“Watch Out for Litter”

Somehow you failed to notice the road sign’s warning that you were entering a high litter zone. You were unprepared for the high level of highway litter you had to dodge during the following fifty miles as you traveled through Litter County.  The nightmarish stories you had heard about Litter County were immediately confirmed.  The county’s official motto, “Litter is Our Lifestyle,” certainly fit the scene. There was litter everywhere—in both ditches and on the roadway itself. The repulsive smell was nasty and nauseating. Cars were slowing and swerving as the drivers strived and struggled to miss the pieces of litter that could violate vehicles and cause collisions. Your car suffered several hits but, thankfully, all of the litter encounters caused only minor damage. After a tedious and turbulent three-hour ordeal you somehow completed the fifty-mile trip and crossed the county line into the next county that, thankfully, had a frequently monitored and strictly enforced “No- Litter” law.

In case you’re questioning the whereabouts of Litter County, please rest assured that the geographical location does not actually exist. However, we’ve all traveled along roadways that contained so much litter that the county might deserve to be called Litter County.  On one cross-country trip I saw a road sign that clearly said, “No Littering Allowed.” Ironically, the ground directly beneath the sign was covered with highway litter. People who are proud of littering are prone to ignore or defy such signs. But to the majority of travelers highway litter is both unsightly and unsafe.

Likewise, the practice of littering represents a serious threat to individuals who are traveling the Relationship Highway. Understandably, wise travelers prefer to avoid relationships in which littering is a lifestyle. The person who commits the littering, whom I refer to as a “Relationship Litterbug,” is placing his relationships at risk. The only person who might prefer to travel through life in a litter-filled relationship is someone who is also a Relationship Litterbug.  Because of its inherent threat to health and happiness the practice of relationship littering merits our attention. Let’s examine this pattern a little further and see what we can learn about the litterbug lifestyle.

Learning the Litterbug Lifestyle

Without doubt we’ve all heard of litterbugs—those individuals who discard waste items or who leave personal items in inappropriate locations without regard for other people. However, the term “Relationship Litterbug” could be a new concept for you, so a brief definition would perhaps be helpful. The Baker Dictionary of Current Relationship Terminology provides an interesting description of this relationship problem.
“RELATIONSHIP LITTERITIS is a dangerous relationship inflammation identified most easily by excessive behavioral and verbal littering. This unhealthy pattern consists of inappropriate actions and words that threaten the underlying relationship. The offender is often referred to as a Relationship Litterbug. The Behavioral Litterbug uses actions to exhibit a two-fold pattern of making messes and not cleaning them up as well as leaving personal objects in inappropriate places and expecting someone else to remove them.  The Verbal Litterbug does damage through inappropriate words such as negative complaining, excessive venting, or verbally attacking the other person in the relationship. The cause of this inflammation is usually attributed to an underdevelopment of the Central Maturity System (CMS), meaning that personal values like respect, responsibility, and integrity did not meet developmental milestones. A supporting secondary cause is an Overactive Laziness Gland (OLG) that promotes Lazyitis, a co-morbid condition that intensifies Litteritis.  As a pattern Litteritis tends to be intergenerational in that children choose to imitate similar behavior they see in their family of origin. The goal of treatment is to decrease the output of the Laziness Gland and to promote the growth of the Central Maturity System.  Medication is usually a non-beneficial resource, but individuals can experience improvement through self-help activities and participation in a 12-Step L.A. or Litterers Anonymous group.  Individual therapy and relationship counseling are both highly recommended for persons who want to overcome the unhealthy inflammations of Lazyitis and Litteritis.”* (BDCRT, 2012, p. 184.)
The litterbug lifestyle is a learned pattern. We were not born to be litterers. Somehow over time we were influenced by various factors and we imitated certain examples. However developed, our litterbug lifestyle could be expressed in several ways. Let’s look at two specific types of Relationship Litterbugs and explore the usual impact they have upon personal and family relationships.
The Behavioral Litterbug

The Behavioral Litterbug is the individual who makes messes and leaves them for other people to clean up. The messes could involve personal items like clothes or household items like food. For example, a husband works outside on a hot summer day, comes inside to clean up, and leaves his dirty, sweaty, smelly work clothes on the floor for the wife (or someone else) to pick up.  In general, based on feedback I’ve received, men tend to practice behavioral littering more so than women. A typical male response to his litterbug pattern might be, “It just seems like the natural thing to do.” However, many women also seem to prefer a littering lifestyle. A wife goes to the kitchen for a snack, fixes her favorite sandwich, and leaves a mess on the counter including the part of the sandwich she decided not to eat. Her mess stays on the counter until her husband (or someone else) chooses to clean it up. Children observe the Parent Litterbug and imitate the behavior. The son makes a pile of pillows on the den floor for his personal comfort while watching television, but later he leaves the room with the pillows and an empty coke can still on the floor. “No problem,” he thinks, “Mom will take care of it.”  People like these three individuals are Mess-making Machines. They litter the house or yard or car with trivia and trash and take no responsibility for resolving their own messes. Succumbing to selfishness and loaded with laziness they will continue to be litterbugs until something occurs that motivates major change.

Excessive behavioral littering usually becomes a serious issue for the relationships that are involved. Many male litterbugs are already at crisis level in that their marriages are seriously ill from litter-related infections.  The wife of the littering husband will reach a point when she feels disrespected and used, and her “maid-service” role will increase her resentment toward her selfish husband. The same sequence will occur with the husband of the messy wife, as well as the parents of the messy teenager. In any family people are usually willing to clean up each other’s messes as long as the frequency and frustration are reasonable. However, when the messes clearly become littering the other family members will have negative reactions and the relationships will be damaged.

A variation of littering is cluttering. The “clutterbug” is the individual who collects a wide variety of personal and household items to the extent that they begin to “clutter up” the environment.  The clutterbug who struggles with hoarding is likely to take simple clutter to an unprecedented level, and clutter collisions are bound to occur.  Once labeled as a litterer or classified as a clutterer an individual has to live with a negative reputation that was more easily developed than dissolved. Both the litterbug and the clutterbug present significant challenges to both individual and relationship health.

The Relationship Highway “rule of the road” is simply “No Littering Allowed.” Since all relationships are subject to the litter threat couples need to consider the issue when they are dating and contemplating marriage. If your potential mate has a littering pattern prior to marriage you can predict that the negative behavior will continue (and probably worsen) after the wedding. If you don’t want a litter lifestyle the simplest solution is clear:  refuse to marry a Relationship Litterbug.  Within a family setting clear communication is crucial to litter control. It’s very important that you clarify your expectations with your spouse and other family members so there is no guesswork about littering. Let the offenders know how much the litter behavior bothers you and then request reasonable changes. Hopefully, the litterbugs will respect your request and decrease their negative behavior. Your family can also establish and enforce motivational mottos like “Clean up your own Mess” or “Lift the Litter and Clean the Clutter!”  Effective management means that you tackle the litter and clutter issues when they first begin to appear instead of waiting until the patterns are fully established and ingrained in daily behavior. The recommendation of Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith television sitcom seems relevant:  “Nip it in the bud! You gotta nip it in the bud!”

The Verbal Litterbug

A second type of Relationship Litterbug is the verbal litterer. This pattern is detected and determined by the caustic content that comes out of the offender’s mouth. The words that fall from the lips comprise the litter that falls on the relationship. The damaging effect of the words is often magnified by the increased volume and inappropriate tone used in the speaking process. The Verbal Litterbug pattern has many variations, all of which pose some level of threat to individual and relationship health. Let’s briefly examine three variations that are seen in many families and friendships.
The Complainer Litterbug . . .

One type of Verbal Litterbug is characterized by the practice of complaining. The Complainer Litterbug is the person who gripes and grumbles excessively in negative ways that hurt and harm other people. The complainer cannot be pleased. Nothing is ever good enough. There must be a dark cloud somewhere in the beautiful sky and the complainer will find it. Rather than appreciate the positive efforts that other people exert the complainer will focus on the mistakes made or the duties not done. His words may be intended to express his own discontentment, manipulate the other person to agree to a request, or to punish someone for “crimes” already committed.  

The well-developed Complainer Litterbug is filled with inherent negativity. Unfortunately, the negative approach to life takes a severe wear-and-tear toll on the complainer himself and upon his personal relationships. Like hungry termites feeding on the supporting woodwork of a house the continual campaign of complaints slowly but surely eats away at the foundations of all relationships. The negative pattern literally sucks the life out of the relationship. The adage is all too true:  “Complaining is draining.”

Thankfully, this destructive pattern can be changed but only if the offender is willing to reveal and revise the underlying beliefs that motivate his verbal complaints. The external behavior is the predictable product of an internal belief system that must be changed in order for healthier patterns to emerge. Specifically, the complainer must learn basic contentment. Instead of wallowing in want the complainer resists current cultural trends that promote personal entitlement and total satisfaction. His constant complaints of “I want, I want, I want!” are replaced by the grateful response “I have enough; I’m content.” He realizes the truth that the majority of his so-called “needs” are actually “wants” in disguise.  He understands that a contented heart cures a complaining tongue. The Relationship Highway “rule of the road” is clear:  “Stop the Complaining!” When self-control and personal growth have been achieved every relationship becomes a welcomed “No Complaint” zone!
The Trasher Litterbug . . .
Another variation of the Verbal Litterbug is the individual who practices trash-talk.  Some features of this negative pattern might at times resemble the Complainer, but the Trasher Litterbug tends to be more extreme and hurtful in his verbal abuse.  The Trasher’s trail of litter ranges from mild put-downs to major punches. The offender becomes skilled at throwing “zingers” in the form of verbal cuts intended to slice the recipient’s heart like a sharp knife.  The Litterbug might use sarcasm and then try to justify the trash-talk with the disclaimer, “I was just using humor. Can’t you take a joke?” The Trasher Litterbug hinders safe relationship travels by the personal attacks on the other person. The destructive behavior of this verbal bully curtails closeness and injures intimacy simply because other people cannot feel emotionally safe with him.

The “rule of the road” along the Relationship Highway is clear:  “Stop the Trash-talk!” The Trasher Litterbug can change this negative pattern by practicing love and providing respect toward other people. He rejects a long-held lie that somehow he is built up when the other person is torn down.  Furthermore, he learns from painful experience that “Mud Thrown is Ground Lost” and chooses to stop his mud-slinging behavior. His new belief upholds the truth that he is a better person when he actively strives to encourage and equip the other person toward individual and relationship growth. Motivated by love and moved with compassion he chooses to extend grace to the relationship partner, even though the other person may not deserve it. By definition the extension of grace is “giving that which is needed even when undeserved.” The new belief is: “Grace Given is Ground Gained!”

The Dumper Litterbug . . .
A third type of Relationship Litterbug is the pattern I call the Dumper Litterbug. The key action inherent in this negative pattern is “venting.” The offender harms the relationship through the excessive and inappropriate venting of pent-up hurt and/or hostility. In a typical scenario an individual is struggling with a huge amount of inner frustration in the form of hurt feelings or angry emotions. His style is to find another person, perhaps a spouse or a best friend, who will serve as his “dumping ground.” Whether the other person agrees or disagrees with the dumping the offender vents his negative thoughts and his intense emotions until his “emotional storehouse” is empty. At that point the dumper feels both release and relief, and he might even verbalize, “Ah, that felt so good! Now I feel much better.” However, the recipient (also known as the “dumpee”) feels much worse due to the heavy load of emotional garbage just thrown on top of him. If the dumpee objects or resists, the Dumper Litterbug may try to justify his behavior with the response, “I’m just venting. You’re my spouse. You’re supposed to let me vent.”

Please understand that I’m not categorically opposed to venting. In certain situations a limited amount of venting could in fact be productive and healthy. Clearly, the exchange and discussion of feelings are important features of healthy communication. The problem arises when the venting is excessive and when the dumped load is overwhelming to the dumpee. Venting is certainly inappropriate when the recipient does not welcome it.  I’ve seen extensive damage done to relationships from an accumulative history of unwelcomed venting. Spouses often disagree about definitions. The dumper will declare “I’m just sharing my feelings. I’m only venting.” The dumpee responds, “No, you’re way beyond that. You’re using me as your personal dumping ground, and I’m tired of it.” Some individuals seem to play the dumpee role on a regular basis, like the woman who lamented “I’m the family dumping ground. Everyone dumps on me.” One man described a particularly bad case of excessive venting as “projectile vomiting.” Needless to say, that picture stuck in my head for some time!

Basically, the Dumper Litterbug engages in excessive, uninvited venting that evokes resentment within the recipient. As the resentment builds over time the relationship suffers damage. If the relationship is to be salvaged and safeguarded, the practice of unhealthy venting or dumping must be stopped. The recipient must be assertively precise:  “Enough! Please stop the verbal litter!” Along the Relationship Highway the “rule of the road” is clear:  “No Dumping Allowed.” Individuals who value relationships will respect this rule and will practice personal self-control in regard to venting. The recipients of past dumpings will adopt a new personal motto:  “Don’t Dump on me!’ 

Living with Litterbugs

Life with a litterbug is at best a daily challenge and at worst a nasty nightmare. Both the Behavioral Litterbug and the Verbal Litterbug cause unnecessary stress that threatens both individual and relationship health. The negative pattern often produces stress-generated physical and emotional symptoms. After years of trying to survive a full-blown litterbug any human is likely to feel the physical effects of the ongoing stress or emotional effects in the form of depression and anxiety. Needless to say, the level of relationship stress is usually very high on the part of the recipient of the litter. The resulting decrease of emotional safety hinders and discourages closeness and intimacy. Ironically, many Relationship Litterbugs claim that they want closeness and intimacy, but through their litter behavior they defeat the very thing they say they want. When the specific costs of littering have been listed and summed the resulting price tag is extremely high. The Relationship Litterbug needs to consider the negative cost of his unnecessary habit, and the person considering life with a litterer needs to ponder the high price tag. 
If you’ve been engaged in a lifestyle of littering—whether Behavioral, Verbal, or both—the good news is that you can change to a better way of life.  Perhaps you’ve already concluded that “littering is losing” and you’ve already lost too much. To prevent additional losses you’re at an intersection of change on your Relationship Highway. Meaningful change begins with a transition in your basic attitude, specifically from a mindset of disrespect to a commitment to respect. Rather than disrespecting yourself and other people you will come to value yourself and others, and, as a result, you will decrease and hopefully stop your littering lifestyle.  As your personal integrity increases so will your ability to relate to other people in a healthy, positive manner. Basically, you’ll start thinking differently about the way you view and value other people. Your goal will change from “tearing people down” to “building people up.” Your new commitment will be to protect and preserve your relationships. 

Along local roadways we’ve all seen signs that read “Adopt a Highway.” There may also be an attached sign that provides the name of the person or group that has adopted that particular stretch of roadway. Many civic organizations and community groups support the “Adopt A Highway” program by volunteering for a section of roadway. The adopter’s job is to monitor the roadway for litter and to clean the area on a regular basis to prevent major litter buildup. After seeing one of the signs recently I began thinking about Litterbug Relationships and the need for proactive prevention, methodical monitoring, and consistent cleaning.  Road signs along the Relationship Highway should encourage every married couple to “Adopt a Relationship” (specifically, their relationship) and commit themselves to effective litter management.

By this point you might be thinking that some folks are too intense or zealous about the need for effective litter management. Admittedly, most of us like clean highways and roadways. Beautiful landscapes that are litter-free are much more enjoyable than a view filled with trash and garbage. More importantly, we like and prefer litter-free relationships. Realistically, though, a little litter is probably going to be present in every human relationship. We understand the human condition and are willing to tolerate and work with a little litter.  The primary concern is about the damage done to our relationships by excessive behavioral and verbal littering. I hope that the material presented in this brief article will serve both as a warning and as an encouragement. The warning is contained in the word “litter” in the form on an acronym: L.I.T.T.E.R. = Litter IThreatening TEveryRelationship!  The encouragement is for all of us to renew our commitment for effective litter management in our individual lives and in our personal relationships. 

To illustrate the impact of littering on relationships I composed a short poem in limerick format. Please consider the experience of Ernie and his wife in relation to his litterbug lifestyle.
               "Litterbug Ernie"
     I heard about Litterbug Ernie
     Who littered his marital journey;
          With his litter he bashed
          ‘Til his marriage was trashed—
     His wife has retained an attorney.
     Now Ernie was known for his messes
     Along with his verbal excesses;
          He complained and he grumped
          As he vented and dumped—
     That’s how he would deal with his stresses.
     Though Ernie’s behavior seemed crazy
     His thinking was clear and not hazy;
          So there was no excuse
          For his litter abuse—
     The man was just selfish and lazy.
     Though never a physical hitter
     He killed with continuous litter;
          The result of his trash:
          A relationship crash—
     They now are divorced and quite bitter!
                                    -- Dr. Bill Baker (2012)
Concluding Thoughts . . .
There is no place for behavioral and verbal litter in our travels along the Relationship Highway. Our relationships are too valuable to place them in jeopardy from unnecessary litter. The road sign should be clear:  “No Littering Allowed.”

Ideally, all prior Relationship Litterbugs would be in a state of recovery in which they are striving to practice a litter-free lifestyle. I compliment you if you are working on litter management and are committed to positive change and personal growth. A long-term lifestyle of littering can be difficult to overcome, but with a reasonable level of desire and discipline you can make significant progress. The usage of self-help books and participation in professional therapy are important resources that could assist you in your efforts. Your growth will improve your personal life and will enrich your relationships.

I wish you well in your struggles with Relationship Litterbug issues. And, as always, I wish you the best in all of your relationship travels.

*BDCRT: This book is a fictitious creation of the author designed to illustrate various relationship patterns. Therefore, the book is not available for public access.

Resources:  This author has written and published on this website other articles that relate to and supplement this current material. One specific article is entitled “How Grumbling Affects Relationships.” If you would like to read that material, you can click on the title below or the image to the right.

“How Grumbling Affects Relationships”

VIDEO:  To watch a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Litterbug Relationships" please click on the image to the right, or you can simply click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)

         Healthy Relationships #116



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