“She was more eager than me for us to get married. Shed moved in with us right away.”
Ruby and I sipped coffee in her plush living room. She was sharing how her mother-in-law messed up the first two years of her marriage.
But here she was with two doting kids and her husband. Her mother-in-law hadn’t interfered in her life for the last four years.
During the early days of Ruby’s marriage, her mother-in-law carried the public image of a modern woman. But behind closed doors, she told Ruby, “Gender equality is good for outside. At home, you must cook, take care of your husband’s ‘needs’ and the house, and treat me like a queen. And look pretty while doing all this.”
The mother-in-law didn’t just move into the new home. She also chose curtains, quilts, mattresses, bedsheets, dining-mats, and everything else.
Ruby felt devastated. She and her husband had looked forward to shopping for their new home. That plan was now off the list.
Her mother-in-law didn’t stop there. Each time Ruby spoke about some fun things they did, she gloated over how her son had already done them with her.
For instance, when Ruby shared that they watched Game of Thrones on their honeymoon, the mother-in-law boasted that her son had seen the first season with her.
When Ruby said he taught her to swim faster, the mother-in-law said he taught her swimming and tennis.
“It was a never-ending competition,” Ruby mused. “She wanted to remain the alpha in his life, and now in mine as well.”
We’ve all encountered people who cannot let go of control. They compulsively say and do things to one-up everyone (especially people they view as a threat).
They impose themselves on others. They use conversations — even the ones they’re not invited in — to gloat over themselves. They play down others’ tough experiences and portray themselves as larger victims.
They stoop to any level to remain in the spotlight.
Ruby faced all this. To compound matters, her husband thought his mother’s dominating behaviors were sweet because she was trying to make life easier for all of them.
Ruby’s husband often told her that his mother suffered from low self-esteem. He also owed her his success because she’d pushed him hard to study well and get good jobs.
Ruby appreciated what his mother had done. She could also see that in trying to balance between her and his mother, her husband was caught between a rock and a hard place.
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“I stopped pulling.”
How to Defeat Aggression
Aggression stems from someone’s desire to impose their authority, or when they view someone as a threat. It exists everywhere — at the workplace, among friends, within the family.
The common responses to such behavior are to either surrender meekly or to counter it with aggression. Neither is useful.
When we surrender meekly, we turn into scapegoats. We get taken advantage of over and over again. Eventually, we hate what we’ve become — a pale shadow of who we could’ve been.
When we counter with aggression, we acknowledge the other as a threat as well. When we get upset about someone trying to compete with us, it means we’re in the competition too.
Everything we say or do becomes fuel for them to respond with unpleasantness and vice versa.
In the long term, we turn into the same people we despise. We treat others how we hated being treated.
Like I said, neither is useful.
Instead, avoid aggressive people like a plague. Stay out of their way and keep them out of yours.
But when avoidance is not an option, resort to finesse, not brute force.
This sounds impossible… insane even! Yet, delicacy, not strength, has defeated aggression over and over again.
When aggression meets an empty space it tends to defeat itself. — Josh Waitzkin
When you try to get your way, your actions become fuel for your opposition. When you step away, you leave an empty space into which aggression collapses.
You will lose.
Over and over again.
Tackling aggression with tact is terribly draining.
Ego and resistance will blind you with anger and stress. You’ll climb into bed each night with a bruised mind as if you sparred with a fighter whose sole aim was to maim you.
But slowly, you’ll lose the fear of losing.
You’ll begin to relax, notice and exploit weaknesses in your opponent’s game. You’ll start enjoying tiny wins.
Until one day, they stop playing the game. That’s when you’ve won. Without fighting too, like Bruce Lee who beat an egomaniac without raising a finger.
If we apply Sun Tzu’s famous Art of War advice to daily life, you must remain aware of five aspects:
1. The philosophy: Why should you engage? Is it to stop someone from harming you or to harm someone? (There’s a thin line.)
2. The climate: How hostile is it? How many people are you up against?
3. The terrain: Where are you engaging? This will help you figure out the tools you can use to your advantage.
4. The strategies: How to exploit your opponent’s weaknesses and avoid playing to their strengths?
5. The methods: Specific actions you’ll take and analyze how you did against your plans.
The art of fighting without fighting didn’t warn Ruby about the hours she would spend crying because of her mother-in-law’s nastiness.
But she was in it for the long haul. She wanted to build a meaningful future with her husband.
So she remained pleasant to her mother-in-law. She reduced saying or doing things that could serve as inputs for a nasty response. When asked a question, she answered with polite monosyllables.
Slowly, she began making covert statements that pushed her egocentric mother-in-law into creating problems, which Ruby stepped up to solve without complaining.
She had set the wheels in motion.
Her husband noticed Ruby’s shift in attitude. He appreciated her patience and asked his mother to back off who in turn, realized that she often dug a hole for herself in trying to go one-up on Ruby.
Eventually, she returned to her own home. And Ruby got the place she deserves in her husband’s life.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Of what use is such a world?
When you must fight, deploy grace and patience instead of brute force and aggression. Don’t let others’ beliefs influence the person you are (and should be).
Conflict can bring out the best or the worst in you. You must choose who you want to be.