Thursday, August 15, 2019

How Not to Deal with a Bully

The answer to this plaintive letter is fairly obvious. Advice columnist Amy Dickinson does not quite get it, so we will take a look at the problem… and we will even offer the solution. I doubt that very many of you will take the Alkon position, which is overly conciliatory toward a bully.

Here is the letter:

One of my dearest friends, "Susan," is married to a man many of the people in our group don't enjoy. I tolerate him, because I love her.

"Bernie" talks at us instead of to us, monologues, and interrupts a lot.

My friend has told me privately that he's verbally abusive to her, but she loves him, so she lets it slide. I've managed my relationship with him by being playful and joking with him, which he has seemed to enjoy.

Bernie recently "went off" on me. He became enraged and verbally abusive when I asked him mildly to please allow me to finish my story before interrupting. I felt completely blind-sided by his ugliness, ranting and yelling.

I was shaking when I told Susan about this. She responded, "Oh that's just him, it doesn't mean anything."

Later she told me not to expect an apology, because he never apologizes.

Later, I told her that I was worried it was going to be weird to be around him, and she said, "Oh don't worry, he's completely over it."

Unfortunately, Amy, I am NOT over it. I don't ever want to be around him again because I feel angry, disrespected, threatened, and afraid that unless I treat him with kid gloves, he might go bonkers again.

I don't want to say this to her because she has normalized his behavior. That's her choice, but it's certainly not mine. However, I will at some point have to say something.

Any suggestions?

-- Furious Friend

You have to wonder how it happened that Susan married such an obnoxious and abusive bully. And you have to wonder why anyone has put up with it. None of it speaks very well of her character.

Surely, one reason why Susan stays with this man is that it has not yet cost her any friends. Perhaps it is time for Furious Friend to take a stand, and that means limiting all interactions with Susan to occasions where the man is not present. And perhaps she should discuss it with other members of their friend group… 

Of course, Susan has cast herself as an enabler, so she is at much at fault as is her bully of a husband. Since no one has called her out on her enabling or on her husband’s bullying, she has no reason to take a stand against him, or to ask herself what she has married.

If your friend’s husband slaps your face or pushes you down a flight of stairs, and your friend says that that is just the way he is, would you be quite so generous? The man is a ticking time bomb... letting the situation persist and to pretend that it's OK is very bad advice indeed. Unless you like being bullied and abused.. 

It appears that Bernie went off on Furious Friend at a time when his wife was not present. This feels a bit bizarre, but we do not have any more information. As for what FF should have done, she should have stood up and walked away from him… She should not have dignified him with a response, of any kind.

And besides, does FF have a husband? Do any other women in this group of friends have husbands? Why would one of the husbands take Bernie aside and tell him that his bullying will have to stop, right here and right now. Or else, they will take him out behind the shed and teach him some manners.

Anyway, here is Dickinson’s advice, advice that is far too cowardly and pusillanimous.

One suggestion is for you to find a way to stand up to this bully the next time he goes bonkers. You should do so in a way where you are true to your own values and behavior -- working hard to not let him rattle you, and responding: "Hey, I'm not OK with you yelling at me. Please stop it." Practice this -- or a similar response -- on your own. Do not focus on being clever or joking your way around it.

“Please stop it” is not standing up to him. It is engaging an exchange with someone who is beating you up. Telling a bully to please stop it, offers a courteous rejoinder to someone who will most certainly laugh at her. And, why say "please" to a bully? It fuels his bullying.

Dickinson does not see the advantage of shunning the man. In a peculiarly twisted piece of reasoning, she suggests that avoiding an abusive bully allows him to control her actions. This is absurd, to the point of ridiculous. If she and her friends shun the man and let Susan know that he is not welcome when they get together, they are not allowing him to control their behavior. They are marginalizing him and are telling Susan that her own enabling is intolerable. 

They might ask themselves why they continue to be friends with a woman of such weak character.

Dickinson believes that FF should keep attending events where Bernie is present. That is precisely not the point. FF should get together with her friends and ensure that none of them are present when Bernie is. 

Yes, you could avoid him, but then he would be controlling your movements and social choices. Obviously, you won't be inviting this guy to your home, but I hope you will not let his presence elsewhere keep you away.

His wife is his enabler and clean-up crew. She is with him, and in order to stay with him she must discount and normalize his behavior and the effect it has on her, and others.

You could say to her, "Look, I'm not judging you. But I don't like being yelled at, and I don't intend to tolerate it."

The last line tells us why people continue to bully, why they continue to be abusive. They are allowed to get away with it. In truth, FF is judging her friend. The problem is that she is not judging her harshly enough. It’s an absurd effect of our therapy culture that Alkon does not believe that FF has a right to judge a man who has abused her. Doesn’t this tell Bernie that it’s alright to bully, to berate, to yell and scream at his wife’s best friend?

As for the last proposed line, namely that Dickinson wants FF to say that she doesn’t like being yelled at-- who does?-- and that she does not intend to tolerate it… If she continues to attend events where he is present, she is tolerating it. Thus, the line is empty and vapid, an expression of a childish sentiment, lacking the name of action.


Sam L. said...

More worthless "advice", from Amy.

Pete the Streak said...

Sorry about the multiples. I see moderation is on. Feel free to delete duplicates. Thanks

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Pete pointed out in other comments that I mistook Amy Dickinson for Amy Alkon...oops. with my regrets... I made the changes.

Webutante said...

Stuart, this is such a good post on the absurdity of the therapy culture and the art of walking away without dignifying his bullying with a response of any kind. I would only add an old-timey, hard slap on the face before making an exit. End of story.