Two Critical Skills For Dealing With An Unreasonable Adult

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 116 · Duration: 00:13:21

Two Critical Skills For Dealing With An Unreasonable Adult

Two Critical Skills For Dealing With An Unreasonable Adult

How do you validate someone who is disordered and highly unreasonable?  

And if you have a question you’d like me to address on this podcast, don’t be shy, we’ll all benefit from your question so come on over to my newly redesigned website, and enter it there today. And while you’re there, download a free copy of my Parental Burnout Recovery Guide.

Today we’re hearing from Dan and he writes:

Dear Neil,

In the podcast Don’t Have a Relationship Fender Bender, where the husband finds his wife too critical, you advise him to be validating towards her when she brings things up. What if the wife is a disordered or thoroughly unreasonable person and that no matter how much acknowledging and validating of her issues, there will be more and more, and that by validating them you are actually enabling her issues? Obviously, this is a more extreme case, but I know if one was married to a person with borderline, that the advice given could be seen as gas lighting. Thanks!!


Wow Dan, you’ve brought up some important issues here, gas lighting, enabling, and Borderline Personality Disorder. So let’s dig in and see where I might shed some light.

Dan, I’m going to assume your question is personal and you’re referring to your wife or ex-wife, which you might not be, but that’s how I’ll answer the question.  You’re labeling her as borderline and by that you mean she has a borderline personality disorder. That is a complicated diagnosis and means she doesn’t manage her emotions well, takes things personally, falls apart often, is very dependent and needy, blaming and hostile, even aggressive, and more.  Let’s not go farther describing the diagnosis, because diagnosing your partner, is rarely a good idea, but let’s just say that she’s a highly unreasonable adult and you don’t want to enable her.  Dan, to avoid enabling an unreasonable adult you want to be able to do two things really well, validate and set limits. 

And by the way, you mentioned gas lighting and I’m hearing gas lighting used very commonly now.  The term comes from a 1938 play called Gaslight that was later produced as movies.  It’s when you deny a person’s physical reality, even manipulate their environment and deny that anything is going on, to make them think they’re going crazy.  That’s what happened in the play and movie.

Now it’s being used to describe what’s happening when someone lies, or constantly denies another person’s reality.  Dan, you might think that by validating someone when you disagree with them, that you are giving them a false reality.  First of all, that’s not gas lighting and that’s not what validation is or does, so let’s take a closer look at validation.

What is Validation?

Validation is helping a person know you see the reasonableness of their feelings or thoughts, that you care enough to listen and understand their feelings and point of view.  You might even think their feelings are too intense, or related to a misinterpretation, and inappropriate, and still validate them. 

Validation is helping a person know you see the reasonableness of their feelings or thoughts, that you care enough to listen and understand their feelings and point of view.Click To Tweet

Let me give you an example.

Suppose your partner was extremely upset because the neighbor was mowing the lawn when she wanted to rest in the back yard and the noise was bothering her and she said, “I can’t believe he decides to mow his lawn on Saturday afternoon when everyone wants to be able to enjoy their back yards.”  And you’re thinking, “What’s her problem, everyone mows their lawn on Saturday afternoons.” 

But rather than tell her that she shouldn’t feel that way, you could say, “It’s definitely frustrating when you finally get a chance to relax in your own yard and you have to endure lawn mower noise.”  In this case you’re validating her feeling of frustration but not that the neighbor is doing anything wrong. 

Validation is a critical emotional need for all of us; children, teenagers, and adults, right, wrong or otherwise, we all need it.

How to Set Limits With an Unreasonable Adult 

Now in dealing with a highly unreasonable adult, you are going to need to be able to set limits.  In fact we have to set limits with everyone we’re involved with.  But with highly unreasonable adults, it’s more difficult because they challenge limits.  In most cases, validation as a first step, is an important part of setting limits because it helps the other person know you care about their thoughts and feelings, even if you aren’t going to do what they want you to do, or don’t support what they’re doing. 

Now back to our example about being upset about the lawn mower noise; you’ve validated your partner and she’s feeling supported by you.  Now let’s say she says, “You go over there right now and tell him to mow later, that I’m trying to rest.”  Now that you’ve validated her, you can say, “I think that’s unwise.  He’ll be done in 20 minutes or so and it’s his right to mow.  If I go and confront him, it will damage our relationship.” 

Notice that in this example of declining to do what your partner asks, you haven’t even used the word “NO”. What you’ve done is explain your reasoning and left it there. Now, being that your partner is extremely immature and unreasonable she says, “You never support me.”  That’s when you might say, “That’s a terrible way to feel.  In fact I care about your feelings very much, and I always take your needs into consideration.  But I have to follow my conscience and do what I believe is right.”  If your unreasonable partner continues to escalate, you can say, “I’m happy to talk and discuss, I’m not willing to fight or be raged at.”  And then walk away. 

Notice that in giving this example, I’m using a strong emphatic tone, but my words are positive and clear.  No blaming.  I’m not saying,

You’re too demanding

You expect everything to go your way.

You’re a rageoholic.

Nothing to enter into a fight, we just use the two tools, validation and setting limits.

Limits are best set when you own them as yours, not what’s wrong with the other person. 

I’m not comfortable with that,

I think that’s unwise,

I think it will make things worse.

I’m not available right now 

So there it is, nice and simple, but hard to do.  We all have a tendency to think that others should see things as we do, and if they don’t, there’s something wrong with them. 

Examples of Validation and Setting Limits

Let’s say your 5 year old wants a popsicle as you’re getting ready for dinner and you say:

You-“You know we don’t eat popsicles right before dinner” 

5 yr. old-“Why not?” 

You-“Because you won’t eat your dinner”,

5 yr. old-“I promise to eat my dinner.”

You-“But you never do.” 

And there you go, off to the races and a Control Battle is born. 

Here it is again with Validation and Limits:

Validation-“Popsicles are just perfect on a hot day like today aren’t they.” 

Limit-“We’re just about to have dinner now and we can have popsicles for desert.”

Now you’re at work, and your colleague comes to your desk and says, “Hey Dan, I have a question about our role in the project.” 

You’re frustrated because you keep getting interrupted and can’t finish what you’re working on so you say,

“Excellent, let’s discuss it.  I’m finishing up something right now, how about we talk around 2:00?  I’ll text you as soon as I’m done.”

Validate – Limit. 

It’s important in so many places. 

With highly unreasonable adults, when we focus on their unreasonableness, we can’t validate. We have to see the part of what they’re saying that is reasonable. Click To Tweet

With unreasonable adults, setting limits is similarly difficult because they don’t easily accept reasonable limits.  That makes the validation, that much more important, and the ability to stay with your limits when they are being challenged, without getting drawn into an argument, a critical part of the skill set.

So listeners, we all have experience with unreasonable adults in our lives, and they can make our lives very challenging.  Getting good at our two critical skills, validation and limit setting, can make all the difference and they help us learn to be less judgmental and clearer about our own boundaries.

Thanks for tuning in today listeners and many thanks to Dan for his excellent question.

I have a question for you all.  What does it mean to you when I say take care of yourself?  Does it mean rest up, stop and breath?  Maybe take a hot bath, eat less sugar, or notice the negative messaging you’re giving yourself and replace it with a positive message.  Maybe it means set better limits and say yes to fewer requests.  Take a minute and think about what would be one thing you can do to take better care of your self and then--do it.  It can make a huge difference if you do just one thing. 

So I really mean it when I say, please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.

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