Unwitting Self-Sabotage

Posted on October 14, 2014


“Thinking it over I’ve been sad.  Thinking it over, I’d be more than glad to change my ways for the asking.”  Paul Simon, Song for the Asking

From “Harvey” by Mary Chase

MYRTLE – Why did grandmother leave all her property to Uncle Elwood?

VETA – I suppose it was because she died in his arms. People are sentimental about things like that.

MYRTLE – You always say that and it doesn’t make sense. She couldn’t make out her will after she died, could she?

VETA – Oh Myrtle, don’t be didactic. It’s not becoming in a young girl. Besides, men loathe it.


“I used to look at you and see the possibilities.  I see you for who you are; boy, you disappointed me.”  Alicia Keys, Go Ahead


I don’t really take criticism very well.  If you were to criticize me, you would never know it.  I actually handle it pretty well on the outside.  It is more about my internal experience.  The research on relationships has found that you need five positives to offset one negative.  I have always felt that number was low.  I need more than five positives to offset the negative, but maybe that is just me.

One of the banks that I previously worked for had at one time decided they wanted to create a “culture of 360 degree coaching.”  Essentially, the idea was that every day you would coach your employees, your boss, your peers, your colleagues in other departments, and basically anyone with whom you interacted in the organization.  The expectation was that by doing this we would all continually improve at our jobs.  Coaching could sometimes involve “attaboys,” but mostly it was about telling each other how we could do it better.

Here is my theory and why I see this as a problem.  I believe that you can only effectively coach to the extent that the relationship can bear.  Let me tell you what I mean by that.  If we do not have a strong relationship and you give me some negative feedback, instead of being able to accept that as your attempt to help me be better, I am likely to take it as criticism, perhaps thinking that you don’t think I am good at what I do or even that you don’t like me very much.  If we have a history of a troubled relationship, I am definitely going to hear it as criticism.  If I know that you are really a fan of mine, you can give me some difficult feedback, and I can accept it as a sincere attempt to help me and/or our relationship.  We need a good amount of relationship capital to support the negative feedback.

This is not a blog about corporate culture, but about relationships.  In marriage, you need to be able to complain.  You need to be able to let the little things go, but you also need to be able to bring complaints to your partner.  We feel loved and supported when our partner is able to listen to our complaints and respond with caring.  While you cannot control how your partner responds to you, your partners response can be greatly influenced by the way in which you present your complaints.[1]

To begin with, it is important to differentiate complaints from criticism.  The easiest way to make the distinction is that complaints tend to be about the specific situation or issue while criticism tends to be about your partner’s character traits.  Additionally, criticism has more of a global bent to it beginning with words such as “You always” or “You never.”  Complaints are a necessary and healthy part of marriage.  Criticism is so damaging to the relationship that it is considered one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  That is to say, when criticism becomes the norm in the relationship, it can undermine the very foundation of the relationship.

Criticism frequently has a dance partner called “defensiveness” which is comparably damaging to the relationship.  Defensiveness occurs when rather than listening to your partner’s experience, you instead immediately begin defending yourself.  It is problematic in that it makes your partner feel that she has not been heard or validated.  I used the gender specific pronoun there in that women have the greater tendency to criticize and men have the greater tendency to defend.

Wives, let me offer you some thoughts on how to help your husband to hear you and be able to accept your influence.  Your needs in the relationship are legitimate, but the way you are asking for those needs to be met may be sabotaging your efforts to be heard and supported.  Once again, you can only control you, you cannot control how your partner responds to you.

First, watch out for criticism.  Avoid global statements (“you always” or “you never”).  Stick to the issue or incident at hand rather than talking about your partner’s shortcomings (e.g. “You are so selfish”).  Don’t mind-read (I.e. making the assumption you know what your partner was thinking: “He is doing that just to annoy me”).  I once worked with a guy whose slogan was “Never assume malice where ignorance will suffice.”  That can definitely be applied here.

Second, soften your start up.  A “maybe you didn’t mean this way” or an “I know you have been busy too” on the front end of your complaint can go a long way toward getting heard.  Acknowledging that he is not 100% to blame or that there may have been a misunderstanding will likely make him less defensive.

Third, build him up.  If you are like many couples, when you first got together, you really appreciated the way he would listen to you.  Whether he was aware of it or not, he probably really appreciated the way you built him up.  You were a fan.  He felt that.  And it was intoxicating.  If that has been lost over time, with it has gone his ability to hear a complaint without taking it personally.  The first time I heard the line from the Alicia Keys song I quoted at the start of this post, “Boy, you disappointed me,” I thought, “ooo…that’s gotta hurt.”  There are few things more painful to a man than feeling like a disappointment to his wife.  We have a few ways of coping with that.  First, defend ourselves.  Second, respond in anger.  Third, withdraw emotionally from the relationship.  He will be much more receptive if he feels that you are still a fan and glad you chose him for a partner.

Like getting to the end of a session, I need to wrap this up.  So here’s the deal.  Your needs to feel loved, valued, and supported in the relationship are legitimate.  They are a normal part of the human condition.  My experience is that the things people say, do, and feel make sense if you understand their experience.  Therefore, your complaints make sense.  You naturally want them to be understood and validated by your partner, and for your partner to be sensitive to your needs.  However, if you have a tendency toward criticism (or worse, contempt), you may be unwittingly sabotaging your efforts to be heard and understood.  As Dr. Phil often asked, “How’s that working for you?”  Since you cannot control your partner but only yourself, your mission is to make your complaints easy to listen to so that they get heard.  Would you be willing to change your way of asking for your needs to be met?

[1] This is not my assertion.  This is supported by the research (particularly by John and Julie Gottman).