Taking responsibility for obnoxious behavior


A Wave reader in Fenwick Island writes:

Dear Dr. Hurd:

Your column about argumentative and contrary people really hit home! My husband disagrees over everything. If I say the sky is blue, he will engage me in a battle over ‘how blue.’ If a friend gets a new car, he’ll launch into a lecture—in front of the friend—over how it’s inferior or poorly built. Not surprisingly, he has had trouble keeping jobs over the years (he was even fired from a company he founded!). I have to make excuses for him just to keep the slightest social life. By the way, he’s a carbon copy of his outspoken and meddlesome 95-year old mother. (Even after 43 years of marriage, she still makes it clear that I’m not good enough for her 67 year-old ‘little boy.’) Needless to say, they argue constantly. I know I’ll never change him, but I’m tired of having to stand between my husband and the rest of the world. Help!


Dear Wave Reader:

First of all, keep in mind that you always have the option to say, ‘Please stop being so argumentative. Next time you start in, I’m going to walk away. It’s not my intention to be rude or hostile, but when you see me walk away, you’ll know why.’

This is the strongest approach you can take, and when all else fails you should consider it. It’s important to have the option to walk away. You know you have an escape route—if you want to take it. You handle the courtesy issue by warning him ahead of time. He may feel he has a right to say whatever he wants, but you have an equal right to hold him accountable for it.

In my article, I mentioned that being argumentative for its own sake can be an unhealthy attempt to take a ‘short cut’ to self-esteem. The obnoxious behavior often indicates a lack of confidence in one’s ability to figure out real things—things that matter, as opposed to petty, trivial things. The inner workings of your husband’s mind might go like this: ‘I feel like I haven’t performed in my career as well as I could have. Maybe others went to college and I didn’t. Maybe I’m no good at Trivial Pursuit. Whatever. Either way, I feel inadequate, so I clutch onto anything to make me feel good about myself. I must show others that I know something.’

Self-awareness may seem like a luxury reserved for the likes of ‘Oprah,’ but it’s a critical element and a practical tool for being a happier person. By becoming AWARE of his insecurity, your husband can finally do something about it. He might think, ‘I’m taking my lack of self-confidence out on others. I’m overcompensating by being a show off and a know-it-all. I even do this when I’m wrong—how embarrassing!’ Without self-awareness, he remains in denial. ‘Who, me? There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s all you!’

This is where you come in. People like this don’t usually recognize how they’re coming across. You have the singular opportunity to actually HELP by holding him responsible for his actions. Say, ‘I’m not going out with you if you act this way. I’ll go on my own. Until you show me that you can stop fighting with people over petty things, I’m embarrassed to be with you.’ Worried about starting a fight? Not to worry. As I have said in other articles, you don’t have to fight. It takes two to have an argument, so there’s never going to be one without your consent. Yes, there will be pouting and unpleasantness, but those are temporary—and often necessary—aspects of behavior change.

Have you ever heard the term ‘poseur?’ A poseur is someone who acts like he has more knowledge, insight or material things than he really does. It’s dishonest, but more than that, it’s sad. The poseur operates on the assumption that if others perceive him as valuable, then he actually is. Some poseurs may actually have a lot to offer, but they don’t see it. Their insecurities get in the way. Other people can sense their phoniness, and just write them off. What a tragic waste of never-to-be-discovered talent.

Poseurs, wannabes and contrary people must take responsibility for the obnoxious behavior that’s fueled by their own insecurity. First, by recognizing it, and then by asking themselves, ‘What can I do NOW to feel more adequate? What would I like to accomplish to feel better about myself?’ It might be improving your house. It might be reading more books. It might be learning to become more sensitive—and more self-aware.

Your husband needs to get about the business of actually improving himself in a rational way instead of subconsciously striving to overcompensate. We all can do real things to improve our self-esteem. There are no short cuts. It’s a lot easier to perk up your confidence through genuine self-improvement, than by alienating everyone around you. It can be a lot less lonely, too.