(Title is a quote from Homer Simpson, from the episode “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”)
Becoming angry in response to feeling guilty is not as strange as it sounds. Your own guilt eats through your self-esteem reserves and leaves you feeling really exposed, and so when someone reacts to the situation and the mess you may have made, it feels like an attack. This is really evident if the person already has a tenuous relationship with healthy self-confidence, because they’re already running on metaphysical credit. They’re too fragile to handle being wrong.
Let me be too candid and give you the specific incident that happened today. The little dude was out for a walk and play with his aunt, my sister-in-law. In the course of his madcap dashing and running, he caught his toe on an edge and went face-first into the ground. He now has a swollen bump right between his eyes the size of a robin’s egg, and road rash on his nose and cheek.
When they walked in the door, I was understandably alarmed at his wounded face, but I put a lot of effort into not freaking out or glaring accusingly at the SIL. I know that he was a rushing rocket hellbent on running past all good advice today, and sometimes boys get bumps and bruises. And to her credit she had kept him in good spirits and got him back home without falling to pieces.
When the wife came home from work, I tried to prepare her for the mildly gruesome appearance of our young fellow, but you can’t really expect a mom to keep her jaw from dropping when she sees the big ol’ knot on his brainbox. Still, she didn’t say anything accusatory or negative to her sister.
As the boy played with his sidewalk chalk, the SIL said that she felt like me and the wife were giving her dirty looks or we were really angry with her, and she couldn’t babysit for us tonight as originally promised. She made an awkward offer of looking after him if we dropped him off at her house across town, but she wouldn’t watch him here.
The wife was puzzled by all of this, and it took me a bit to really understand what was happening. I know that we didn’t react badly or inappropriately, and any ill will or negativity the SIL was perceiving was her own creation. We’ve had sort of arguments before (sort of because she avoids all direct and open problem resolution) and my point has always been: if I feel that something is wrong, I will tell you. I will not use body language, passive-agressive hints, secret smoke signals or mime to address my issues. And, if I don’t try to address my issues in a timely manner, then that’s my problem, not yours. The worst thing for any relationship is building up an archive of past unresolved problems. Besides, I barely remember what I had for breakfast this morning, so there’s no way I can defend something I might have done 8 months ago.