It is human nature to defend ourselves and to protect ourselves from harm’s way. In many situations, it is an essential instinct for survival. In relationships, however, this can be problematic. Often, it will look like attacking and blaming others. This can cause a great deal of resentment and negative feelings, presenting serious challenges to your relationship.
Most couples that seek couples counseling believe that their partner is the bigger problem. So frequently, I hear from one partner a whole list of reasons why they came to counseling, and most of them are the things their partner does that they don’t like. They will usually tell me that, “He needs to change”. It is not very common that I hear someone come in with a partner and then tell me what they think they are doing wrong or what they need to change. What is this really all about?
For most people, it is much easier to see the flaws in others than to take a long hard look in the mirror. Taking personal responsibility is much more difficult than denying, blaming others, or simply ignoring that which we know to actually be true. You see, most of us have built some armor over the years, starting when we were very young. How much armor we wear is influenced by our own past experiences throughout our lives.
For example, if your father was a raging alcoholic, you likely learned not to rock the boat. It wasn’t safe for you to speak up when something was bothering you, because you learned to be fearful of the response. What that really taught you was that your feelings didn’t matter. As a result, you felt very hurt and that you had no control.
You learned how to protect yourself from those feelings by controlling every other aspect of your life and putting on some heavy armor so nobody else could ever hurt you that way. So, when your partner blames you for everything, it really has very little to do with you. She is just wearing heavy armor.
Although many of the coping skills we developed over the years served us well in the past, they don’t usually serve us well as adults in relationships. In order to find true intimacy, there also must be some vulnerability. Being vulnerable is scary. It means you have to give up some control, which could be very anxiety provoking. It means allowing yourself to see how you are an equal partner in your relationship, and therefore share equal responsibility in the solving the problems.
Admitting you are part of the problem means you might have to change, and that can be really frightening. Most people are resistant to change, as it leads to the unknown. Walking down an unknown road is the exact opposite of being in control of every aspect of your life. This can feel impossible to someone who wears heavy armor. And it can feel awful for the partner being blamed.
Being constantly criticized and feeling like you can’t ever please your partner is very hurtful. It can make you feel like a failure, damage your self-esteem, and cause a lot of resentment. But what can you do?
- Remind yourself that this has more to do with your partner than with you. Remember how scared your partner must feel and how hard she is trying to protect herself.
- Mirror back what you hear your partner telling you. For example, if your partner says, “You are always running late in the morning and you never help me with the kids” you could mirror back, “So you’d like me to get ready earlier in the morning and help more with the kids?” This way, you are basically teaching your partner a more appropriate way of expressing herself, but without eliciting defensiveness or a lengthy argument
- Learn to calmly express how you are feeling. For example, “When you criticize me, I feel worthless and unloved.” Chances are, your partner is not even thinking about how her words are hurting you. She really just wants to control and change a situation, and thinks you are solely responsible for that.
- Show her your unwavering support and ask for the same from her. For example, if she had a rough day at work, tell her that she should relax and you take over some of things she normally does at home. But, if you didn’t get the promotion you wanted, don’t let her berate you or put you down. Expect her to be supportive and talk about how frustrated you must feel and how you can move on and try again.
- Focus on the process rather than the content of an argument. For example, if your wife tells you that she wants you to be more assertive and make more decisions, but then interrupts you whenever you speak and tells you how wrong you are or how bad your decisions are, that will likely not help her get more of what she says she wants. Gently point out this form of sabotage by saying, “I am trying to be assertive like you asked me to, but it is really hard because every time I speak up, I am getting interrupted and knocked down.” It is irrelevant what you are actually discussing at that point. The process or the pattern is what matters. You need to fix that first before you can have a chance at resolving this issues at hand.
- Agree to some things that you need to work on, and then gently share some things you would like your partner to work on. Express it in a way that demonstrates how it will help the relationship. In other words, your partner doesn’t need fixing, but some problems in the relationship do. What are you each willing to do to achieve this goal?
- If your partner is resistant, ask what prevents her from wanting to make changes that would improve the marriage. Ask why she would not want to be part of the solution to the very problem that is so upsetting to her.
- Talk about fear and change and the unknown. Talk about how if you try something and it doesn’t work, you can try something different. You can brainstorm together about how to solve problems, you can negotiate difficult decisions and you can be supportive of one another.