casus belli – from the Latin, an act to justify war
“I don’t get it,” she says. “It’s like he’s picking fights with me on purpose. Which is wild. I haven’t done anything to him. Why now? What is going on?”
It’s been a complicated history between these two. They used to date but not anymore. Currently they work together. And I’ve been personally impressed by how well she deals with him.
I’ve been less impressed with how he deals with her, however. He’s a little sloppy on his half of the bargain. Not great at managing his own emotions. Defaults to making it other people’s problem. Not just with her, but in general. But we all have our quirks.
Anyway, I’m familiar enough with both of them (and have worked with them) to have some context and perspective on the situation. So I ask her what happened, and she tells me. And I agree. It’s a ridiculous fight for him to have started with her.
“Means he’s probably looking for one,” I agree. “Lemme find the phrase, it’s so handy.”
I look and find it. “Sound like casus belli to me.”
What Is Casus Belli?
Literally, act of war in Latin, casus belli is the act of picking a fight over basically nothing. It’s when someone is using whatever justification they can to start a fight — and especially when they use it as an excuse to dump you or fall out with you socially. The term can also apply to the specific issue that they’re choosing to pick a fight over as well.
I first heard of the concept via Savage Love, Dan Savage’s kinky relationship columns back in the day. But it was never really well defined in the columns themselves, usually alluded to in passing (which is why I don’t think it ever exploded like other ideas of Savage’s, for example, the campsite standard), but definitely an interesting concept. Plus, I know that some people don’t like Dan Savage for some pretty valid reasons, even though some of his ideas can be really helpful.
Anyway, in my friend’s case, it seems like the guy doesn’t want to be rejected by her (and he was, long ago). For a while, he was actively trying to get her back, but lately he seems to have realized it’s not going to happen. So now he’s picking fights with her to make her act ugly in response (really, pushing her buttons, I’ve witnessed this behavior from him), so that he can say, “Aha! You’re a bad person. I reject you.”
I’d been meaning to write about casus belli forever. But it’s hard to write about. First off, while it definitely happens, it can be rather ambiguous. That’s part of the appeal, after all, to people employing the strategy — it appears as though they’re doing something else. Plus, often people do it without realizing that they might even be doing that.
(Which begs the question are they really doing it? Or are they doing something else? Ahhhh, philosophy.)
Anyway, it can be easily confused with other mind-boggling reasons for behavior, and even if you know what they’re doing you don’t necessarily why they’re doing it, and the ideal way to react really depends on the individual, so recognizing it for what it is doesn’t lead you down a clear-cut path for knowing what to do it.
But I must admit — knowing that it’s a possibility has allowed me to sit and let the flustered, unimpressed reaction wash over me and not let hot cognition take over, while I riddle out what the best thing to do next would be.