the two person game

One of the hardest, hardest things for me to accept was that passive aggression is a two-person game.  Yes, I’ll repeat that, it’s a two person game.  It needs a Perpetrator and a Victim to function. It took me years and years to figure out what part I played in it- and of course, my pah saw me as the Perpetrator as I was frequently angry with him.  Very, very angry.  Because of his endless spiteful and uncooperative behaviour, and because I ‘had’ to take all of the responsibility for the family as he simply couldn’t be trusted. ( I had to work on Sunday once against his wishes and he didn’t give the children aged 5 and 3 years old their lunch; aged 7 and 5, he ‘forgot’ the time to collect them from school. I learnt my lesson well). How on Earth could I consider myself a partner in some awful game when it was blatantly obvious to me that it was all his responsibility?

I was born the child of very young parents, and my father was already a serious alcoholic.  I remember getting in trouble at 5 years old for not looking after my baby brother properly when my father had asked me to.  The stage was set ‘be responsible for everything don’t ever let anyone down’. We left my father when I was 6, and from then on my mother anxiously concentrated on having a few boyfriends until she eventually settled down with an covertly abusive man who resented the fact that she already had two children. (I was sent away to live with my grandmother during the week for three years). As a teenager, the main conversations with my mother revolved around what a terrible life he had had and justifying his bad behaviour. Stage two- ‘your feelings don’t matter, and if you don’t toe the line you’ll be rejected from the family’.

So I had chosen my Game Piece- I was an angry powerless victim. Today, I won’t talk about my pah as I have a lovely stories about his sister- PA is a family habit. She would love love love to keep us waiting.  I mean for hours! My Ex’s family considered themselves a close family and would arrange things to do together, always revolving around my sister-in-law and her family. She would invite us over for some excursion, the one I’m thinking about today is a Craft Fair.  We would all (parents-in-law as well) meet at her house and set off in a couple of cars.  She arranged for us to come at 10am- don’t be late otherwise we would let everyone down. You can understand that I would feel terrible if I did that, so despite the fact that we both had jobs commuting to London and were out of the house daily for 12 hours, we abandoned all weekend household chores and laundry and turned up prompt at 10.  We were greeted by the sight of my s-in-law in her dressing-gown (house-robe) with an armful of wet laundry to be hung out and her husband preparing to mow the lawn.  She welcomed us warmly and told us to make ourselves at home, that we would be going out at 2pm. 2pm???

When I politely objected and pointed out that the arrangement was for 10am, she was ‘terribly hurt’ and tearful and said that the decision had been made for OUR BENEFIT and that everyone thought it would suit us better this way. Why didn’t she ring to tell us?  She was a ‘Teacher’ (more important than me) who was ‘too busy’ to telephone over such trivialities.  So we hung about, enraged, for several hours watching them get up to date with household tasks whilst we were bored with nothing to do.  Why didn’t I confront her more forcefully or simply leave?  Because it was sold to me that I was a part of the ‘family’ and it was important to fit in, otherwise I would be rejected.

I felt helpless and powerless, and she played this trick many, many times in different guises (both us visiting her and she travelling to us) until eventually she did it straight after my mother died and I blew and ended the relationship. It began to make a fool of us in front of our children (undermining my parenting) and that triggered a ‘higher’ level of my core values- that of being a good mother.  It was really, really important to me to be a good mother, and if that meant letting my in-laws family down or not being responsible by going along with their family, so I was then finally empowered to resist her PA game.

In reality, looking back as I am now, I was not powerless. I could have got back in the car and driven away or I could have refused to engage in any further arrangements in the future. It was the weight of the consequences that kept me in the situation.  My own fear of being rejected and of people accusing me of being irresponsible and not caring about the family.  I was a prisoner of my own belief system, of my fear of abandonment,  not of my s-in-law’s manipulation. Engaging in the Game also kept me in my ‘angry victim’ comfortable spot. This was exacerbated by the fact that my ex-husband wouldn’t countenance any rebellion against his family, and the firm knowledge that ALL of this new family of in laws would ALWAYS believe her and back her up. It was a strong fortress- I wasn’t wrong- when I did eventually stand up to her, albeit very politely, the entire family did back her up and I was ejected from the family.  She really would not tolerate any degree of resistance to her spiteful tricks and we never had a relationship with her nuclear family again. My in-laws didn’t speak to me for a year, we couldn’t visit at Christmas if she was there and my children lost their cousins; it contributed to the breakdown of my marriage as my husband took his family’s side too.

Painful as it was, once I let go of my conditioning (still working on it) to be over-responsible and not make a fuss to ‘upset’ the family, I’m finding it easier to identify PA behaviour and stand up to people.  The above situation is a wonderful example of the Karpman Drama Triangle in action too.

6 thoughts on “the two person game

  1. Cathy, Interestingly enough, I began studying TA/Karpman Triangle when I was a teenager. Transactional Analysis was very popular in the 70’s. I’m glad that you refer to this because I believe it’s a wonderful exercise for all of us to study and practice that can benefit any of our personal and professional relationships. You are amazing..truly! Your courage to confront your mistakes, to heal your belief system, to challenge yourself and honor yourself with a better life is such an inspiration!! Thank you! You will become everything you were meant to be.

    Reading about your childhood and the progression of toxic relationship dynamics with your husband’s family just made me cry. It’s the same for me and Norman’s family!!! Everyone in his family is PA, especially his father. I finally realized how PA and abusive his father is just in the last two years and I can’t even stomach the thought of ever being around those people on any level, ever again! I can recall that every single time we had to go to their house for some occasion, they would deliberately delay meals or other activities just to upset me because they knew that we had to drive two hours to and from their home. They had no respect for our time or our other responsibilities. We were not allowed to come there until after Church ( which was every day for them) and so if we arrived at 12:30pm, they would not have any meal until 4 or 5pm and then they would take forever to serve that. Norman and I are mostly vegetarians and this really annoyed his father. His father would never admit that but he would ring me on the phone and say, ‘ Hey, we’re throwing meat on the grill and hope you guys can come join us’. He deliberately used the word meat to offend me. I know he did. He could have said, ‘ We would love for the two of you to come dinner, what would you like to have” . There was never one attempt to ask us what we would like to eat or drink. All they ever had was meat and diet sodas ( don’t drink them either and they know that) and water. A couple of years ago I started bringing my own food for Norman and I. In the beginning of our marriage, I tried to be considerate of Norman’s parent’s feelings and I never wanted to put anyone out of their way and such and just tolerated their unhealthy disgusting food. But, in the last two or 3 years, after realizing that they have absolutely no respect for anyone else and how it became very clear that they were actually attempting to ‘ force’ us to comply with their eating habits as a means to control us, I became defensive and refused to play their game. Like you, I reached a point where I would just stand up to them and I wouldn’t tolerate them at all. I was living with their abusive son and that was quite enough. Three of them in one room at one time? Way too much!

    Your childhood was very similar to my own and while neither of my parents were alcoholics, I discovered, through family research that my maternal grandmother came from a very abusive childhood that involved a lot of alcoholism. Family secrets …oh boy, they are like a cancer that just spreads from one generation to the next. Now I understand why every time someone would lose their temper, others would say, ‘ Oh yea, the Irish is coming out in them’ ( they were fighting Irish- literally very violent and abusive) It’s all those dysfunctional and toxic coping skills that our relatives/ancestors developed that harm us. I think the enablers are the ones who create the most damaging belief system because like PA, their motives are covert……..pretend, deny, lie to cover up. If there is any one thing in this life that enrages me, it’s denial. Denial of the truth is the most selfish and downright damaging behavior there is. Like you, at one point, I became the frustrated/angry child. I didn’t act out toward others in an angry way but I was self destructive. I suffered all the same fears you did and I lived with a very unhealthy belief system about myself.

    My grandmother escaped her abusive family and made her own life with my wonderful grandfather but her denial/secrets continued to eat away at her, her entire life and she resorted to PA tactics all too often. I stood up to her though and I didn’t play into her games. She was a very proper southern woman I just attributed her PA to the typically coy ‘ southern way’. Her daughter, my mother, is a narcissist and so I had to grow up with all the drama surrounding her life much like you did with your mother. I don’t know if your mother was a full blown N but it sure sounds like there were several N’s in your life. Of course, those of us that grow up with a toxic belief system become magnets to manipulators. N’s really will dump you very quickly if you upset their system. Living with that constant ‘threat’ of abandonment is very confusing no matter what age we are and it continually undermines our self worth. My mother dumped me and my brother won’t speak to me because of her…….he is her ‘ golden child’.


  2. So well written! This, this, this! “In reality, looking back as I am now, I was not powerless. I could have got back in the car and driven away or I could have refused to engage in any further arrangements in the future. It was the weight of the consequences that kept me in the situation.”

    If we could see a choice, it would be empowering either way. To decide consciously that the consequences were too great, or to face them.


  3. PJ’s I always knew I had choices, I always knew I could leave. I chose to stay because of the reasons that Cathy mentioned but, mainly just a fear of making an even worse decision and later regretting it. My entire existence was so undermined and so unstable that I couldn’t trust any decision I made. Even now, I don’t trust that what I’m doing is going to make my life an easier. It might still be tough, perhaps even more difficult but I wont’t but I won’t be a victim of abuse. I’m actually functioning on adrenaline and what some might consider to be insanity I’m not even trying to set goals or make plans. I’m living day to day, accepting one challenge at a time………’ Get job, find home, pack boxes, move boxes”. I don’t think about the outcomes really. This is not how I usually approach life. I think I just reached a point where I surrendered and felt that it wasn’t necessary to think about much at all and to ” just do different’ because all my previous thinking just kept me hostage to fear.

    “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”..Thoreau


    • Exodus, it will be scary because you will be making decisions alone with only yourself to rely upon and he has undermined your confidence. But trust me, even with that level of anxiety, I have been much better off as I am relying on someone -myself- who won’t lie to me, manipulate me or send me crazy. There truly is no comparison to my old life. You have been so unhappy for so long, trust be the only way is up. Dr Phil says ‘I’ d rather be well on my own than sick with you’ and I really have learned that. Trust yourself and don’t tell him your address!


  4. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom from real life experience. It truly is scary for me. I try not to allow catastrophic thinking to stifle progress but it’s always a challenge. I have a bad habit of becoming paralyzed with fear from having endured so much trauma in my life and most likely one of the reasons I stayed in this hell for so long. I like Dr. Phil’s comment- it certainly simplifies the truth doesn’t it?

    Thank you for being here and supporting me on my escape.


    • It is scary otherwise we would all have done it already. Security is my big issue, but you only have one life and this is not the way to live it. Just watch your back, he sounds dangerous to me.


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