Expert Q&A: Criticizing Your Partner in Public
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Q: My husband is always picking on me in public. How can I get him to stop?
A: Many of us have been caught off guard in social situations where someone else exposed private details and spoke harsh words to his or her mate. It's terribly awkward. You laugh, look away and abruptly change the topic. You know it's never a good idea to "air dirty laundry" between you and your partner in front of others, but-oops—there you are giving verbal jabs at your partner while your company look like deer caught in the headlights. See if these two situations sound familiar:
Mandy hated her boyfriend's table manners. Italian meals were the worst. "Just two bites and sauce is all over his chin. I can't take him anywhere. It drives me nuts," she said in front of new friends as she made clucking noises in disapproval of her boyfriend's eating habits.
Just after Sam and Sally said their thanks to their dinner host for a great evening, he added: "It must be nice to have a wife who cooks and cleans for you."
These scenarios exemplify the multifaceted reasons for these bursts of criticisms. And "burst" is just the right word. Even if you are the nicest of people, your spouse does that thing again that drives you crazy and suddenly it's you who looks the fool for sniping at him or her.
Before I give you some tips on how to handle being on the reacting or receiving end, here are the explanations about the scenes above.
Mandy's situation: Fear of being wrong in your choice of partner. At first, it seems that Mandy lashes out at her boyfriend simply out of embarrassment at his lack of manners. He didn't seem classy or well-bred. Understandably you don't want to dine with Henry VIII's long-lost relative either, but your partner's uncouthness still doesn't merit your acting like Mandy and giving him or her public punishment.
If you are guilty of mistreating your mate in the presence of others, the real engine behind such critical outbursts might be deeper than social embarrassment. You could be reacting to your fear that people will see you have made a wrong choice of partner. You want approval, a "thumbs up" on your mate, and when he or she does something that makes him or her appear less desirable, you hope that a few harsh words will not only "set him or her straight" but also signal your friends and family that you didn't fall off the cabbage truck and are wise to his or her short-comings.
Yet, despite your efforts to ward off the criticism of other, you still harbor a fundamental fear: If my mate is an imperfect partner, then there is something wrong with my choice—and with me.
The solution seems obvious to you: Nag, criticize, embarrass until that magic moment when he or she changes. Unkind techniques may produce obedience, but they rarely promote love and happiness.
Sam's situation: Expressing unexpressed anger. In the second story Sam inadvertently let out his frustration that Sally had been working long hours lately and he was left to eat, cook and clean up alone. The wonderful meal and evening with friends made Sam aware of the degree of his dissatisfaction. He never said a word to Sally about his loneliness. He was trying to be empathic to the demands of her job, but that night the stark contrast got the better of him. They argued all the way home, but they did manage to address the problem.
If you have fallen into the trap of trying to fix your relationship problems in public, here are some tips to prevent you from turning into the Punisher.
1. Do a "feeling check up" before you go out. Ask yourself: Is there something that has been simmering between me and my partner?
2. Explain in your mind your unhappiness in about 3 sentences. Experiment with this formula: I am unhappy about...I would like to solve it by...I will talk about it later. This approach, combined with the first step, makes you mindful of your feelings. It also calms you because you now have a plan to address your unhappiness later. Knowing that you will be working toward a solution reduces depression and anger.
3. When something about your partner annoys you, bite your tongue. You will not gain anything by publicly expressing your issues. In fact, you will make it worse. Remind yourself that wanting to take verbal swipes at your partner is a sure sign that something else is brewing. In private, you can address the real issues by stating out loud your sentences from step 2.
But what do you do if you are on the receiving end of these jabs? Here are some tips.
1. Get preventive. You and your partner should sit down and write out a contract that you will not criticize each other in public.
2. Vow to "put on the shelf" temporarily any problems while you are socializing. Often, time can minimize your frustration or hurt.
3. List your grievances. Does your partner interrupt too much? Or perhaps he or she takes one too many drinks. You can put anything you want on the list. However, you must also explain why the behavior bothers you.
4. Develop care signals. If your partner is on his third tankard of beer, for example, discuss ahead of time that you will tap his thigh or gently squeeze his hand. If your partner tends to interrupt you, try tapping on her arm and saying softly, "Just let me finish this part, sweetie."
The woman who raised me taught me years ago that you can catch more flies with honey than you can vinegar. It's a good lesson to keep in mind the next time your partner drives you crazy.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS, is a nationally recognized psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in women's issues in love, life, work, and family. Sign up on her website, http://www.lovevictory.com, to receive free advice, blog, cartoon, and information about her two upcoming research-based, self-help books for women: The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie—a cartoon, self-help book and Smart Relationships. You can follow Dr. Wish on Twitter.
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