“But my partner IS being ridiculous!”
The way you argue matters. A lot.
I have written other posts on this topic, and I see myself writing more in the future, because it’s one of the most common things I hear in couples counseling. Couples who it seems are trying hard to keep things civil, at least in front of me during therapy, will tell each other they are being “stupid,” or “ridiculous” without a second thought.
Dr. John Gottman, on whose extensive research much of my work with couples is based, discovered long ago that the primary difference between healthy relationships (the masters) and ones that are struggling (what Gottman called the disasters) is not that people in healthy relationships solve more of their problems. It is not that they don’t get angry with one another. It is not that they live in some gilded relationship castle where everything is perfect and they don’t struggle like other couples do. The main difference, it turns out, is how partners talk to each other about their issues.
In other words, how you are talking to each other matters more than what you are talking about. Or perhaps, more clearly, how you are talking matters before what you are talking about. It’s not that the content of your arguments is unimportant, or doesn’t need to be seriously discussed. Much the opposite, actually. It’s just that the way you discuss it is going to determine how your discussions go.
True or false: Couples who are highly satisfied in their relationships routinely tell each other they are being ridiculous, that their feelings are being blown out of proportion, to “calm down,” and that they are “irrational.”
I mean, when I put it that way, it’s pretty obvious, right? That’s not what people in healthy and happy relationships do. Do you want your relationship to be healthy and happy? Putting a stop to that kind of talk is a fantastic place to start.
“But Dave, it’s true. My partner really is ridiculous a lot of the time.”
So let’s say I grant that (I don’t, but let’s say I do!). How is it helping your relationship, the connection between you, to say that? Is it getting you what you want? Has your partner ever once replied, after hearing that, “You know, you’re so right. I am being completely ridiculous right now.”
I doubt it.
It doesn’t work and it can’t work, because it’s based on a false premise, which is that you’re supposed to tell your partner how you feel and what you think about their feelings and thoughts.
The way it actually works, what you actually need to be doing when your partner is telling you their perspective, is keeping the focus on them. Most non-productive arguments feature a lot of frankly pointless back-and-forth that looks something like this:
Her: I can’t believe you told that joke about sex at the party in mixed company. That was so embarrassing. (Begins with anger and criticism.)
Him: What? Are you kidding me? You’re so uptight about sex. It’s no big deal, they are our friends. It’s not like I was telling them details about our sex life. (Defensiveness and minimization in response to being criticized.)
Her: You never listen when I’m trying to tell you something that matters to me. (Going nuclear with the “nevers.”)
Him: That’s because every single little thing in the world is a gigantic deal and we have to have a big deep talk about everything. (Criticizing her need to talk about things. Also, globalizing with “every single little thing”)
Her: Well you never want to talk about anything, thank God I push some of these conversations because if I didn’t we’d never talk at all. (Defensiveness in response to being criticized. Globalizing with “never” and “anything.”)
And on and on it goes.
Let’s do a different take on this argument. Imagine it going like this:
She waits until the kids are in bed and they both seem to be in pretty good headspace. Then she approaches him calmly and says
“I want to talk to you about the party last night. Remember, you told that joke about sex? (She makes a change to how she normally approaches him about things)
Her: I felt really embarrassed when you told that joke. You’re a good man, and I love your sense of humor, and the way you always try to keep things fun, but I’m really sensitive about jokes about sex in mixed company. I need you to keep your jokes clean in those situations. (She changes how she tells him what the problem is.)
Him: Really? Wow, I had no idea those kinds of things bothered you. You’ve never told me that before. (He changes how he responds. .)
Her: I was afraid you would think I’m being stupid. (She gets a little more vulnerable, feeling safe with him based on his openness to her so far.)
Him: Not at all, I’m glad you told me! I never want you to feel embarrassed because of something I’ve said or done. Did you feel like it ruined your night? (He expresses concern for how she is feeling, and asks her a question, indicating his interest in her.)
Her: No, not at all. It’s just something about me I want you to know.
Him: Thanks for telling me that. I will try hard to be conscious about that in those situations. If I start telling a joke you think is going to embarrass you, just give my hand a small squeeze and I’ll pretend I forgot how it goes and drop it. (He actually expresses gratitude to her for sharing her feelings, and assures her he will make sure it doesn’t happen again.)
Why the second version is better than the first
a. She waits for a good time to talk to him. She doesn’t lead with her feelings of anger or hurt. (She changes her how)
b. She keeps it simple, and includes an affirmation of his character.
She’s not yelling or being critical. She’s not questioning whether he loves her. She’s just saying how she felt, what he did, and what she needs instead. And she’s not going on and on, pressing her point. She gets in, says her piece, and gets out.
c. He remains open to her and doesn’t get defensive (which she has just made easier for him by not being critical). And then he does the most important thing that happens in this conversation:
d. He keeps the focus on her and her feelings. He doesn’t jump in with his evaluations of how she’s feeling. In this moment, he shows up for her. He even asks her a question about how she feels and invites her to continue talking about it.
e. Then he assures her he has heard her, and even comes up with a plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again and opens up to her, inviting her to be part of his efforts.
No one likes to feel criticized, minimized, or dismissed.
If you are in a relationship where you tell your partner their feelings are stupid, ridiculous, irrational, wimpy, unmanly, or giving any other labels to how a person is feeling, there is no way to reach relationship happiness on that path. You can’t get there from here, even if your partner is being a little over the top in the moment. Your negative judgment, comment, or evaluation of them is just going to make things worse.
The path to peace and happiness in relationships starts with each partner accepting the other partner’s right to feel exactly how they are feeling in any given moment. When partners can accept that in each other, they will grow closer and closer.
It’s not about agreement
By the way, did you notice I never suggested the husband agreed with the wife that his joke was inappropriate? It really doesn’t matter, because there are two answers to that question and they are both right. His thinks his joke was fine, and that’s okay. She feels it was embarrassing, and that’s okay too. They both feel how they feel.
His opinion on this doesn’t even matter, because the discussion isn’t about trying to determine on some objective level whether his joke was inappropriate or embarrassing. Both are in the eye of the beholder. So much better to focus on the real issue, which is that his wife is hurting and if he can listen to her, he can learn how to help help her — in fact, his listening in the moment is precisely the help she needs.
We have to learn to tolerate and accept negative emotion in our partner so we can show up for them when they need us. Learn to do this and your partner will feel they have the greatest partner in the whole world.