How Arbitrary Assertions Can Harm Relationships

A couple stand back to back with woman's arms crossed

The following is an excerpt from my book, Bad Therapy Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference), available for sale on this site, and elsewhere.

Case Example of an Arbitrary Assertion

Joe and Melissa have been married for sixteen years. Last year, Joe accepted that he had a gambling addiction. He joined a local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous, a Twelve Step program for compulsive gamblers.

At first, Melissa was happy Joe sought help. She had suspected that he had a problem for some time and knew that he needed help before he was willing to admit it. As time went by, however, Melissa became uneasy. Although she presumed that Joe was not gambling any more, he began to keep his distance. He went to Gamblers Anonymous (G.A.) meetings every night. He began to spend more and more time with G.A. friends, shutting out other friends even if they didn’t gamble.

Melissa started to feel shut out of Joe’s life. When she tried to confront him with her feelings, Joe responded: “You are an enabler. For me to have been sick all these years, you must have been sick too. You made it easier for me to gamble. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see this. You did it unconsciously. And until you accept that you are diseased, there is no hope for you either.”

Melissa became distressed, paralyzed and helpless over Joe’s claim. At other times she felt angry, almost in a rage, but could not even identify what she was angry about. To add insult to injury, Joe revealed one night that he had been relapsing. He admitted to gambling numerous times since beginning his G.A. program. What disturbed Melissa most about this discovery was that Joe did not seem bothered by it. She learned that his G.A. sponsor (a kind of confidante/therapist who also had a gambling problem) told him not to be “so hard on yourself.”

It seemed to her that he ought to be at least somewhat hard on himself for gambling when the goal was to quit. She became confused and started to have anxiety attacks for the first time in her life. She ended up in a therapist’s office.

The therapist asked Melissa to invite Joe to a session with her. Joe refused, indicating that Melissa had her own disease and it was good for her to get help, so long as the therapist was a believer in the Twelve Step philosophy.

Melissa could not understand what Joe meant by “diseased.” She explained that it was hard enough for her to think of her husband’s gambling problem as a disease—a psychological problem, for sure, but not a disease. And the idea that she herself was diseased made her feel like Joe was blaming her for his problem.

The therapist asked Melissa to try an experiment. He gave her an assignment to ask Joe, at an appropriate time when they were at home alone, if he could explain the reasons why he felt she had a disease. Joe seemed irritated at the question and simply replied, “If your therapist is a believer in the Twelve Step philosophy, he should be able to tell you.”

But Melissa persisted, and Joe finally told her to read Melody Beattie’s book, Codependent No More. Melissa did so. While she found the book made some interesting points about not unwittingly encouraging the addict’s problem, she still saw no evidence that she herself was diseased or an enabler as the author defined the term.

She discussed the issue further with her therapist, who gave her another task: In the future, whenever Joe made a claim about her (especially with respect to this disease) which she did not understand, she was to calmly respond, “Why?” or “Please explain what you mean.”

If Joe refused to answer, or simply became indignant as he had before, she would resolve not to become upset about it. Her therapist predicted that she would find this difficult and possibly even painful at times, but she needed to make it a habit. She needed to learn that nobody, not even her husband, was allowed to make claims without reasons they could explain and defend. While she might not always agree with or necessarily understand her husband, she would at least know that he was making an honest effort when he attempted to provide honest, clearly thought out answers. Nothing less was acceptable.

Discussion of the Case Example

The issue involves much more than communication. The issue is cognitive. Joe’s cognitive error is in making an arbitrary assertion: He claims that Melissa is diseased and expects her to take this on faith. Melissa made the mistake of not recognizing Joe’s assertion as arbitrary. She first needs to understand what an arbitrary assertion is, and why it has no merit. When Joe (or anyone) makes such assertions in the future, she can learn to put the other individual on the defensive instead of becoming defensive herself.

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