Friday, March 22, 2019

How to Deal With Obnoxious Women

You have to wonder whether the two letter writers are talking about the same woman. One woman wrote to therapist Lori Gottlieb. The other wrote to Carolyn Hax. Each is describing a woman who is a boorish lout, an insufferable companion. The only difference is that the one is writing about her mother and the other is writing about a longtime friend. So, while you can reject the latter it is far more difficult to exclude the former. The letter writers want to know what to do about it.

Anonymous writes this to therapist Gottlieb:

No one likes my mother. She is loud, obnoxious, negative, and self-involved. She doesn’t listen to people when they talk, or look them in the eye. She doesn’t have any common ground with most folks, since she’s mostly interested in her own stories.

All of this means being around her difficult. She has instigated arguments at family gatherings, making things very uncomfortable. My aunts, uncles, cousins—her siblings and nieces and nephews—keep their distance when possible, not inviting her to game nights, birthday parties, and other gatherings. This makes me feel obligated to host events so I can ensure she’s invited, but during and after, I’m resentful that she puts me in that position. My husband also gets angry that I feel the need to create times when she can socialize, since he and I also don’t look forward to being around her.

I want my mom to be more likable. I want to be able to have my mother around when I have children. I don’t want rifts between me and my husband about her coming over.

I’ve directly told her what I think she could do to improve her relationships with her family and suggested therapy, but she doesn’t see a problem. She doesn’t realize she’s being left out as much as she is, either. She believes she’ll always be welcome at my house. The truth is she’s not, but I feel so guilty when she’s not invited by anyone else in the family.

Presuming that I won’t be able to change how my mother acts and that she won’t change on her own, how do I move past the guilt tied to attending and hosting family events that she’s not invited to, and preserve my marriage and relationship with my extended family?

And here is the letter that J. wrote to Carolyn Hax:

A group of 10 ladies gets together weekly, and we do an annual trip together. Nine of us are frustrated by one friend who does not have group social skills. She interrupts constantly, asking questions that would be answered if one could finish one's story. She responds to every comment, dominating conversations. We find ourselves going totally silent to control the constant chatter, which includes talking to herself. Nine of us are miserable.

I have had a one-on-one which seemed well-received, but no progress came from it. We would welcome any suggestions. Total alienation seems like the only solution at this point.

— J.

As for the insufferable mother, therapist Gottlieb recommends that dutiful daughter suck it up:

For now, instead of trying to protect your mom by orchestrating gatherings, be honest with your family members about how hard it is to see your mom excluded even though you understand why that happens. They’ll likely have compassion for your situation, and can support you as you work to shift the responsibility of her behavior to where it belongs—on her.  

Few pieces of advice are quite so tedious as a call for so-called honesty. Relatives do not want to deal with this woman’s mother. They have a right to exclude her, in the interest of not having her ruin the party. If Mom is incapable of getting the message, she is hopeless. Her daughter has told her that she is misbehaving. She doesn't care. These people are unlikely to include Mom out of compassion. They are more likely to exclude a daughter who is trying to force them to take some bitter medicine.

Evidently, you cannot shun your mother, but the only sensible solution is to arrange events that are Mother-Daughter events, or even private events at daughter’s home. Mom has surely behaved badly for decades now. It’s time to stop coddling and to limit interactions wherever possible.

As for Gottlieb’s other apercu, namely that her husband should suck it up and tolerate the mother. When he married the woman, he also married into the family.

Here, I think that the wife should have more consideration for the husband. If he finds her mother to be obnoxious and insufferable, she should try to keep the two of them apart. She does not want and should not want to break up her marriage over the issue.

As for Hax’s advice to the friend:

Yet it doesn’t take much scrutiny to see that silently, abruptly cutting a 10-person group to nine is just about the meanest thing there is.

And once you see this, then you can also recognize that when a freshly interrupted speaker says to the oafish friend, out loud, mid-crowd: “Would you please let me finish?” ... pause for a beat ... Thank you every. single. time. it is an act of comparative kindness.

So take this on. Every single one of you who has a problem with her manners. Kindly, firmly, clearly, let her know when she oversteps. “Thanks for your observation, Rudi. I’d also like to hear what others have to say.”

No piling on! Tempting as it is. One voice per incident with one gentle redirection. The more of you taking a turn, the better.

Maybe she’ll eventually get it. Maybe for her it’s ungettable. Maybe just speaking up will feel so liberating that you’ll mind her less; never underestimate the power of your perceived helplessness to make an otherwise bearable situation seem unbearable.

Maybe she will find these new conversational guardrails so insulting, she’ll opt out of the group on her own.

And maybe you’ll just end up at the exact same “only solution” you already suggested. But even then, if it does come to the point where none of you invites her to anything anymore, it won’t hit her abruptly and in silence; such cruelty, that. Instead she’ll have had a wake-up-please grace period in which several people who care about her openly identified behaviors of hers that were out of line.

First, the obvious point. The woman in question is a longtime friend. If she is as obnoxious as everyone things, how did she get invited into the group in the first place? If her bad manners are a new acquisition then perhaps a visit to the local neurologist is in order. Radical changes in behavior sometimes manifest an underlying neurological disorder.

I am not sure that excluding her is the worst thing you can do, but I do subscribe to Hax’s approach. It will require some organization to interrupt the interrupter systematically, and to keep interrupting her until she gets the message. Since she, unfortunately, does not seem to understand that her behavior is out of line, she might not react very well.

Then and only then, Hax suggests, should the group decide to exclude her from their get-togethers. At least, she will understand why this is happening. It makes sense, and it is more gracious than many other people would be.

As for whether or not either of these women would be cured by therapy, my suspicion is that they have already had too much therapy. Where else would they learn such obnoxious habits?


dfordoom said...

As for whether or not either of these women would be cured by therapy, my suspicion is that they have already had too much therapy. Where else would they learn such obnoxious habits?

Yep. I think you're spot on there.

JPL17 said...

Therapy that urges people just to "be honest" and "express themselves" ... ruining lives relationships for 45 years!