The bottom line is: Passivity is the compulsion to try to get what we are desperately longing for, while doing all the wrong things or nothing to get it. (Note: This should not be confused with patience, which is knowing something worth waiting for is just around the corner — and taking appropriate steps to get closer to it.) The passive person waits and waits. Passive waiting is about letting hope die by withdrawing and not taking effective action. This waiting has to stop.
Charlie is the best example of passive waiting I’ve worked with this year. “What do you want and need regarding your intimate life with Charlotte [his wife]?” I asked. Without a moment’s hesitation he replied, “I want her to touch me more often, hold my hand, stroke my face, and make love a lot more than we do.”
“How is that going?”
“Terrible. We haven’t made love in over a year. I can’t remember the last time we even held hands and we only give each other little pecks on the cheek every now and then. I have tried. Just before coming to see you is a good example of what I mean. She watches hours of television every night. She stretches out on the couch and sometimes falls asleep and doesn’t even come to bed. So for the hundredth time I went into the living room and got in front of the idiot box and said, ‘Don’t you think you’ve watched enough television for one night? I mean, there’s nothing but crap on anyway. Wouldn’t you rather do something more intellectually stimulating or maybe say have sex since we haven’t touched each other in I don’t know how long?’”
“How did that work for you?”
“Not too well. She just stared at me for a few moments until I moved and she went back to watching whatever piece of crap that was on.”
“So in other words, you shamed her, demeaned her, denigrated her intelligence, blamed her, and preached the gospel according to you?” I said with a touch of humor in my tone, aware that I was channeling the often verbally abusive TV psychologists and judges who do this regularly to their guests. And then I added, “And you wonder why she didn’t respond more favorably? Perhaps her television watching is her way of expressing some passive rage. May I make a suggestion?”
“Sure, that’s what I’m here for is to figure out how to make my marriage work better.”
“First, let’s work on your passivity in your marriage instead of the marriage itself.” Before I could go any further, he jumped in.
“How can you say I’m passive? I’m here, aren’t I? I’ve been going to counselors, couple’s therapists, workshops and read dozens of books including yours. How can you say I’m passive?”
“Have you ever gone into the living room while your wife is lying on the couch watching TV, picked up her legs and slid on the couch next to her, then placed her legs on your lap and started stroking or massaging her feet while you ask, ‘So what are we watching tonight?’” I asked.
Charlie looked a little dumbfounded before saying, “No, I have never even thought of it. It sounds so simple. I can see me doing that but I never would have thought to do so. I wonder why,” he said very seriously.
It was because of passivity and his fears of rejection, abandonment and intimacy.
By the way, he tried my suggestion the very next week. “We got up off the couch ten minutes after doing what you suggested. She looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’ Before I could answer she laughed and said, ‘Never mind, I like this,’ and we got up and got in bed and made love for the first time in a year.”
Identifying the areas of our life where we are passive is the first part of the solution to passivity and to the regression and rage it sometimes hides.
In her book Active/Passive, Dr. Edrita Fried lists her solutions to passivity and the process of becoming more actively engaged in life. I’ve adapted her suggestions, adding some of my own words:
* Using problem-focused, inventive thinking rather than routine thinking
* Expressing yourself in freshly coined, selectively chosen language instead of generic, meaningless phrases and cliches
* Making excursions into new sections of your hometown or even other cities
* Daring a certain, safe measure of self-exposure
* Developing and refining mental skills, such as learning a new language or music lessons
* Expanding and increasing your range of emotions
* Using self-made resources rather than borrowed or vicarious resources
* Developing a rich inner life
* Not exaggerating shortcomings, in favor of increasing self-validation of strengths
* Giving up “victim language,” such as, “He keeps ignoring my boundaries”
* Grieving the losses passivity has plagued your life with over the years
* Creating a community of support
* Finding the balance between personal and professional life
* Pursuing ongoing anger work
One of the main reasons for putting this material on passivity in an anger book is because all the writers of academic texts agree that one of the main ways to treat passivity is anger work. In Active/Passive, Dr. Fried says that anger work offers “escape from inertia to activeness.” She goes on to say that the expression of anger and rage leads to self-understanding and insight.
By now you should know what your own triggers and issues are around anger, rage, and regression; you’ve also learned how to spot triggers and passivity in others.