Tag Archives: boundaries with emotionally abusive people. confrontation

Negotiating with Bullies: Why our belief in give and take fails us

We are taught from the time we are young to share and share alike. We are taught to play fair and negotiate and cooperate so that everyone gets what they need and no one is left out. Somehow, bullies, including emotionally abusive adults, learn another lesson. They learn that if they ask for more than what is fair, more than what they deserve, that they will often get their way if they are adamant. Meanwhile the other person loses while getting some fake token compromise.  Meeting a bully halfway doesn’t work because they have asked for way more than is fair and they will still get what they want – often at your expense.

Bullies don’t discuss or negotiate – they control. Besides insisting on more than what is fair, they have other strategies. They may add an innocous exception, which they latter use to justify breaking a part or all of the agreement. Or they may flat out refuse to honor an agreement, arguing the they thought you meant something else or that they remembered the agreement differently.  Just the negotiation involved in everyday boundary setting and problem solving with a spouse or partner who bullies  is fraught with frustration.

The average person cannot conceive of the extreme need for protection behind the insatiable demands of a bully. It can be demands for anything – power, money, sex, fame, time, etc. They don’t negotiate fairly because they have learned that their strategy works and because they’re terrified of the vulnerability of losing. AND, they recognize your weaknesses:  your tendency to assume that the other person has good intentions and your penchant for being overly fair and agreeable, which the bully is highly skilled at manipulating. They also know your penchant for self-doubt and how to manipulate it.

Bullies are also skilled in the manipulation of the public’s idea of fairness. Bullies try to make you look unfair and have no qualms about accusing you of being unreasonable when it is they who are unreasonable.  They know your fear of confrontation because relying on your fear has been a survival strategy for them. Survival for the bully means besting others, which is way more effective for getting what they want than the victim’s strategy of just getting by. But you don’t have to have a history of abuse to be cheated by a bully. It’s just worse for you if you’ve haven’t healed your victim strategies. Bullies bully and don’t negotiate because it rewards them immensely. It “works” for them, at least in the short run, but it harms others.

And if all else fails, the bully will retaliate unfairly. A fear of confrontation is costly when dealing with a bully. Plus, with their relentlessness, for the sake of peace and quiet, many people living with bullies relent more than they know is right. They also pick and chose their battles, which is not an unreasonable survival strategy. In order to confront a bully, you have to steal yourself for the consequences. They will accuse you of being the selfish one. While that feels deeply personal, it is mostly a manipulative survival strategy. They may punish you in a variety of ways, and it is important to be prepared for that reality. It will be unpleasant for awhile and keep an eye out for your long term goals. (Of course, if they are physically dangerous, it is important to plan an exit strategy.)

 At the beginning of the Chapter Verbal Self-Defense in A ToolKit for Healing, there is this guideline:

One doesn’t argue. One doesn’t explain. One doesn’t negotiate. It’s about setting boundaries and serving notice that you will not tolerate abuse.

As long as you are explaining yourself to the bully, as long as you are dealing with the literal content and not the context of what they are saying, and as long as you are trying to negotiate as if you are dealing with someone negotiating in good faith, you will be ineffective in dealing with bullies. They will know that you are not wise to their game, which automatically gives them the winning cards. Bullies have to be held accountable.

With bullies, you need to start by calling them on their game – calling them on their tactics and unfairness and manipulation – that is to say call them on exactly what they are doing. Describe the game. Be prepared for their ridicule or to turn and be sweetly or deceptively manipulative. Then you have to be adamant and stick to your truth. This is calling game is up: “We are not playing that game anymore.” When you negotiate with them, there is a line that you must not cross – Insist on fairness. Initially, when you negotiate, you will probably have to ask for far more than is reasonable or that you could hope for. Match their outrageousness with outrage at their selfishness, their brazenness with bravery, their implacability with firmness, and their rigidity with diligence for what is right. In addition to boundary setting, you may also have to make more unilateral decisions than you would wish for in a relationship for your own sanity and well-being. Bullies will accuse you of being unfair. Don’t buy it. It is for your own good and their own good.

Humans have let bullies rule for a long time. We elect bullies to political office and hire them as CEOs, mistaking their brazenness for strength and their cunning for wisdom. They well know how to use the masses. But fortunately, the masses grew up believing in being fair. Bringing the case to the public for goodness and fairness can be used to stem their power. Bullies can be emotionally, economically, sexually and physically violent: Sometimes you have to call for reinforcements because they are difficult and dangerous to deal with alone.

©Noreen Wedman, M.S. 2013