Changing defensive first reactions into rational responses to your partner’s criticism
Client: She treats me like a punching bag. How do I not take that personally?
Before we go any further, let me clarify. Punching bag is a metaphor here. My client was not referring to physical abuse by his wife. He was referring to his partner’s criticism. Not that this is any less destructive to relationship satisfaction, but it is not criminal behavior. Sound familiar? Read on.
Dr. M.: Okay, you’re a soccer coach. Try this analogy. Punching bag or random guy on the sidelines who gets hit by a wild kick?
Client: (Laughs.) That has definitely happened to me. Random guy does have a different feel to it…but I’m not some random guy. I’m her husband.
Here’s how to get from a thoroughly human, defensive first reaction to a self-responsible, rational response:
1) Start with some information about your brain. Human brains are pre-programmed to take everything personally. The brain’s primary purpose is self-preservation, so every bit of sensory input and every random thought gets instantaneously evaluated for degree of threat. The default position of the brain is shoot first and ask questions later. So, whether you are the blamer or the blamed, you react aggressively or defensively, as all humans do, out of fear.
2) Understand that love doesn’t easily trump survival instincts. Yes, love can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, base human reactions often race out ahead of rational and genuinely loving responses.
3) Remember: Your partner’s criticism says more about him or her than it does about you.
4) Let go of the victim role. Being victimized does not make one a victim. Your response to punitive/abusive behavior defines your role. If you think of yourself as a “punching bag,” you’re taking the victim role. If you reframe that thought, see the reality that you are actually more like a random spectator hit by a wild kick, you can take command of your response.
5) Let go of this conventional wisdom – being someone’s love interest entitles you to special treatment. Of course, we’ve all occasionally been givers or receivers of special treatment between loved ones. As Thornton Wilder put it, “Anywhere you may expect grace.”1 But thoughts such as – “I deserve to be treated better. I’m his/her spouse.” – reveal our investment in conventional wisdom, unrealistic expectations based on fairytales, myths and misconceptions and kept alive by wishful thinkers.
6) Adopt a self-responsible approach to relationships. Taking the self-responsible approach means overcoming the brain’s default position by utilizing areas of the brain that inhibit negative emotions and generate rational responses. Self-responsible spouses understand that individuals (not our spouses) are responsible for our expectations, negative emotional reactions, insecurities, and dark moods.
1. Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (New York: Harper & Row, 1927), 146.
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