Siding with the Enemy and Other Relationship Faux Pas
Siding with the Enemy & Other Relationship Faux Pas
Have you ever approached your partner with a problem — let’s say you got a reprimand at work for being late — and they swoop in and try to fix the problem for you — “how about next time you turn your computer on 10 minutes before the meeting” or “next time you should leave the house earlier”. Chances are you will leave that conversation unheard, and maybe criticized, because intended or not, your person just hinted that you’re not capable of solving your own problems.
Another thing that well-meaning partners often do is side with the enemy .. this sounds like — “well, I can see why they’d be annoyed” or “you are always late”. Reminding yourself that they’re well-meaning does not lessen the sting.
We are all guilty of responding in these ways — I’m guilty of it, you’re guilty of it, your neighbor is guilty of it. We do this with the best intention of protecting our loved one from pain in the future, however:
- It’s impossible to protect someone from making a mistake or to protect them from pain.
- The person’s pain increases with these responses.
- These responses are fueled by what we call “the just world bias” — the belief that good things happen to good people and that bad things happen to bad people. This bias leads you to believe that the reprimand was your partner’s fault and that there is something they could have done differently to prevent it.
That third point is important — this rule fuels so much of our lives and in doing so it causes us and many around us so much pain. Next time your partner comes to you with a problem, use these five tips that come from a couples counselling approach, Gottman Method Couples Therapy. These tips will increase the likelihood that the interaction is a positive one, leave your partner feeling heard and supported, and strengthen your connection and relationship.
#1 Show Interest
- Give them your full attention – put your phone down, stop washing dishes, and turn towards them.
- Ask some questions about how they feel “What is this like for you” “How do you feel about this”
- Try to understand what is bothering them most “What is the most upsetting for you”. This will leave your partner feeling heard and increase their comfort in continuing to disclose their problems to you.
- Try putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and feeling what they are feeling. Take it a step further by considering how it felt for your partner, given what you know about their prior experiences and personal history.
- Empathy is: “That sounds terrible!”, “I would be angry too”, “This is so irritating! No wonder you’re feeling upset”, “Of course you’re worried about that!”
- Your partner will feel less alone and ashamed and they will feel more connected and understood. Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, keep going with the empathy.
#3 Side with your partner
- The most important thing you can do is not side with the enemy.
- All this does is rub salt in your partner’s wound — they end up feeling foolish for what they did and for opening to you. This can be a huge relationship killer because if they anticipate that response, they will eventually stop confiding in you.
- Even if you see the enemy’s point of view or agree with the enemy’s perspective, this is not the moment to point it out. Find something to empathize with.
- For example, even if your partner is always late, you can still empathize with them feeling upset about getting a reprimand at work for being late. Resist the urge to swoop in with a lecture about timeliness and to turn this into a learning moment.
- By siding with your partner, you’re not approving of their lateness, you’re simply not adding to the difficulty that they’re experiencing and you’re not humiliating them.
- If you’re finding it hard to side with your partner, side with their feelings — does it make sense that they are feeling angry that they got a lecture about timeliness in the middle of a meeting? It does. Use that.
#4 Don’t rush to problem solve
- Often when we hear that our partner has a problem, we get the urge to rush in and solve it. Do not give in to this urge! Like I said before, this can make your partner think that you think they are not smart enough or capable enough to solve their own problems. Instead, listen, ask questions, empathize.
#5 Make it your problem ONLY when your partner wants it to be your problem
- If your partner wants you to assist in problem solving, you will hear them say “What do you think I should do?” “I really need your advice on this” or “Can you help me?”
- Any variation of these is a cue to offer suggestions but do not swoop in and offer help when your help is not requested. Rest assured that just by listening, empathizing, and showing your alignment with them, you are helping tons.
- If you struggle with this, a good way to show connection and offer problem solving is to ask your partner: “Is there anything I can do to support you?” Or “What do you need from me?” These two questions show your partner you are there for them and open to help, but that you will give them the power to decide if they want your help, and in what way.
In Gottman Method Couple’s Therapy there is a motto — “Understand first, then give advice” I hope this helps you remember to emotionally connect with your partner before moving on to problem-solving, if that’s where you end up.