I was speaking with someone today who was very angry at her husband who is angry himself and a yeller. He yells at the kids, yells at her—just yells. She quickly jumps to the rescue to redirect his angry parenting style with her own version of payback. You yell therefore I will yell back!

What I observed is what we call a feedback loop. In a family system, the various parts take on a specific role and each part responds routinely to each other the same way. Every night the same fight happens or the same isolating behaviors happen or the same…

It’s like being stuck in a groove. When I was a young man, we had this winding gravel road in front of our home between two lakes (Minnesota: Land of Ten Thousand Lakes). Every Spring when the thaw came, a set of grooves (tire tracks) would form on each side of the road and each time a car would travel in the grooves, they would become deeper. It was cool as a young driver because when your tires fell into these now deep ruts, you could almost let go of the steering wheel and see the car travel down the road automatically(don’t tell my mom please). It was however rather difficult to keep your tires out of those ruts. You needed to approach the road with a different kind of strategy or take a different road altogether.

Let me introduce you to paradox. This is “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition (or action) that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true”. A terrific example of this is ‘a soft answer turns away wrath’.

When a person is mean to you or to your loved ones, they certainly don’t deserve kindness and it doesn’t make any sense to treat that person with patience. I think putting our responses to people like this into terms of whether they deserve it or not is what keeps us stuck in a rut. Why would I give a jerk anything but what he deserves? Right?

The problem with this is that it almost assuredly guarantees the same jerky behavior in return. They yell, I yell. They insult, I insult back. They use sarcasm, I obliterate them with sarcasm. At the end of these relational transactions, we are just as hurt, just as frustrated and more angry at the jerk in our lives. Yet in our minds, what doesn’t make sense is patience or kindness.

That’s why I consider this to be paradoxical. On the face, it doesn’t make any sense. But if you look deeper, it makes a ton more sense…

When someone is angry he or she obviously is reacting to a perceived threat. Perhaps his child is misbehaving and he yells to stop a behavior that is unwanted. If while he is yelling at his child, his wife comes along, doesn’t like what he is doing and yells at him, he will now feel the threat is coming from her as well. Will this lead him to calm down? Maybe but more realistically, he will fight back or simply withdraw altogether for awhile. The yelling is mostly a defensive measure to gain control of a situation or protect himself from harsh words.

If the above is true, then payback doesn’t really make sense but rather perpetuates more anger or whatever undesirable actions taking place. What would make more sense would be a genuine act of concern. “you are really upset about this, is there something I can do to help” or “I’m sorry you are so upset, I am here for you if you need me”. You might think of another way to express your concern that works better for you.

Jesus said many paradoxical things. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” or “if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic”. Really? Is that the best approach? Won’t I be a doormat? They don’t deserve that—it’s too nice. Well possibly but more accurately it’s paradox and probably more effectively deals with deeper issues unseen.

It's kind of like driving in the snow. If you are spinning your wheels, the worst thing to do is to push the gas pedal down hard. A soft foot is much more likely to keep your wheels from spinning and sliding just like a soft anwer turns away wrath. Paradoxical and a more effective approach to routine conflict.

Written by Scott Hendrickson, LCPC