Dr. House’s Rule 12

My friend’s therapist, John House, has a great set of 18 rules of life that make a whole lot of sense.   Rule 12 is maybe my favorite, since we see it played out over and over and over and wonder why these nasty, painful cycles continue. 

Many people are impervious to the evidence that what they are doing is causing them identical problems over and over.  It is always easier to blame others than to search your own life for your own damage’s role in ongoing bad scenes. House’s lessons apply to anyone who is trying to learn to have less pain in their life by changing reflexive habits that cause them pain over and over.  

Rule 12:   A lesson is repeated until it is learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

At my sixtieth birthday Sekhnet threw me a party at the home of old friends.  I held forth in front of a room full of loving friends, several of whom I’m no longer in contact with.  Most of the people there I’d known since I was a teenager.  Most of the people I met back then, and kept as lifelong friends, fulfilled a psychological need for me, to be close friends with people who had many of the traits of my perplexing father.  My father had all the tools to be a great friend, he was hampered by a black and white worldview that made it impossible for him to be wrong in any conflict.   As long as I avoided conflicts with these old friends who were often similar to the old man, everything was fine, for many years.   The pattern of fatal conflict emerged over many years and I could never see it coming or understand it once it arrived.

Tensions would develop, it could be over anything, often over something dear to me, or upsetting to me.  I’d be upset because my health insurance had been illegally cancelled (this happened to me three times, including during the first full month of the pandemic).  Suddenly a friend would tell me I was overreacting, that my anger was not proportional to merely losing health coverage.  According to my friend’s argument, it was an indication of something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was so irrationally upset.  Now we had an actual conflict:  your feelings are out of line, asshole, and what about my fucking feelings?

This was a mirror of the eternal conflict with my defensive, prosecutorial father — denial of my right to feel the way I did, reframing of my feelings to make them a magnifying glass for my problems and shifting the conversation to his moral superiority in not whining about his, much worse, problems.  I’d react to these friends with patience, with a hard-won ability not to explode in anger, extending the constant benefit of the doubt that strikes me as the heart of friendship.  

For some reason, I was unable to see, until this shitshow had been repeated several times over the decades, that In a conflict with a narcissist, none of these things will help in any way, except to prolong a maddeningly insoluble impasse.  If one person in a conflict is incapable of empathy or compromise, on pain of feeling utterly humiliated, that’s all she wrote, boys and girls.

I was sixty-five when I had my first conflict with my two oldest remaining friends.  The conflict itself was supremely easy to resolve, if both parties had been able to remain open, listening, granting the other person their imperfections.  I agonized for a solid year, waking every day with the pain of this impasse boiling in my head.   It caused tremendous agony to Sekhnet as well, that I was in such pain and couldn’t see my way out of it.   I kept thinking of House’s Rule 12, since this conflict had major echoes of several others over the years.  What am I not fucking seeing here?  I kept wondering.

One day, bingo!  When someone shows you they are implacable, will not listen, no matter what, will not grant you the benefit of the doubt that you are extending to them, take notice.  When they show you that face it may be a warning of worse to come.  The second and third time makes waiting for the tenth or eleventh time an exercise in masochism.  How many times can you reassure an angry friend of your good intentions before you realize they don’t have the capacity to care about your good intentions?  Three or four unrequited attempts to make peace should suffice.

Lesson 12, in my case, when someone shows you over and over that they must win the conflict, at any cost, including the murder of your friendship, the best roll of the dice is to throw them away.  No need to agonize for a year, and extend endless chances for compromise with people who would rather kill you, and murder your good name, than admit they had ever behaved badly.

Lesson 12, when someone shows you that they are a childish asshole, believe them.  House’s rule 13 will only be of marginal use at that point:

13. People always do the best they can. If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

Some people are angrily oblivious to the lessons of their lives. And those who must win at any cost are the world’s greatest fucking losers.

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