10/13/2011 09:48 EDT | Updated 12/13/2011 05:12 EST

How to Say "No" to Bad Behaviour

Lately, my patient Lisa has been disappointed with her boyfriend Dennis, whom she describes as usually very supportive. Something happened that put Dennis and his family into clearer perspective.

Dennis has an older sister, Marjorie. All of Dennis' family and friends recognize that Marjorie has an abrasive personality and can be rude and nasty at times. Unfortunately, everyone lets Marjorie get away with her bad behavior.

Marjorie had been extremely rude to Lisa on a number of occasions when Lisa and Dennis first started going out. Lisa had politely made it clear to Marjorie that she wouldn't tolerate this type of behaviour and since then, Marjorie has mostly ignored her.

The other weekend, Lisa, Dennis and Marjorie were all going to visit Dennis' parents who live several miles outside of Toronto. They'd arranged for a rental car, but there was a miscommunication between Dennis and Marjorie which resulted in them meeting about 20 minutes later than planned.

In the meantime, Marjorie had gotten herself all worked up. There had also been some problems with the car keys, which she'd eventually resolved. By the time Lisa and Dennis met her, Marjorie was furious. They all got in the car and Marjorie proceeded to yell at Dennis for the next 30 minutes about how terrible he was for keeping her waiting.

Lisa, who usually avoids confrontation, didn't know what to do. She was horrified by Marjorie's behaviour but equally upset over how Dennis was just sitting there and taking it. She tried to stop it by saying to Marjorie, "Are you OK?" but Marjorie simply responded, "No, I'm really upset!" and resumed yelling at Dennis.

After this incident, Lisa realized that what she would have liked to have done was to get out of the car (they hadn't started moving yet) and let Marjorie know that she wouldn't drive with her if she continued yelling.

Later, she discussed the incident with Dennis who minimized Marjorie's abusiveness, saying that she was only talking a bit loudly. Lisa recalled previous similar episodes and realized that Dennis has been enabling Marjorie for years, which has only encouraged her to continue treating him badly.

Lisa realized that she was no longer comfortable riding in a car with Marjorie and had told Dennis that on future visits, she'd prefer it if Marjorie drove up in a separate vehicle.

Dennis couldn't understand why she'd want to do this. He said to Lisa, "I don't see what good could come of this." He also was adamant that their parents shouldn't know what was going on.

In our session, Lisa and I discussed how Dennis seemed to have an attitude of helplessness regarding Marjorie, assuming that he had no other option but to tolerate her rudeness.

We also discussed how he was protecting Marjorie from the consequences of her bad behaviour. Lisa felt frustrated because he chose to do this, but hadn't protected either himself or Lisa from Marjorie's abuse.

We talked about how Dennis had told Lisa, "You're the only one with a problem," which was hurtful to her. Dennis appeared to be implying that she was overreacting to Marjorie's outburst.

Lisa and I discussed how her reaction was in fact, quite normal, and that Dennis was the one with the problem, being willing to sit there and take the abuse.

Lisa expressed sadness that her usually supportive boyfriend couldn't be there for her this time, because he's too caught up in a dysfunctional dynamic with his sister. She felt forced to take a stand with Marjorie because Dennis wouldn't or couldn't.

We discussed Dennis' passivity with regard to Marjorie and how he doesn't realize two things: one, that just because they're family members, he's not obliged to tolerate her abuse; and two, what a big favour he'd be doing if he were to call her on her bad behaviour.

We discussed how experiencing some appropriate consequences for her abusiveness might encourage Marjorie to improve her behaviour, and how this would benefit her socially as well as protecting her friends and family from further abuse.

Lisa has more talking to do with Dennis but in the meantime, she feels validated that her reaction to Marjorie was neither excessive nor inappropriate.

Lisa has decided that she'll stand her ground, hoping that Dennis will come to appreciate her position. After all, if Dennis were to face the truth about Marjorie's behaviour and finally stand up to her, it would benefit everyone.