Monday April 2, 2012
The sulking game
But Then Again
By MARY SCHNEIDER
Why do we resort to sulking when it gets us nowhere?
IF THERE’S one thing I hate more than sand stuck in the bottom of my swimsuit, or inconsiderate people who jump in front of me in a queue, or someone talking ever so loudly on their handphone at the table next to me in a quiet restaurant, it’s sulking.
Sulking is an ancient form of passive-aggressive torture that was designed to make innocent people (known as sulkees) so irritated with the immature behaviour of the sulker that they would often give in to them, thereby perpetuating their behaviour.
And I’m sure we’re all familiar with the sulker’s typical behaviour – the negative posture, the mournful expression, the staring into space, the long silences punctuated by deep sighs – all of which are part of their bid to get their way, or get attention, or seek revenge.
When I was a young girl, sulking wasn’t part of my armoury. With five siblings, you learn very quickly that it’s a futile activity. If my brother or one of my sisters did anything to upset me, sulking would have had no impact on them. They wouldn’t even have noticed me sitting in a corner of the room with a quivering bottom lip and an attitude that said: “I will never speak to you, ever again. And if I die tonight, it will be entirely your fault. So there!”
I once had the misfortune to date a sulker extraordinaire. If things weren’t going his way when I was visiting him, he would retreat to his study, super-glue his fingers to his computer keyboard and not venture out while we were under the same roof. If I so much as popped my head around the door to ask if he wanted something to eat or drink, he would look at me with a sorrowful expression on his face, as if Armageddon were upon us, and say something like: “I don’t feel like eating.”
The effect was like fingernails scratching a blackboard. I wanted to tell him how his controlling, manipulative behaviour wasn’t helping his cause, but I didn’t want to fuel his sulk.
Instead, I would tell him, in a calm voice, that I was going to watch a movie on TV, or run some errands, or apply a blowtorch to his Armani suits, and that he was welcome to join me when he was feeling better.
On those occasions when I left his house for a moment, to drink a coffee, or scream out loud in the middle of a forest, I’m sure he unglued his fingers from that keyboard, came out of that study, had a pee, made himself a sandwich, had a beer or two, and then cleaned everything up so that I wouldn’t be able to detect that he had even been in the kitchen.
After I’d been dating him for six months, his mother came for dinner. I’m not sure what prompted me to bring up the subject (maybe the fact that I’d already met her a number of times and she was easy to talk to), but when I found myself alone in the kitchen with her, I asked her how she’d coped with her son’s sulking when he was a boy.
That’s when she told me the story about the landscape that he’d painted for her when he was about 11 years old. She’d been so taken by the painting that she’d hung it on her bedroom wall. Not long after, though, when he’d been sulking about something, he’d removed the painting from the wall and placed it beneath her bed – where it had stayed until his mood improved.
This then became his ritual whenever he was sulking. Taking the painting down and putting it back up again was something that his mother got used to. She never said anything to him, but she sometimes found it difficult to ignore the blank space on the wall opposite her bed. On those occasions, she would reinstate the painting, only to have him remove it again at the next suitable opportunity.
I listened without saying a word.
At that stage, my relationship with Mr Sulky was already floundering, and for more reasons than just his sulking. Sadly, I came to the conclusion that I had a decision to make. I could either stay in a relationship with him, and learn to, among other things, put up with his sulks (it was way too late for me to change him), or I could throw in the towel before he began hiding the Christmas presents I’d given him, or putting my toothbrush on the coffee table, or sawing the bed down the middle. Surprisingly, the relationship lasted for quite some time longer. However, when it inevitably came to an end, he was surprised and hurt.
I know so, because he began to sulk.