Before the television show and the celebrity status, before the controversies and his decision to not renew his professional license, Phillip McGraw, PhD. wrote a book called Life Strategies that was published in 1999. In it he expounds on ten “life laws” to live by, two of which are foundational in my work with clients. Almost without exception these can be applied to problems with interpersonal relationships whether they be friends, neighbors, co-workers, family members, spouses, or children.

People do what works. Isn’t that the truth? There’s a certain element of duh to this one. I mean, why would we do otherwise? Unfortunately this law applies across the board and not only to good, moral or healthy behavior. What an amazing world we would live in if only kind, loving, nurturing, compassionate, understanding, patient, respectful, considerate and helpful behavior paid off. Sadly rude, mean, manipulative, avoidant, self-absorbed, disrespectful, demanding, entitled, inconsiderate, dishonest, abusive, coercive yada-yada-you-get-the-picture behavior also pays off for many who choose to go that route.

We teach people how to treat us. Also true but with less of an duh element and more of a wince. It is really difficult to rant and rave about how someone treats you if you have to own the fact that you play a hefty part in it. If someone does something you do not like either because it hurts your feelings, offends you or presses you to do something you don’t want to do and you go along with it, you are teaching that person that it is OK. Your belief that they “should know better” does not hold water. If their behavior is working for them and getting their needs met it will override what they “know” about healthy interactions, more often than not. A “win” is a win is a win in most people’s books.

Here are a couple of fairly standard and relatively benign examples that crop up during sessions:

  • Single mother comes home after long and frustrating day at work. She needs to change clothes and get dinner on the table for herself and her six year old son so she can move on to helping with homework, doing chores and preparing for the next day. Son comes in kitchen and asks if he can have a cookie. Mom says no, dinner will be ready soon, go watch TV. Kid wanders into living room and comes right back and begins to whine about wanting a cookie. Mom again and more firmly sends him off to watch TV. Son stands there and stares at her and begins to whine and beg and bargain for the cookie. Mom raises her voice, restates that dinner will be ready soon, that she’s had a hard day and doesn’t need this right now and if he’s not careful then he won’t get a cookie after dinner either, now go watch TV! He stomps his feet, begins to cry and wail and declare that she doesn’t love him and that she’s the meanest Mom ever! Mom drops her head, says oh my god, fine, here take the dang cookie and get out of the kitchen. Son takes cookie, grins ear to ear and goes to watch TV.

People do what works and we teach people how to treat us. The child has learned at an early age exactly what works for him. If he hangs in there long enough and escalates his annoying, demanding, dramatic behavior beyond Mom’s tolerance level then he gets what he wants. An occasional giving in out of sheer exhaustion is not the end of the world. But if this interactional dynamic becomes the norm it will lead to a miserable and challenging parent-child relationship in the adolescent years. And it stands to produce a self-absorbed, overly-dramatic, whiny adult who thinks everything should be handed to him with little to no effort on his part. We all know at least one, don’t we?

Mom’s best bet in this scenario? The firm no with an explanation the first time. Check. The firm no with the consequence of no cookie after dinner if he asks again, the second time. Unwavering silence and ignoring the third and all subsequent times with follow through of consequences at dinner. A lack of consistent consequences is the same as an endorsement of the behavior.

  •  A couple where one partner is neater than the other. Neat partner maintains a low-grade irritation and resentment that things seem to just fall off of not-neat partner as they walk through the house. Keys, change, chapstick, coat, shoes, phone, charging cords, receipts, hat, gym bag, purse, backpack, books, used Kleenex, dirty clothes, underwear, socks, dirty plates, cups, empty drink cans…

Neat partner spends huge chunk of their time picking up behind not-neat partner and putting everything in its place and/or cleaning it or throwing it away.  Neat partner complains about this frequently and not-neat partner occasionally attempts to do better but eventually turns a deaf ear to neat partner’s complaints. Over time a cycle of resentment and passive aggressiveness sets in.

 Even though not the happiest of relationships this arrangement works for not-neat partner as they get to do as they please and all their belongings magically appear neat and clean and in their rightful place within a neat and clean home environment. They categorize their neat partner as uptight and perfectionistic even though they enjoy the benefits. Not-neat partner tolerates the occasional “discussions” about their “slobbish and unappreciative” behavior and goes right back to it because…..people do what works.

Neat partner, even though they bitch and moan and complain, teaches not-neat partner it is OK to treat them this way because they continue to pick up and clean up. And perhaps this arrangement also works for neat partner if they are the type who needs something to be angry about or needs to feel like the long-suffering martyr. 

This is such a standard relational issue in therapy that I have a standard answer. Neat partners generally cannot tolerate just leaving everything where it drops. So to make the situation no longer work for not-neat partner while not sacrificing the appearance of the home environment I recommend they get a large basket or tote and place absolutely everything they pick up from not-neat partner in it. Everything. And not touch it again for any reason. This is done openly with mutual agreement. This stops the cycle and eventually leads to a more balanced renegotiation of responsibilities. 

If there is an interpersonal issue or conflict in your life and it feels patterned, stuck – like an ongoing dance – take a moment to look for how the two life laws might be at play both in yourself and the other person. If you use this approach often enough it will begin to pay off. And remember – people do what works!