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240 pages
Jul 2004
Integrity Publishers

Who's Pushing Your Buttons?: Handling the Difficult People in Your Life

by Dr. John Townsend

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter One:  
Have Buttons, Will Push

        Let’s begin with a little reality check.  Ask yourself if  you are today in a relationship with someone, which, although you like and value aspects of person, often results in you feeling significant amounts of the following:

  • Frustration?
  • Helplessness?
  • Fear?
  • Alienation and isolation?
  • Anxiety?
  • Out of control?
  • Unloved?
  • Guilt?
  • Confusion?
  • Anger?

     This is not a complete list by any means, but if you find yourself here, it may convey that something in this relationship causes significant problems for you, and perhaps for others as well.  It is as if aspects of that person’s behavior, words or attitudes have the power and capacity to change your own mood, your happiness and even your quality of life.  

It could certainly be that these reactions are more about you than the other person.  That is always something to check out, for example, by seeing if safe and sane people have similar reactions to this person, or by asking others  for feedback about your own style of relating.  But if it is true that the person is, in objective reality, doing lots of crazymaking or even destructive things in your relationship, you may be dealing with a button-pusher, that is, someone who causes many negative reactions in his relationships.  There are two parts to the equation:  the button-pusher’s crazymaking tendencies, plus your own vulnerabilities to him or her.   This material has been designed to give you the tools to not only understand your situation, but also to develop an approach to the relationship to both influence that difficult person in your own life to change in positive ways, and help change and grow also.  Let’s look at some examples from life that can flesh out the picture.  


                                    The Dinner From Misery


My wife, Barbi said to me one evening, “Linda and Jim invited us to dinner; let’s do it.”  I was up for it.   I liked Linda.  I had never met her husband Jim, but dinner sounded ok to me.  Calls were placed and plans made, and within a couple of weeks we were at their home.   

As we talked over dinner, I liked Linda even more.  She was warm, intelligent and funny.  She was easy to get to know, and was one of those people who naturally reaches out and puts people at ease.   

Her husband Jim, however, was another matter.  While he did seem to make an effort to get to know us, it was sort of a bumpy ride.  Jim just said and did things that made it very difficult to be in the same room with him for any extended period of time.  

For example, when Linda was telling us how they met, Jim interrupted her in mid-sentence, saying “Cryin’ out loud, Linda, tell the story right.  It wasn’t that restaurant, it was the Italian one. Here’s what really happened.”  Then he simply finished the story from his own point of view, which also positioned Linda as the goofy klutz and himself as the good guy.    

It was a little uncomfortable.  I felt bad for Linda, but then I thought, Maybe that’s just their style as a couple.  He takes over somewhat, but maybe she doesn’t need the limelight, it doesn’t bug her and it’s harmless.  I didn’t quite understand how that particular style would come out so quickly with a couple like ourselves whom they didn’t know, but I figured maybe they were just comfortable with us.  I found myself trying to give Jim the benefit of the doubt, being aware of all the things I have done in social settings with my wife that have not been welcomed by her.  

But the truth was evident when I snuck a look at Linda’s face.  She looked hurt but, at the same time, resigned to this.   Apparently this was a pretty familiar scenario for her.   

The evening got even more bizarre.  Once, Jim got a call on his cell phone when we were in the living room talking, and he proceeded to talk to a business relationship while we were sitting there, using conversational volume levels.  We couldn’t really talk around his conversation.  It was the kind of situation in which he would make a point with the caller, and then smile and look at us for validation, as if to say, we’re all having a good time with this call, huh?   Linda looked pretty miserable, but she didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either.  It went on for awhile, then the call ended and we resumed our conversation.  

Later that night, after coffee and dessert, Barbi and I offered to help with the dishes, and Linda agreed.  The dinner had been a lot of work for her, and she looked a little tired.  Jim said to me, “Let me show you the new entertainment center, it’s a killer system.”  

Linda said, “Ok, go ahead, we’ll clean up.”  

I said, “No, it’s ok, it won’t take long, we’ll help.”

Jim said, “Come on, come on, you won’t believe this setup.”

I looked at Linda, and she waved us off dismissively, and Barbi and she began cleaning up.  Barbi looked at me as if to say, let’s roll with it.  So I went to the family room.  

Jim did have an amazing entertainment center.  Since I had a beginner’s understanding of these matters, I was interested.  But after a few minutes, I could see that this was becoming a very long and very technical lecture, far above my head and interest level.   It went on and on and on.  I tried to be a good sport and hang in there, though I could feel my eyes glazing over at times.  But I was pretty relieved when he ran down.  

At the end of the night, we thanked the couple for having us over, and got ready to leave.  Out of the blue, Jim said, “I’ve got to show you guys how we’re going to remodel the house.  Take a minute and get the tour.”  We were already late for the babysitter, so I said, “Thanks, but we’ve got to go.  Maybe next time.”  

Jim said, “Come on, it’ll just be a sec.  We’ve got some great plans.”

I was starting to get annoyed with the whole evening, so I said, a little more firmly, “No, really, we’ve really got to scram, I’m sorry.”

Jim said, “Oh, come on, guys.”

Linda intervened:  “Honey, they’ve really got to go, ok?”

Jim said, “I get it, too good for us, huh?  OK, be that way, see if I care, ha ha.”  It was one of those statements that is officially labeled as this is a joke but you know the person is, underneath it all, bugged with you.    

Barbi and I finally escaped to our car and debriefed about the night on the way home.  She had had similar reactions to Jim.  She thought he was a nice guy at heart, but that he would be very difficult to be around.   We joked a little about how long the dinner had been for us, saying that now we need an evening out to recover from that evening out.  

 But the upshot of our experience was, more than anything, a feeling of poor Linda.  We both were drawn to her and felt bad for her.  She was really a good person, and, with Jim, she obviously had some problems on her hands.   We only had to be around him for a dinner, and she was with his attitudes all the time.  

And the reality was that we knew that we wouldn’t be spending a lot more time with them as a couple.  It would probably be more between just Barbi and Linda getting together.  With time as tight as it is in life, you just want to carve out get-togethers with people that you both can connect with.  And that was sad for me, because I liked Linda, and also because I figured that our evening with them was something that had happened with others a lot.  It was likely that there weren’t a lot of couples that could spend sustained time with Jim.   There were lots of losses in this situation.  I was losing out with Linda, she was losing out with others, and at some level, Jim was losing out on the possibility of having people around him who could help him change.  


                                I Love Mom, But…


Then there are more serious situations of this same sort, which I often see in the consulting room.  For example, I worked with a Tony, a professional man in his thirties whose mother, Evelyn,  was such a destructive person that his own marriage, as well as his emotional condition, was in jeopardy.  Lest you think this is a far reach, it happens more than people might think.  Here are the facts:    

Evelyn was a severe alcoholic in denial, and lived alone, but in driving distance of Tony and his wife Jen’s home.  She would call several times daily, and at all hours of the night, begging Tony to either come visit her because she was lonely, or because she felt she was in a crisis.  Sometimes she truly was, as she would accidentally set fire to things or fall down and hurt herself.  She refused to move into a residential setting, and was one of those people whose condition is not quite severe enough to be involuntarily placed in a safer setting.   She had never been involved in a supportive community setting, so her “only friend” was Tony, and her dependency on him was immense.  

When she visited his home, she would scare his kids with her ravings.  He couldn’t have guests over, because she would be wildly inappropriate.  There were times at his home that he had had to call the police to find her when she ran out of the house crying over an imagined slight from Tony or Jen.   

When Tony came to see me, he was in the throes of guilt, resentment and burnout.  He drove to see her as much as he could, but it was never enough.  He tried reasoning with her, being firm with her, ignoring her, and getting her to make friends, all to no avail.  Though at first Jen tried to be supportive, after several years, she had had it with the chaos her mother-in-law was causing, and had begun to blame him for not standing up to her.  She was talking about him moving out so that she and the kids could have some sort of normalcy.   It was one of those “her or me” scenarios.  

It took Tony a lot of work to improve things with Evelyn, and also with Jen.  He was in such conflict:  he loved his mom, he was frustrated with her attitudes, and yet he was afraid she would fall apart.   However, the work he did and the structures we set up, which are based on the principles in this book, improved the situation a great deal.  

Though Tony’s situation was very different than Linda’s, they both had something in common:  someone important to them was affecting their lives in very negative ways.  They were not dealing with a stranger nor an enemy, but a person with whom they hoped they would have a good, long and meaningful relationship.

I heard recently from friends who knew Jim and Linda, as I had not seen the couple for a long time.  They said that Jim had not changed, and that Linda was still burdened by his ways.   My friends also told me that to date, Linda had not, to their knowledge,  tried any sorts of approaches to address her husband’s behavior.  Perhaps she had tried some things, but whatever she tried didn’t work.  Maybe she blamed herself for Jim.  Or maybe she figured things weren’t bad enough to try to find solutions. When I was with them, I didn’t think their condition warranted professional counseling.  From what I could see, there were things Linda could do, which this book teaches, that would help the situation a great deal.  

Tony’s situation was obviously out of control.  Because he was truly and undeniably at the end of his rope, in a situation that was extreme,  he needed a more formal setting to implement these principles.  

There is an irony here:  the less severe situation did not improve, but the worse one got better.  Tony told me that he felt he had no choice.  He had to do something.  I reflected on the scripture that says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matt. 5:6)”.   I was glad that Tony took his big step, and hoped that someday Linda would also find the right answers also.  


                  Who is Your Button-Pusher?


This is probably not a rocket-scientist question for most of us to answer.  You can likely relate to having a person, or people, like Jim or Evelyn in your life.   He or she may not have the same attitudes and behaviors these individuals showed, but he is, at some level, difficult to like, love, be with, or work with.  There is something in him that makes life and love harder for you, when you are with him.  His ways can be mild, or moderate, or severe.  

It is important to realize that, most of the time, your button-pusher is also someone you care about.   That is, the person has some weight, meaning and importance in your life; you probably would much prefer working things out than leaving the relationship, because you value the good things he does have.  But his character and patterns make that very difficult.  

Joined at the hip:  your button-pusher is part of your life, and matters to you.  That is a prerequisite.  He can be a spouse, a parent, someone you are dating.  Or he can someone you work with, a neighbor or a friend.  Generally, it is someone connected to you by blood (family relationships), love (romance and friendships) or money (work relationships).  Blood, love and money are powerful forces that create a bond between people.  They aren’t bad things, in fact, they are part of the glue that holds life, culture and civilization together.  They are just categories to be able to understand your relationships.  

There are all sorts of button-pushing people, and they can be found in many arenas of your life, such as:


  • The controlling boss who micromanages people;
  • The dependent adult child who constantly drains you;
  • The detached husband who will not communicate;
  • The blaming wife who will not take responsibility for her side of things;
  • The victim who wants you to rescue her from all the perpetrators;
  • The spiritualizing friend who preaches instead of listening;
  • The unpredictable spouse who is clingy one minute and pushing away the next;
  • The irresponsible boyfriend who can’t be depended on;
  • The deceptive person who turns the truth into white or black lies;
  • The self-absorbed mom who turns everything to herself;
  • The moody co-worker whose ups and downs control the work environment;
  • The alcoholic or drug addict who causes chaos in others’ lives;
  • The rageaholic dad who has everyone walking on eggshells;
  • The gossiping relative who causes divisions in the family

The list could go on and on.  


        So What are My Buttons?


However, for there to be a problem, there must be a button inside you that is being pushed.  That is, this person has a very real and specific effect on your life, emotions and attitudes.  He “gets to you” in ways that others don’t.  

The range of reactions you may have is almost endless, but there are a few more or less universal ones:

Disconnection.  While you may want to establish some closeness, empathy, or intimacy with him, it does not happen.  This may be because he does not respond to you and withdraws himself emotionally.  I cannot  reach him is a common experience.  Or it may be because his actions are not consistent with his words, so you feel confused.  Sometimes it is due to the fact that you have to pull away from any closeness because the relationship is unsafe for you at this time.  A person who is with a button-pusher will often sense that he doesn’t “get” me; that is, he doesn’t enter my world and experience.  Or it may seem that your feelings don’t matter to him and his choices.  This sort of disconnection can cause deep feelings of isolation, alienation and loneliness.

Diminishing of love. Often, the person feels that the love she has felt for the individual is waning.  She doesn’t feel that she is “in love”, if it is a spouse or dating relationship.  Or she doesn’t experience the warmth and affection inside her toward that person that she did, or would like to.  It is as if all the crazy things the button-pusher is and does are beginning to destroy the affection she has.  Sometimes, the person even feels that the love inside has died and can never be reborn or rebuilt.  

Actually, this can be a helpful sign for someone in a relationship with a difficult person.  If love has diminished, then it indicates that the person did have a meaningful place in your mind, heart and life.  He mattered.  And a person who has mattered to you stands a better chance of being re-established with the right processes than someone you never deeply cared about.  

Powerlessness.  You may also feel that you can’t do anything to change the situation, his behavior, or the relationship.  You may have tried talking, reasoning, inviting, or threatening, and nothing seems to make a difference.  This describes a power problem, in which all choices and movement seem to be owned by the button-pusher, rather than being shared by both parties.  

In a good relationship, both people share responsibility, initiative, problem solving and choices in a more or less equal way.  But in a button-pushing relationship, the individual often feels helpless, impotent and frustrated.  They want and desire good things to happen, but they have found no way to improve things.  This book will deal specifically with using the power and choices that you have, which you may not be aware that you possess, or which you have been afraid to bring into leverage in the relationship.    

Bringing out your worst.  Often, you may find that you have feelings, thoughts, behaviors and words that you don’t like about yourself, when you are with your button-pusher.  It is as if his issues trigger your darker self.  You may find yourself angrier than you would like to be, overwhelmed with sadness, or withdrawn from relationships.  Sometimes you may be even revengeful or mean, playing payback in the relationship.  

This is a telling sign of a troublesome relationship.  God designed us so that good relationships should draw out and encourage the best in us:  love, care, and the ability to give freely of yourself.  When you don’t like the person you are when you are around your button-pusher, it is time to make some changes.  

Other relationships are affected.  The button-pushing person often has the power to influence how you handle your other attachments.  You may find, for example, that you have become obsessed and too focused on the troublesome relationship.

Have you ever had the weird experience at lunch with someone when it seems that there is a third party there who is not physically present?  Your friend is so obsessed on the problem person that that troublemaker might as well pick up the lunch tab.  That is a clear signal that the difficult person is running things, and, while she needs to be loved, she must be fired from that role.  

Loss of hope.  Perhaps the most serious effect of being with a button-pusher is that people begin losing hope that anything will change.  They  think that things will always be this bad, and that they should resign themselves to this existence, or somehow leave it.  

This is so serious because we all need hope.  Hope is what fuels us to strive for a better life and future.  When hope decreases, we give up.  As the proverb says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life (13:12).”   

Certainly there are those who use their freedom to resist any sort of change, no one could deny that.  However, my experience is that much of the time, someone in the button-pusher’s life did not possess either the information, the resources or the courage she needed to help make change.  Either she didn’t know what to do, or she didn’t have the support, or she was too afraid to make effective changes.  We will talk about establishing substantive hope in the next few pages, but for more detailed information on dealing with the “where is God in my situation” issue, refer to Dr. Cloud and my book, God Will Make A Way:  What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do (Integrity Publishing, 2002).  


        What Relationships Should Give You


However, sometimes people who have had a button-pusher in their life for a long time have forgotten, or never knew, what a good relationship should bring to them.  They don’t know what “normal” is, in the same way a fish doesn’t know it is wet.  So it is important to understand the value and nature of relationships.

Human connections are one of the greatest things that anyone can experience in life.  The rich man who is without them is impoverished; the poor man who has them is wealthy.  God himself is relational at the core of his being:  He is love (I John 4:16).  And he designed us to be in, depend on, thrive on and grow from relationships.

Look at your relationships as the “delivery system” for so many of the good things we need in life.  We need love, safety, grace, warmth, encouragement, truth and feedback, forgiveness, and so much more.   These elements of life make life full, meaningful, purposeful and enjoyable.  

Without solid, long-lasting connections, we suffer at many levels of life.  The research indicates that people with unhealthy or few good relationships have more medical and psychological problems, and generally experience a deprived quality of life.    

Take a moment to compare your healthy relationships with what you have with the button-pusher, not in a condemning way, but to get a picture of what life could be like otherwise.   You and that person were designed to mutually assist and support each other through the avenues of life, to become the people that God intended and designed.

This is not to say that even good connections don’t have their valleys; they all do.  But when both people are on the path to growth, they have developed several capacities which cover up and resolve problems.  They own their part in the problems; they let the other person know their heart, and strive to know the other’s heart; they take responsibility for helping the relationship grow; they forgive, change, and move on.


             How Can He “Get To Me?”


      Often, someone in a button-pushing relationship will come to me and say, “Why do I let her get to me like I do?   Why can’t I just get past what she says, and let it slide off my back?”  These questions imply that something is wrong with you if you have negative reactions to the individual, that you should not let him matter to you as much as he does.

This book will help you be less reactive to that person, and that is important.  You need to be in control of yourself and your responses.  We will help you learn to deal better with verbal attacks, irresponsibility, withdrawal, and the like.   That will help you enormously in dealing effectively with her in achieving change.  

When you care, you are vulnerable.  At the same time, however, understand that the fact that others can affect you deeply may say some very good things about who you are.    If you are able to care about someone else so much that they make you feel crazy and powerless, you have the capacity for love and attachment, and that is a wonderful thing.  This capacity is one of the most important aspects of what being alive and human are all about.  If you can feel, care, be vulnerable, get frustrated, love, and hate, then you are not dead inside, but alive.

I was working with Cathy and Dave, a dating couple who were considering marriage, but were having problems.  The short version is that he was very self-involved and she was getting tired of having to stroke his ego constantly and never having him ask her how she was feeling.   Dave’s experience was that things were basically ok.  He was going to counseling to humor Cathy.  In his mind, his biggest problem was that Cathy was asking too much, and if she’d back off, they’d both be happy.

Cathy wasn’t perfect, but I sided with her on this one.  Dave was pretty self-centered.  And the fact that she experienced more loneliness, need and powerlessness than Dave did really bothered her.  She said to me, “I should be more like Dave.  What I do really doesn’t get to him.”  I told her, “Forget that.  If you, Cathy, were as narcissistic as you are, Dave, no one would be working on this relationship.”  I was speaking to both of them in the room at the same time.  Dave didn’t like to hear that, but eventually he began to see that Cathy’s pain was normal and his lack of it was abnormal.  He did get to work on his self-absorption.  It took some time.  In fact, they eventually broke up over it all.  Ultimately, however, Dave did a lot better, and he ended up marrying someone else, as did Cathy.

You are in good company, for God himself is the same way.  He cares deeply and emotionally for us, and, in some mysterious fashion, we can “push his buttons.”  Read the turmoil in his heart when he deals with some difficult people:


    ‘How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, Israel?
    How can I make you like Admah?  
    How can I set you like Zeboiim?
    My heart churns within me; my sympathy is stirred.’

                                                                    Hos. 11:8, NKJV 

A striking picture:  an all-powerful Creator becoming so vulnerable to us that he churns within.  His might and strength notwithstanding, he can be affected inside, by those he loves.

To not let someone matter to you, annoy you, or “get to you” at all, is to be disconnected from what is important.  Those who never allow another to affect them have something wrong with them.  They may be emotionally disconnected from their own hearts, due to some past significant relational damage.  They may have given up on relationships, and simply withdrawn into busyness, work or even addictions.  Or, like Dave, they may have a problem with self-centeredness to the point that other people exist as objects, not as individuals.  Whatever the reason, it is not a good thing.  Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner said it this way:  “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.”  

The Christian thinker C.S. Lewis wrote in a similar vein:  

    To love at all is to be vulnerable. . . . The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

                                            The Four Loves

So turning to stone, becoming impassive or unfeeling, are not the answer.  That is not where life or love reside.  Rather, one of the most important goals for you in this book it is to learn to care deeply for the other person and for the relationship, but at the same time to be free to respond in healthy and effective ways to his behaviors, so that you can bring about change.  

Hurt vs. Harm.  There is a difference, however, between hurt, which involves pain,  and injury, which involved harm.  You may feel pain and negative emotions as a result of being with your button-pusher.  That is simply the price of the course, the price of love.  But allowing the person’s nonresponsiveness to injure you in some way is not good for you nor him.  That must be dealt with, and this book will show you how to do that.  Your relationship should bruise you sometimes, but it shouldn’t send you to ER.

Those who matter the most can bother you the most.  Simply put, your button-pusher matters to you a great deal, for some reason, most likely a good one.  When someone matters to us, we tend to give them access to our inner selves that we don’t give to others.  It is important to understand that this person can affect you in ways that others cannot.  The range of ways that your button-pusher can influence you is enormous and far-ranging.  He can (or perhaps, he used to) bring you moments of closeness, intimacy, passion, fun and spiritual union.  At the same time, his darker sides can influence you toward frustration, disconnection, powerlessness, sadness and feeling unloved.  The intensity of his effect on you is directly proportional to the depth of the attachment you have for him.  

In other words, if your button-pusher didn’t matter so much to you, he would not be able to “get to you” to such an extent.  The checker at the grocery store may be cranky, but her bad mood can’t affect you like this person can.  

Not long ago, I was ordering a burger at a fast food restaurant.  The man taking my order seemed impatient and curt with me.  Sometimes, in these situations, I will say something to the person or management if it’s severe enough.  I was a waiter for many years in grad school, so I have a thing about decent service.  In this case I didn’t say anything, thinking, Oh well, maybe it’s my perception, and he has a tough job anyway, forget it.  He’s probably someone else’s button pusher.  No big deal, I let it go.  

Later that evening, one of my  sons seemed a little impatient and curt with me.  Immediately I lit into him, saying something like, “This sort of disrespect is unacceptable, and if you ever want to see your CD collection again, you’ll change your tune!”  It wasn’t a high point in my fathering life.  My son had committed a misdemeanor, and I was treating it like a felony.  Now, I don’t consider my kids to be button-pushers, though they may not be able to say the same thing about me!  But the stories illustrate this point:  those who matter most to you will affect you the most.   

Choosing from brokenness.  There are also some not-so-healthy reasons why we let a button-pusher get to us.  Sometimes, we are wanting something from them that they can’t provide or we shouldn’t be asking from them.

We choose people for various reasons, some sound and some crazy.  Basically, there are things you want from the other person that you value, whether or not you are aware of it.  Some good things to desire are companionship, depth, acceptance, maturity, structure, responsibility and spirituality.  These are the elements of very good relationships.

However, there is another list that can be problematic.  It is not that these things are bad, but that they may not be appropriate to ask for them from that person.  For example, some people who are afraid of conflict will, instead of working on learning to argue well, find an aggressive, argumentative person to do the job for them.  Or someone who feels unloved will look for someone to give them uninterrupted grace and compassion 24/7.  Or someone who is unfocussed and scattered will seek out a highly organized, compulsive person.

While it’s good to look for strengths in a person, beware when you want that person to fill deficits and broken parts of yourself.  It is pretty much a guarantee that you will either be frustrated because they can’t give you enough of what you need, or they will become controlling, withdrawn or unloving because they either feel like a parent, or in darker scenarios, like they have license to do whatever they want with you.  

When you look at it this way, it makes sense that the button-pusher can tweak your insides and upset you.  He is in charge of an important part of you that you need help on.  This is a dangerous position to be in, and this book will help you get out of that sort of dependency on the wrong person, and into dependency in the right places.  


                           Creating Hope that is Real


The hope here, that things can change, is not based on wishful thinking.  In many books I have read about difficult people, there is a lot of good information which describes the types of people who make life hard.  But often, the solutions convey a sense of hopelessness.  The idea seems to be that these people will never change, so change yourself, or leave and get out of it, or just learn to cope with a bad situation.  Some sources give hope for minimal change, and that’s about it:  these types of people are stuck in their attitudes; they rarely change, they say.

Just the other day, I was listening to one of the many counseling call-in talk radio programs.  The caller’s problem was that her husband was uncommunicative and somewhat irresponsible.  The counselor said something like, “That’s a character problem, those don’t change.  Your only two options are to decide if you can live with the way he is, or leave the relationship.”

I was really angry when I heard that statement.  It is so not true that people with character problems don’t change.  Without denying that things can certainly  be very difficult,  I believe that the Bible, reality, research, and my own experiences all come together to provide more hope than that.  Difficult, button-pushing people can and do change, in deep and long-lasting ways, all the time.  I have seen it, and many others have witnessed and been a part of it.  God has been in the business of changing difficult people for eons: Paul, one of the chief writers of the Bible, said that before God transformed  him, he himself had been  “the worst of sinners (I Tim. 1:16)”.  

Look at it in this light:  in a way, your button-pusher is  outmanned  and outgunned.  God has engineered things to put various sorts of influences in his life, so that he will aright himself and move in the right paths.  There is a lot you can do, and that God can do through you:  "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted (Job 42:2).”  We are talking about Omnipotence personified being on your side!  There has to be some value there.  And the seven resources for change that we will present in Section 3 were designed to surround your difficult person with love, truth, reality, and a number of other things.  There may be no guarantees of change, as people have free will to choose poorly.  But is good to have the right and full perspective here.  

Being an agent of change will take some work, time and energy.  You will need to experience hope that what you want to see happen in your relationship with your button-pusher can actually happen.  Hope that is based on reality and not wishful thinking will give you a vision that will help carry you through as you go through the steps involved.  Though you will learn how to craft your own individual vision for your particular situation in Chapter 5, the general idea is this:  that the quality of your relationship improves because the other person is taking responsibility  to change his troublesome behaviors and attitudes.  

It seems simple, but all the elements you will need are there.  You ultimately are looking for an improved relationship with your button-pusher.  That may mean more intimacy, more freedom, more sharing of responsibilities, less criticism, less control and many others.  But since the other person’s issues are like a giant traffic jam in your connection, they block all the good things you want in the relationship.  Your hope is that as the person “gets it”, and begins to take ownership of what his contribution is, then begins to change, the jam gets unblocked, and the connection resumes at a traffic flow that distributes all the good you are wanting in that relationship.  

  • In my counseling, speaking and personal life, I have seen changes and growth take place in so many ways:
  • The controlling boss begins to lighten up and give people slack;
  • The dependent adult child grows up and establishes a life of his own;
  • The detached husband begins to open up emotionally;
  • The blaming wife apologizes and becomes concerned about her part;
  • The victim becomes stronger and more autonomous;
  • The spiritualizing friend gets real about life;
  • The irresponsible boyfriend becomes more reliable;
  • The deceptive person becomes more honest;
  • The self-absorbed mom learns to be concerned about others’ experiences;
  • The alcoholic or drug addict gets help and becomes a contributing part of life;
  • The rageaholic dad becomes kinder and less reactive;
  • The gossiping relative sets limits on her tongue

Note that we are not talking about perfection here; if you have idealistic or perfectionistic leanings, toss them out the window if you want success with your button-pusher.  That can ruin your relationship.  You are looking for improvement, perhaps a lot of it, but be satisfied with that, not perfection.  


      Leaving is for Wimps (With Some Exceptions)


It can be a little overwhelming:  when you see on print all the ways your button-pusher can affect you, and how that happens, it makes sense to wonder if it’s worth keeping the relationship, or if maybe you should end it.  Why put up with this?  Why not cut the ties and move on?  There certainly is no question that there are really are times a relationship should be over, which will be presented in this book.   

Also, sometimes people have been hurt in very bad ways because they didn’t leave when they should have left. If you are in a truly dangerous position, no one in his right mind would tell you to stay in jeopardy.  This may mean leaving the home or separating for awhile  in order to safely deal with the problems.  It may not mean leaving permanently, however.  As we will see later, there can be great benefit in a separation when there is a structured plan that addresses the issues.  

Having said that, however, in my experience, the great majority of people give up too soon on their button-pusher.  They have a limited repertoire of responses, none of which are effective, and the situation sometimes even escalates, which gives them fewer options.   So they give up in hopelessness.  This book will provide strategies and ideas that can help the situation turn around.  So, for now, let’s say that, with some exception, leaving is for wimps.  Face the issues, learn the skills, and let’s get to work.  

Remember also that you have an investment in the relationship.  She is an important person in your life.  You have most likely spent many, many hours, days or years being  involved with her.  A relationship is an investment of your time, energy and soul.  Though it may be crazymaking today, it may be too great a cost to leave if there were some things you could do to improve it.  Too many people dump their stocks and then find that the company rallies later.   

On a deeper level, it’s important to understand that the nature of love is to stay. Love relationships (as opposed to task, or business relationships) are designed to develop, grow and mature over time, as the two individuals also grow.  Love is about things getting better the longer you stay, not worse.  Your button-pusher  is not someone whom you would easily and casually leave.   You are intertwined at many levels.  It is worth the trouble to take a look at ways that the love you had, and want, can be revived and reborn.  

We live in a day and a culture in which relationships are seen sometimes as quite disposable and easily replaceable.  When the person shows her selfishness and you have a fight, you should move away, move out and move on, as the common thinking goes.  

And that thinking is reinforced by the reality that there are lots and lots of people to get re-involved with.  My single friends are often unhappy with the quality of whom they are dating, but there seems to be no shortage of rebound relationships to pick from.   You can find another job, you can find another church, and you can find new friends.

However, I must warn you of the very real danger of living in serial relationships.  It is somewhat like a serial killer, in that with both cases there are bodies strewn all over the countryside and the person is hunting down another.  It may be a relief to get rid of the bad one, but you haven’t developed anything lasting.  Life wasn’t meant to be lived in several intense short-term periods of relationships, at least the important relationships in life.  

I remember a television interview many years ago in which a movie star with a reputation as a romancer was called by the host a “super lover”, or something to that effect.  The actor replied, “No, I’m not.  The guy who has been happily married for fifty years is the super lover.”

The fact that you’re reading this book hopefully means you haven’t decided to leave yet, if your button pushing relationship is a severe one.  You may be on your last try.  You may be with a mild button-pusher and leaving isn’t something you’re considering.  Homicide, maybe, but not leaving.  Or you may be in the middle, with a moderately crazymaking person that you’re not sure you want to stay with.  

Then there are those that because of their circumstances can’t realistically leave.  You may be in a job that you really need.  You may have beliefs about divorce that prohibit your leaving.  There may be a family member that will remain in your life no matter what.  If you are in this situation, I hope this book will change your “I can’t leave” to an “I don’t want to leave.”  Many people over the years have learned how to help their button-pusher be an easier person to be around.     


                                What, Me, A Button-Pusher?


OK, here’s the bad news you need to look at:  it is possible that you may be someone else’s button-pusher!  That isn’t a fun thought to consider, but it is important. The nature of close relationships is that we matter to each other, and we affect each other.  Without even knowing it, your attitudes and behaviors may be crazymaking for another person, too.  You may be guiltifying your spouse or date when he says he doesn’t want to go to a restaurant you like, for example, “After all I do for you, this is how you show your gratitude?”  Or you may be attempting to control him in a covert way, such as, “I think maybe you really would like to visit my folks next weekend, wouldn’t you?”   It is helpful to be aware and open to this possibility, even that you may be your button-pusher’s button pusher, in a mutually difficult dance.   As the Bible teaches, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye (Matt. 7:5).”

You can’t gauge if you are the button-pusher by their reaction to you, however.  There are times when you may frustrate the other person, and that might be their problem, not yours.  For example, saying no to verbal disrespect may cause the other person to say, “You are so oversensitive, I can’t be myself around you, lighten up.”  That’s certainly not a time to lighten up.  Rather,  it’s a time to bear down and deal with the problem, as we will show you in this book.  Make sure that what is yours is yours and what is his is his, an idea that we will develop later on.


               Getting To the Changes


Having hope is not enough, however.  Getting to the changes you want to see requires some elements and aspects of helping you.  Below are what the principles in this book will provide for you as you prepare to deal effectively with your difficult person:

Understanding your button-pusher.  A broad picture of how button-pushers think, feel and act in general.    We will take a look at how the difficult person is hardwired underneath her childishness, control, disconnectedness, etc.  You will see what sort of things create a difficult person.  Button-pushers view themselves, others and the world in particular ways, and it helps to know about this.

Diagnosing the disease.  This is a tool to help you evaluate your own specific and particular situation.  You need to know how to look at his behaviors, what might be causing him, and how severe the situation may be.  

Understanding your own failed attempts.  Many times the other person is confused because what would cause him to change (confrontation, reminders, entreaties), don’t work for the button-pusher.  You will get a picture of why this is so.  This will help you give up what doesn’t work and will never work, and get to what can work.  

A vision for change.  You will have a clearer picture of what you want to see and experience in your button-pusher, both on the external level and inside, also.  

Providing the resources to navigate change.  The bulk of your time will be spent here.  You will learn the seven key resources, which you have at your disposal, that can be brought to bear upon your situation and relationship:

God:  The one who promotes and empowers change;

Your Own Life:  All the ways you as a growing person can influence the relationship;

Others: The powerful help that safe and sane people can bring;

Your Stance:  How you approach your button-pusher with your attitude and orientation to him and the problem;

Your Words:  What to say and how to say it;

Your Actions:  Behaviors to execute that may be needed, such as consequences;

The Process:  Knowing what to do over time, as time itself helps things change.  

You may find that your situation requires an overall approach with multi-faceted interventions.  Or it may be that a few ideas and concepts may shift things.  Most people with a button-pusher find that it takes several resources and ideas that are integrated together, over time.  But the advantage here is that you are in charge of the process, rather than the other person’s issues running things.  It just makes sense that sanity should rule over insanity.  The path will give you the control to be an agent of change in the relationship.  

                       Jump in, the Water’s Fine

So start getting involved in this material.  Be open to seeing things a new way.  In fact, look at this as taking some steps of faith.  Faith is about trusting in God’s love and resources, even when they are not visible to our eyes.  These principles originate in God’s character, grace, and words.  In this next couple of chapters, we will take a look at why your button-pusher is the way he is, and how he experiences the world.