Find something to agree with
If your partner is “giving you a hard time” criticising you, see if you can find something, anything, in their point of view, that you can agree with.
Most people do the opposite. If they don’t like what they are hearing, they’ll look for any little point they can correct. “It wasn’t a Tuesday, it was a Wednesday”. If it’s in writing, they’ll point out a typo or a spelling error. If they can’t deal with the point, then they’ll say “you’ve said this 100 times before”, or “you’ve never said this before”, or “there’s no need to shout”. Or “now is the wrong time to bring this up”. They look for any irrelevant reason to reject the message.
My recommendation is, look for something in what they are saying that you can sincerely agree with. Not sarcastically. Ask for more information if you need it.
How does this work? Suppose your partner says “whenever you get in from work, you just slump down and watch television”. You can tell from the tone that it’s intended as a criticism. The worst thing you can do is say “not every night”. Getting all defensive, contradicting over pointless details. Or saying “but you…” and counterattacking. Slightly less bad would be to explain: “I’ve just got in from a commute where I’m on the train for an hour and I don’t even get a seat” or whatever. That may be a good point, but it’s not good tactics.
It might be better to agree. Say “yes, I guess I do” and see what comes next. If more information doesn’t follow, ask: “does that bother you?” It’s important that these enquiries are sincere. Find something you can agree with. If your partner says “it’s really annoying”, perhaps you could say “yes, I can see it could be disappointing”. Keep your sentences short and non-defensive. A similar approach might work if the criticism is "you always talk so much", or "you never say anything", or "you eat too fast", or "you eat too slow" ... start by acknowledging anything that you possibly can.
Ideally, at some point, they will stop trying to prove to you how bad you are, and come up with an actual request for things to be different in the future, which you can then discuss.
How to Apologise
Suppose you’ve done something that upsets your partner. An apology is required.
If you don’t regret what happened, then you shouldn’t give an insincere apology. But if your partner is upset, it probably was regrettable. It’s no defence to say that you wouldn’t mind if they did the same to you: you are not both the same. And it’s no good trying to counter-attack by saying that they are making too much “fuss”. It has to be an apology. Not a defence or minimising it.
What is an apology? It doesn’t mean just saying the word “sorry”. It means that you show that you really understand how it affected them and how upset they are. It means responding to their pain. In order to do this, you may need to ask them questions to understand better what is going on. That may seem like the exact opposite of what you feel like doing. You want to tell your side of the story. Don’t do that. Ask more about the effect on them. “I need to understand more about how you feel about it”.
Validate what they say. That doesn’t mean agreeing with it: it means saying that you can understand it, it makes sense. If you can’t say that, then you need to find out more. Validating it is the opposite of trying to prove that their feeling is “illogical” or unjustified. If you think they are over-reacting, then your task is to ask more questions to find out why it’s such a big deal to them. Then you can say sorry.
And finally, explain how you intend for things to be different in future.
If you are afraid of apologising because you think that it will be held against you for ever, it may be a case for some counselling.
The drinking-glass -- or why is it always about the dishwasher?
I was reading a blog post by a chap called Matt Fray about how he ended up divorced. He would leave his used drinking glass on the side in the kitchen because “I’ll probably use it again soon”, whereas his wife wanted it put in the dishwasher at once. I have to say I’ve had similar disputes in my own life. He believes his attitude to this was one of a number of cumulative little injuries that led to divorce. A costly and painful divorce.
On the face of it, the situation seems symmetrical. He and his wife each have a preference about the glass. Why should he give way? Does he have to do every single thing his partner asks? Where will it end? Why does she think she’s always right? How can it be that important anyway?
His view, now that he is divorced, is that it was important, because she had strong feelings about it. It mattered more to her than it did to him. Note that the “feelings” don’t make her preference “right”. The reason he should do what she wants is not because she’s “right” but because it matters more to her than to him. Sometimes being grown-up is doing something even though your partner asked you to.
And sometimes you should not do what your partner asked! But even when you decide not to, it should not be done by ignoring or disrespecting the request, or saying you “forgot”. It has to be a respectful “yes” or “no”. Your partner has to feel that you give serious consideration to what they want. I think this goes equally for men and women. Without that feeling of being taken seriously, a person cannot feel safe.
I’ve noticed a thing on South West Trains. When your train arrives at the platform, where you’re waiting for it, there’s a button you have to press to open the doors. It lights up when it’s ready, you press it, and the doors open. And yet for some people, it doesn’t seem to work. They press the button, and the doors don’t open for them. As far as I can see, they are pressing too tentatively, too briefly.
I find myself wondering, where did you learn this? That you mustn’t ask too loudly, state your needs clearly, press the button firmly. That it would somehow be “needy” or “greedy” or “bossy” if you were to press the button firmly for a couple of seconds, so that the mechanism actually works, just like everyone else does? It’s only a train door! You’re not going to break it. Everyone is allowed to use the button.
Such a person can be a nightmare as a road-user. If you’re driving behind them, they are the ones who won’t proceed at a junction even when they have right of way, confusing the other traffic. And it’s the same in relationships – the rest of us feel confused, and perhaps frustrated, by someone who can’t be clear. Both partners in this situation feel aggrieved.
As I said, I’m going to be wondering, where did you learn this?
Why would you even want to be in a relationship? Differentiation or attachment?
The main difference of opinion these days amongst couple and marriage counsellors, is about how self-sufficient a person should ideally be. Some experts (for example David Schnarch) say that in order to be in a relationship, a person really needs to be differentiated, meaning they know who they are, can stand on their own two feet, and don’t expect the other person to be their emotional caretaker. He sees a relationship as a place where people grow. I like that idea. He says a marriage should not be like a parent-child relationship, it should be a relationship of two interdependent equal adults who are each capable of looking after themselves.
The other main school of thought (Sue Johnson) is that people are in relationships to get their emotional needs met, and yes, even adults have legitimate emotional needs. She sees a relationship as a shelter from the storms of life, and she helps people understand and meet each other’s needs. This is called attachment. They can lean on and rely on each other – or else why would you even want to be in a relationship? I like her work too, and it (EFT for couples) is the most evidence-supported successful form of couple counselling, with a high success rate. I have some training in David Schnarch’s work, but more in Sue Johnson’s approach.
There may also be a gender difference here: although this is a generalisation, men often want or are expected to be self-sufficient, and like the sound of the “differentiation” approach. Underneath all that though, men too have good reasons why they want to be in a secure relationship. All the evidence says men do better in every way (health, happiness, career) when they are in a secure relationship. Self-sufficiency goes only so far.
I went to see the film Wonder the other day. The main plot is about a young boy, Auggie, with a mild facial disfigurement, and his struggles to make friends at school and avoid being bullied. I’d say the film makes everything seem a little easier than it is in real life: his parents and his teachers are all wonderful, and on his side, and so on. The bully appears to realise the error of his ways and show remorse at the end. In real life, things are not always that easy. I guess it’s a feel-good movie.
However, one of the other themes it raises is about Auggie’s older sister. Because of Auggie’s problems, his parents are totally focused on him, so his sister grows up as something of a loner. She’s too self-sufficient too early, learning not to ask for what she needs.
Freud talked a lot about the effect our parents have on us, but I think the impact of brothers and sisters can be huge too. Sometimes, just as in the film, one of the children in a family can get all the attention, because of sickness, special problems, or special talents, and the others have to fend for themselves and learn not to express their needs.
Quotations and useful links
In memory of two of my favourite writers:
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” - Ursula K. Le Guin
“A marriage is always made up of two people who are prepared to swear that only the other one snores.” - Terry Pratchett
An article about how to make a success of couple therapy, with some useful ideas.
An interesting Youtube video about communication. What stops us communicating?
Should you try counselling? From Talk about marriage website. (You don't have to look like the couple in the photograph to benefit).
Interesting article from the New York Times. 13 Questions about marriage . These are all questions we might well explore if you meet with me!
A long, detailed article about marriage for those who like a solid read: Twenty ideas on marriage from "The Book of Life"
A nice "should you divorce or should you stay" guide from Shirley Glass: Hang in or hang it up?
An interesting article from Dr Kelly Flanagan's blog. I agree with him that "communication" is often not the big problem: The 9 most overlooked threats to a marriage