Do family gatherings leave you feeling isolated and alienated from your relatives? Can you name a long list of ex- friends you never hear from anymore? Have you had trouble maintaining a serious love relationship? Is your work life marked by friction with bosses and other employees? If the answers to these questions are predominantly yes, you may be suffering from interpersonal problems.
In this chapter you’ll learn about the nature of interpersonal problems, what causes them, and how you can overcome them. The treatment program you’ll be introduced to is research based (McKay, Lev, and Skeen 2012) and has been shown to be highly effective in changing problematic interpersonal behavior.
What Are Interpersonal Problems?
Interpersonal problems are simply recurring relationship problems. If you have trouble relating to or getting along with family, friends, loved ones, colleagues, coworkers, and so on; the problems have been with you for a long time, come up frequently, and seem to follow a familiar pattern.
I’m June, a forty- eight- year- old real estate agent. I was fighting a lot with Ben, my third husband. He complained that I was too negative and not emotionally available to him. He seemed awfully needy to me, very grabby and clingy. I felt smothered around him. But I didn’t want to get divorced. For one thing, I couldn’t afford to pay for my rent and health insurance on my own. The real estate market was lousy from the day I got my license, and my commissions have never added up to a real living. I didn’t hit it off with clients and did not develop the kind of repeat customers that other agents in my office had.
As for friends, I really only had one, an appraiser named Margie. We’d get together Friday nights to drink margaritas and make fun of everybody we knew in the local business community. Eventually life with Ben got so stressful that he and I agreed to separate for a while. Margie let me move into her guest room, and that was okay for about two weeks. We started to get on each other’s nerves, and she eventually said it was time for me to move on.
What Causes Interpersonal Problems?
Interpersonal problems are caused by maladaptive coping strategies: unhelpful ways in which you habitually deal with interpersonal stress. For example, when June’s husband, Ben, accused her of being cold and distant, she coped with this interpersonal stress by attacking him: she accused him of smothering her and trying to micromanage their relationship.
Attacking is just one of the maladaptive coping strategies that can lead to an interpersonal problem. Some people who are faced with the same criticism might cope by withdrawing. They would escape the situation and the relationship by simply ignoring the criticism, refusing to talk about it, changing the subject, or leaving the room.
Clinging is another strategy that some people use to cope with interpersonal stress. They become very dependent on their loved ones, insisting that they cannot live without the relationship. It’s a kind of emotional blackmail that says, “If you leave me, I’ll collapse.”
Another faulty coping mechanism is blaming. June might have blamed her husband for her distance from him, accusing him of pushing her away. Or she might have coped with the stress of his complaints by surrendering, saying immediately, “Oh, you’re right. I’m sorry, I’ll try harder,” never really meaning to change, but just wanting the upset to end quickly.
Where do these faulty coping strategies come from? Many are learned in childhood, when they help people survive family life. For example, as a child, you might surrender to a domineering parent to stay safe. You might cope with a detached father by withdrawing or becoming clingy and overly compliant out of fear of abandonment. Sometimes children learn how to cope by copying what they see their parents doing: going on the attack when they feel frightened, or blaming others when they’re hurt.
Some coping strategies are learned later on, when you stumble onto something that seems to help in social situations so you keep doing it. For example, Rick found out early in grade school that he could avoid some bullying and get some attention by cracking jokes and making his classmates laugh. He became the class clown, reacting to all kinds of social stress with humorous remarks. Unfortunately, he found later that he needed more than humor to succeed in marriage and a career.
That’s the trouble with all these maladaptive coping mechanisms: in the short term, they help a little to protect you and cushion you from stress with certain people, so you keep using them. Over time they become inflexible, fixed patterns of behavior. You tend to react to all social situations the same way, time after time. The faulty coping strategies become generalized and pervasive: the way you handled your parents or your peers in third grade becomes the way you try to handle your adult friends, your lover, your spouse, or your boss. But what worked marginally back then works horribly now. The short- term strategy has become a long- term problem.
So you should just change coping strategies, right? That’s not so easy, as June discovered.
This is June again. I took a workshop from this super- salesman guy at the realty association. He told us very clearly how to behave when you’re showing houses to prospective buyers: you should be positive at all times, pointing out the best features of the house. You should ask polite, personal questions and show interest in their kids and jobs. You should refrain from criticizing the seller or the house. Above all, you should answer all questions—however dumb—fully and clearly and patiently.
After the workshop, I was fired up, and I resolved to follow all the guidelines and start developing better rapport with my prospects. But people can be so stupid and irritating! They ask the same dumb questions over and over, and they don’t pay attention to the answers. In about two weeks I was back to my old tricks: one- word answers, thinly veiled sarcasm, negativity, and impatience.
What Makes Maladaptive Coping Strategies So Persistent?
If these ways of relating to others are so obviously unproductive, why is it so hard to change them? Because maladaptive coping strategies are not just simple habits reinforced by repetition; they arise from a deeper level, from almost- unconscious beliefs called schemas. Schemas are deeply held core beliefs about who you are as a person and the nature of your relationships to other people. Here are some typical schemas that can lead to interpersonal problems:
People are always leaving me.
It’s dangerous to trust people too much.
No one really cares for me or gives me what I need.
There’s something wrong with me.
I don’t belong anywhere.
I can’t take care of myself; I need someone to help me.
Other people’s needs are more important than mine. I have to put them first.
I should function at the highest level. Mistakes aren’t acceptable.
Only the best is good enough for me.
I’m going to fail at what I do.
If you have schemas like these, you act them out over time, developing those maladaptive coping strategies that are so hard to change. Your schemas guide not only your behavior, but also how you interpret other people’s behavior. You see others in the light of your schemas, noticing their negative words and actions that reinforce your schemas and filtering out anything that contradicts your core beliefs.
Your schemas are deeply ingrained, and they persist because they help you understand the world and organize your life. A schema like It’s dangerous to trust people too much can serve as a guideline in many situations, making you feel safe and independent and strong— at least in the short term, until loneliness and isolation lead to chronic depression and resentment.
I’m Ross. I’m twenty- nine years old. I’ve always felt that I’m damaged goods, that no one could really love me if they knew the real me. That’s the schema that runs my love life. Whenever I start getting close to someone, I’m afraid she’ll see how messed up I am. So I tend to dump women before they can dump me. It’s a way of protecting myself, rejecting someone before she can reject me.
I tried to change with my last girlfriend, Irene. I resolved to hang in there when she started talking about how well we got along and hinting about moving in together. But the pressure built up, and I got more and more tense around Irene until, finally, one night I started a big argument and we broke up. It was weird— I could almost watch myself doing exactly what I had planned not to do, but I couldn’t stop doing it. At this point, I’m not open to any new relationships. They’re too painful and bound to fail.
How Can You Overcome Interpersonal Problems?
To overcome interpersonal problems, you need to set and accomplish four essential goals. First, you have to change problem behaviors, such as habitually bragging or harshly criticizing or angrily lashing out at people. Second, to get along with different kinds of people, you need to develop some behavioral flexibility: a range of social responses that are appropriate to a range of situations. Third, you need to detach yourself from some negative, self- defeating beliefs about yourself and others. Fourth and finally, you have to learn how to stop avoiding the social situations in which you feel uncomfortable.
To accomplish these four essential goals, this book combines techniques from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) developed by Steven Hayes and associates (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson 1999) and schema therapy developed by Jeffrey Young and associates (Young, Klosko, and Weishaar 2006). As you work through this book, you will learn to deal with your interpersonal problems by taking these six steps:
1. Uncover your schemas.
2. Identify your maladaptive coping strategies.
3. Identify your core values about how you want to be in
4. Learn to observe and accept schema pain without acting on it.
5. Learn to distance yourself from painful schema- driven thoughts.
6. Turn values— who you want to be in your relationships— into action.
This approach has been proven to work by Avigail Lev, who, in 2011, conducted a randomized controlled trial of these techniques that showed significant decreases in problematic interpersonal behaviors (Lev 2011; McKay, Lev, and Skeen 2012).