people trying to humiliate each other in public. When you see it you want to disappear. Anything to make it as though it is not happening. Link here.

The feeling is normal, far more normal than the petulant rage that seems to be consuming the two combatants. Surely, if they knew what they were doing they would stop. If only to spare the sensibilities of the friends they have enlisted as unwilling witnesses.

In the midst of an everyday conversation about their newborn baby, the husband blurts out that his sex life has recently ceased to exist. Not so fast, the wife retorts, while shooting him a vicious look, you have been racking up obscene phone bills on those 900 numbers.

If you have ever been present at such verbal warfare, you want to dive under the table. You did not want to hear it; you did not want to know it. You respect your friends' privacy. Why can't they have the courtesy to respect your feelings?

We are not talking about Beatrice and Benedict in "Much Ado About Nothing." This is not innocent banter, good-humored joshing, or just plain teasing. Not at all. We are seeing a couple doing their best, perhaps unbeknown to themselves, to destroy the ties that bind them.

More than anything else I have ever seen, public humiliation is the surest way to destroy a relationship.

Good relationships involve sharing. They require the participants tp share private feelings, information, and intimacy. Almost by definition, the closer you are the more you share.

And you know that many therapists believe that relationships fail when people do not share enough. Daily they berate patients who fail to share and empathize with those who are married to these shut-down anal retentive non-sharers.

But the therapists have turned the problem inside/out. If you want someone to open up to you, you must, above and beyond all else, convince that person that whatever they say, whatever they learn about you, will never pass through your lips.

If you overshare, by repeating your partner's intimate secrets to all of your friends, then you have no reasonable expectation that that person is going to confide in you. No one is going to confess to a feeling of vulnerability if there is even a small risk that you might announce it over dinner with friends.

The closer you two are, the more you know about each other's faults, foibles, secrets, and sins. If you want to have an intimate relationship, you should start by learning to keep secrets. You can regale a crowd of people by compromising someone's confidences, but the gesture will label you as untrustworthy.

Unfortunately, psychotherapy has taught many people how to compromise their intimacy. If you have ever endured psychoanalytic treatment or any therapy that has taught you how to say whatever comes to mind without any regard for the effect it is going to produce on others, then you will need to unlearn that bad habit.

Therapists like to think that their patients only exercise this skill within the confines of their offices, but once you have spent years in therapy trying to overcome your conversational self-control, it is nearly inconceivable that you are going to leave that skill on the couch. If you practice the skill, you are inevitably humiliate your partner or mate.

Public humiliation is a special kind of spousal abuse because it is impossible to undo it with an apology. When you have betrayed a confidence and humiliated your partner in public, you cannot make it well by apologizing in private. As the old saying goes, it is very, very difficult to get the toothpaste back into the tube.

Given that you cannot apologize, public humiliation most often launches a vicious cycle of anger, recrimination, and retaliation. The humiliated party will feel compelled to get even, to undo the slight, by any means necessary. It may not happen right away. It may not even happen in the near future. Eventually, at a time and place of the victim's choosing, it will happen.

People are usually willing to forgive slights and insults that happen privately. They will even forgiving cheating partners; they may even forgive beatings.

They will forgive and forget until the moment when the abuse and betrayal become public knowledge.Then, the game changes, and people draw a line. Public humiliation makes it impossible to ignore.

Such humiliations are rarely, if ever, truly forgiven. It feels analogous to what Catholic theology calls the one unforgivable sin: blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Thomas Aquinas articulates the question better than most. For his analysis, link here.

Publicly humiliating your partner is a form of blasphemy. It violates the trust that ties you together. It destroys the intimacy that the two of you share. It makes it impossible for him or her to continue confiding in you.

Those of us who are in the coaching or counseling business want people to understand that they should avoid public humiliation at all costs. Betraying a confidence is not something that needs to be analyzed. End of discussion.

You do not need to undergo the psychological exercises that O Magazine prescribes, to discover why you might be motivated to sabotage your relationship and to inflict grievous harm on yourself and your partner.

You do need to know that publicly humiliating your partner is wrong, is bad, and never leads to anything like a positive outcome. Those who suffer it are not being placed on the road to redemption.

But then, if all of that is true, what are we to make of Hillary Clinton? More than any other public figure Hillary Clinton was humiliated by her husband.

And yet, however much she seems to have suffered, she has also been rewarded with fame and power... as the wages, not so much for loyalty, but of making herself a martyr to the cause.

We might question how a woman who owes her career advancement in some part to her superhuman ability to endure humiliation can function as a respected Secretary of State, but that is for another time.

If we want people to understand that it is wrong to humiliate your spouse and equally wrong for your spouse to sit back and absorb the abuse... then what are we to make of the fact that two of the most revered figures in our nation are, by their lives and by the amount of public adulation they attract, sending an entirely different message?

No comments: