We don’t like to be told who we are. Sometimes we define our partner aggressively – “You’re lazy.”, “You’re a bitch.”, or “You’re worthless.” Generally we are more subtle – “I don’t feel you love me”, “You’re not the man I married.”, or “You’d rather be with your girlfriends than me.” Regardless of how subtle or truthful the statement, we do not like to be told who we are.
Labeling your partner’s personality or character will inevitably trigger a protest, a counterattack and emotional distance. So why do we do it? Labels are a way of trying to get our partner to examine his or her behavior in the hope that insight will bring change.
So how can you give your partner feedback that is less likely to lead to defensiveness and more likely to motivate him or her to respond to your concerns?
First, talk about yourself, not your partner. If your partner does or says something hurtful, talk about your hurt instead of your partner’s behavior. Keep the focus on you. Challenge your partner to care about your views, feelings and desires instead of reacting to your judgment of him or her.
Instead of: “You’re mean.”
Say: “I’m feeling really hurt. Your words really hurt me.”
Instead of: “You don’t care about me.”
Say: “I feel really distant from you. I need to know that you care about me.”
Stop and ask yourself, “How can I restate my anger, frustration, hurt, or disappointment by telling my partner about my view, feelings and desires for our relationship?’
Second, try to get your partner to talk about him or herself. Counselors are adept at getting their clients to look at themselves by having them talk about themselves. If your partner is a workaholic have him or her talk about what their job means to them, what is the reward and how does he or she measure the cost?
Challenging a person to change their view brings on defenses, whereas most people like to talk about themselves. Even if your partner’s view seems way out of the norm, try to not react judgmentally. Instead, ask your partner to tell you more and you will often see how he or she will soften their position simply by talking about it.
At the same time, you will be building a stronger bond because you are spending time in a more pleasant conversation than when you have argued in the past.