I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about intimacy, in part because a manifestation group I belong to—a group comprised of five incredibly powerful women from wide backgrounds and experiences—has chosen intimacy as our monthly theme for October. It’s brought some interesting issues to the fore, including one that keeps coming up in my work: the concept of “playing cards.”
I’m not talking here about the deck of fifty-two playing cards, nor the deck of cards some use to read tarot. I’m talking instead about those truths we all keep in our back pockets and then whip out as manipulative trump cards, often against those we love the most.
An example from my own arsenal (confession time here): when I worked on Wall Street and my husband was back in school, I was the primary breadwinner in our household. Routinely, when my husband would make a comment about something around the house that I had left messy, I would whip out The Primary Breadwinner Card. The Primary Breadwinner Card goes something like this: “I don’t know how you can expect me to wash those pots I left in the sink when I am working SO HARD to keep us afloat while you are back in school. I work this crazy job with crazy hours that I hate and I’m exhausted! Don’t you do anything around here?” Gross, right? Nasty and manipulative. But damn if I didn’t throw that card a lot.
Another dear friend of mine lost three members of her family far too young and in short succession about five years ago. There is no question that those experiences were deep tragedies. Over the course of her life since, however, on many occasions she has thrown what she calls The Death Card. She has invoked The Death Card routinely at moments where she has been angry at friends and lovers over unrelated issues, in the form of: “You don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know how bad I’ve had it. I’ve had it so much worse than you, and you can’t possibly understand.” Yuck.
Here’s the thing, though: we’ve all got these cards. My bet is that if you look at the things you say in your own life when you’re angry or threatened, you’ve got a few trump cards tucked into your back pocket as well. Some of us may just (ahem) toss them around more than others.
Here are some indications that you are throwing a card:
1) You sound like you are competing on a game show entitled The Biggest Martyr. A classic sign of a card is the one my friend uses: “I’ve got it so much worse than you because of X.”
2) You are taking an objective fact and using it repeatedly as weaponry. It may be true, for instance, that I was the primary breadwinner for a period of time in my household. Throwing it in my partner’s face ad nauseum, however, turned that fact into a nasty trump card.
3) You are using an objective fact to control or disempower a loved one. If your objective fact is being used to control others, make them feel less-than, or to not have to respond to their concerns, you’re throwing a card.
So why do we throw these trump cards? An easy answer would be that throwing a card merely justifies bratty, childish behavior, e.g. I threw the Primary Breadwinner Card to avoid doing dishes or dealing with stacks of mail on the dining room table. But is that the end of the story? Not nearly.
As you might have guessed, our trump cards actually cover up much deeper issues. When my friend began investigating her Death Card, she uncovered that throwing that card was really about “leading with my terror and being afraid.” After the loss of so many dear to her, she was overwhelmed by grief for years, and afraid of admitting that she needed help. On my part, I found being the primary breadwinner in our household horribly frightening, especially given the state of the economy during that time and the vulnerability of my job. But did I ever say that during my outbursts? Nope.
My friend nailed it: we throw trump cards because we feel unsafe and insecure and we are afraid to say so. Underneath these manipulations that we use, and especially underneath the particularly gross ones, is a fear of speaking our actual, far more vulnerable truths and asking for help.
But the thing is, as Shakespeare well knew, “the truth will out.” When our fears and needs go unaddressed and our truths remain unspoken, they always emerge in other ways, some more foul than others. This is the one of the many reasons why it is so important to live in truth.
So how do you stop throwing your cards, hurting those you love, and failing to get what you need? It’s actually fairly simple: you quit the game. You lay your cards down and invite your intimates to stand on the same side of the table with you, rather than in the position of an opponent.
Of course, this takes some bravery. Here’s what I did: I sat down with my husband and told him exactly how scared I was, every day, and how it was wearing on me. That led my husband to ask me directly what I needed from him to make it better (because, in case you haven’t guessed, he’s awesome). It turns out that in the end, I didn’t need much. I needed a big hug on days when I was very anxious, combined with the statement “don’t worry, it’s all going to be ok.” I needed expressions of gratitude for all that I was doing, just as he did. And most of all, when my fears actually came true and I got laid off, and then I decided almost immediately to strike out in a whole new professional direction, I needed him to say, as he did over and over and over again, “Baby, I’d bet on you every time.”
Way better than playing cards in a game where everyone loses, isn’t it? Live your truth, ask for what you need honestly and honorably, and you too can quit the game.
And needless to say, I also wash my pots now, especially when asked, and often with a smile on my face.
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