Tactical and Strategic Aspects of Relationships

By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

We are mammals. As mammals, we have five characteristics that differentiate us from other vertebrates (such as reptiles): We are warm-blooded, we give live birth (we don’t lay eggs), we provide milk to our young, we have hair or fur, and we are social (we live in groups).

Being social animals means that we need to have a way to decide who is in charge in different situations. Much common wisdom supports this idea; for example, “You can’t have all chiefs and no Indians,” etc. In the military, you can instantly tell who is the boss by counting stripes on everyone’s uniform – so you know if you salute them, or they salute you. In business, a company has an “org chart” listing and showing the relationships between different job titles. But, in regular daily life, the power structure is far less clear and gets worked out as we interact with each other.

In any interaction with other humans, the way we communicate projects our idea of what our role in that relationship is, and what the power structure of the relationship should be (who is the boss and who is not). Of course, the other person’s behavior also communicates their view of the relationship. These positions of relative power in the relationship are sometimes called “dominant” and “submissive.” Much of this communication is indirect, in the form of voice tone, gestures, eye contact, etc. We emit these communications and respond to others’ non-verbal behaviors, usually without realizing it, because we mostly pay attention to the words that are spoken, rather than the “communication about the communication.”

When our idea about the relationship meshes well with the other person’s idea about it, things go smoothly and we get along with each other. When our idea about the relationship does not mesh with the other person’s, there is tension and conflict. There always has to be a way to work out conflicts within the power structure of the relationship. Watch two male dogs when they meet for the first time; they have to establish who is the “alpha,” but once that is accomplished they get along great. In human society, we don’t bite each other on the neck or urinate in front of each other; we use words, voice tone and other nonverbal behavior.

In a parent-child relationship, the parent is supposed to be the authority (boss, dominant one, etc.) and the child is supposed to be submissive. As long as those roles are accepted and adhered to, the interactions within that relationship go smoothly. But, if the child uses behavior that communicates equality with, or superiority to, the parent, then tension and conflict will usually ensue.

Parents often complain about, or seek therapeutic help primarily because of, children who communicate in a way that shows they are not accepting their submissive role within the relationship. This behavior often begins with the child communicating as though he or she is equal to the parent, and if they “get away” with it, it may progress and become a bigger problem.

Dominance and submission does not appear to play any role in relationships where there is not conflict or disagreement. But, it is operating under the surface all the time. For more information about this, you could read The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, or for a more technical work, Pragmatics of Human Communication by Watzlawick, Jackson and Beavin.

When someone interacts with you in a way that frustrates you, over and over, the chances are that these dynamics of dominance and submission are at work, and are working against you. For example, a bully on the school yard may call you “Stupid!” (Criticism is an act of dominance.) You may think you are resisting dominance by saying, “I am not stupid, you’re stupid!” But, by reacting in the expected way you are still being dominated.

In an interaction, the one who reacts to the other is being dominated. That is why getting angry and yelling at your child is often not effective. He or she does not like being yelled at, but they do like the feeling (of power) of getting you to react to them. Some people especially enjoy getting reactions out of others, and they become very skillful at doing so. They will even do it when it seems to be harmful to themselves.

Devising a strategy to counteract the other’s dominance ploy may require “thinking outside the box” by looking at the tactics they are using, rather than at the content of their statements. I often ask children who are bullied by being called stupid, “Are you stupid?” Almost none of them say that they are. Then I ask, “Since you know you are not stupid, do you have to be upset if he calls you stupid?”  This confuses many of them. It never occurs to them that they can choose how to react.

If you are dealing with a person who seems to be rewarded by getting you to react, it is imperative that you find a way to not react in your old way, and that you react in a way that does not reward them. If someone says something about you, and you do not react at all, you are letting their statement stand - and thus you implicitly accept it. So, you can’t not say something. (Parents almost always tell kids to “just ignore it.” Nearly 100% of kids know that this works almost 0% of the time.) Bullies who don’t get a reaction from insult #1 will go on to #2, #3, etc. until they do get a reaction. Then, they will usually stick with what works.

A response that makes it difficult for the person to draw you into an ongoing back and forth exchange is helpful. A response that changes the subject entirely may be helpful, as it throws the bully off balance. A response that embarrasses the bully can be helpful in certain situations. And by the way, a child who controls situations at home by getting his or her parents to react, is being a bully.

One child I worked with years ago (we’ll call him Jerry) was starting to learn computer programming, and other kids found out he got very upset when they called him a “computer nerd.” We finally arrived at the following tactic. I had Jerry’s mother buy him a book of insults, and had him pick five that he liked, write them on five cards and put them in his pocket. When the bully called him a computer nerd, he said, “Is that they best you can do? I’ve heard much better insults than that!” (this instantly turns the tables on the bully – criticism is an act of dominance), and when the bully said, “Oh yeah, like what?” Jerry said, “I have five great insults here in my pocket – want to see them?” When the bully expressed interest, Jerry said, “How many do you want? They’re a dollar each.” At this point the bully was completely whipped, and quietly walked away. He never bothered Jerry again. This technique of “turning the tables” on the other is often quite effective at ending bullying and harassment. How much more dominant can you be, than by selling the bully better insults?

Parents should understand that a lot of the problematic behaviors that their children perform have the strategic purpose of punishing the parent. They don’t perform those behaviors when you are doing what they want, do they? So, turning the tables on the child and making him or her react to you will help you regain dominance. But, overpowering the child or being harsh or mean, in order to get them to react, often backfires and has negative aftereffects.

For example, tantrum behavior punishes the parent, and when the parent becomes angry about the tantrum, this shows that it is working really well! One approach that may work is to calmly tell the child, when you are about to say no to something and you expect a tantrum: “I know that getting your feelings out is good for you. I will probably say no, so you can have your tantrum right now. Will you do it here, or should we go outside so the neighbors can watch?”

Asking for the problem behavior changes the meaning of it, and once you ask for the behavior the child will usually not want to do it. If the tantrum occurs spontaneously, you can watch and listen calmly for a few minutes, and then offer constructive criticism: “That was pretty good, but you were louder last week and had more energy. Go on, really get your feelings out!” Once the child picks their mouth up off the floor, they will probably not want to continue with the tantrum. This type of approach will only work if you are calm, sincere and helpful; sarcasm and negativity will backfire on you.

If you want more specific help in disciplining outside the box, or developing more effective interventions for problem behaviors, please call and schedule an initial meeting with one of our therapists. By the way, similar techniques can also be applied to difficult (adult) people in your family or in your workplace!