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Are Your Relationships on the ORC Road?


First let's look at the dynamics of an unbalanced relationship like Nu Nu and Tina's. Though Tina's endless tolerance appeared to stem from a deep and abiding love, it was based more on fear: fear of anger, of conflict, of losing control, of emotional abandonment. It was the passive response to an aggressive attack—both behaviors that fall into a category I call ORC. Here, ORC stands not for those gnarly dudes who, as we all know, would destroy Middle-earth if given half a chance, but for behavior that is opaque, reactive, and closed.

By describing behavior as opaque, I mean that we hide—even from ourselves—the actual motives that drive it. For example, when Fred stole Yvette's ideas, her silence didn't come from inner peace but from an unacknowledged fear that speaking up would ruin her reputation as a "team player." Janae didn't realize that her real reason for catering to her daughter was to keep Emily from wanting to move out—and tamp down her own dread of living in an empty nest. Likewise, Cynthia was unconscious of her terror that Rob would leave her unless she constantly fulfilled his every wish.

When opaque behavior disengages us from our inner truth, we stop acting on our own desires and become purely reactive instead, focused not on what we want but on what others will think, say, or do. We never express negative feelings about the relationship—which means that it becomes, in the words of organizational behavior expert Chris Argyris, "self-sealed" against learning. Opaque, reactive, and closed: in a word, ORC.

Of course, it's not always easy to know if you're in ORC territory. This very day, you may perform completely ORC-ish acts without even realizing it. Luckily, there are two red flags that will always tell you when you're on the ORC road. Red flag number one: a tendency among the people around you to become increasingly selfish, exploitative, and unfair. Red flag number two: a growing disconnect between your own feelings and your actions—directly proportional to how badly you're being treated and how far you've managed to stray from your truth.

Here's a guide to ORC signals:

Feeling: Disturbed
You easily brush aside your feelings and continue your nice, polite behavior.

Feeling: Displaced
You appear cooperative around the offender, still pushing away resistant feelings but now fussing grumpily to yourself or to others.

Feeling: Hurt
You may actually increase niceness to hide the fact that you're feeling seriously wronged. Anger seeps out passive-aggressively—a snippy question, a slammed drawer.

Feeling: Resentful
The offender's misdeeds begin to occupy more and more of your attention. Kvetching about her becomes a daily pastime; you begin to shoot her angry looks while claiming that absolutely nothing is wrong.

Feeling: Seething
The offender's bad behavior becomes a central feature of your thinking. You complain constantly to others, and despite continued "niceness," try to undermine her with passive-aggressive strategies like the silent treatment, backhanded compliments, and gossip.

Feeling: Homicidal
You daydream about thrashing the offender in a cage fight. You have knots in your stomach and can't sleep. You're irritable or depressed. You may occasionally lash out at loved ones in what appears to be irrational rage. Toward the offender, however, you still act "nice" and "polite."

Next: The lesson for the permissive parent

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