Marriage Help: The Power of Taking Ownership

Marriage and relationship help doesn’t always come from so called “relationship advice experts.”  Some of the best lessons that can help you strengthen your marriage/relationship come from other couples just like you—couples who have learned through experience, from their relationship mistakes.

The relationship help tip below focuses on a very common occurrence in marriage and long-term romantic relationships:

The failure to take ownership when you hurt your partner.

Let’s see how one couple overcame this marital/relationship problem.

Couples Spotlight

Meet Phil and Norma, married almost fifteen years.

Phil had a powerful realization that he wanted to share with us—one that may be of help to couples who frequently get into defensive/counter-defensive arguments that go nowhere.

The Conversation that Changed a Marriage

Phil was listening to his wife, Norma, describe a recent upsetting event that occurred with a superior at work. Norma had been getting increasingly frustrated over the fact that the suggestions and opinions she shared with her boss were seldom considered. Norma said, “I feel undervalued and unimportant at work. I might as well talk to a wall. It’s become obvious that while my boss encourages feedback, he rarely, if ever, listens, really listens to my feedback. So he’s basically made up his mind before he engages me in discussion…”

This wasn’t the first time that Norma complained to her husband about her boss. But this time something hit Phil like a ton of bricks.

Phil described what happened: “As she was discussing this with me, I suddenly realized that Norma has had the same complaint about me…that I really don’t listen to her at times and don’t take her opinions into consideration. And here’s what really drove this home for me. I used to work for her boss and I know what Norma means about this guy not listening to you or minimizing what you’re saying. It used to drive me crazy! So this isn’t her imagination or she isn’t being overly sensitive… I had to do some painful self-reflection and own up to the fact that I treat my wife the same way her idiot boss does… I realized at that moment that something needed to change.”

How is Phil’s story relevant to your marriage/relationship?

Here’s something I’d like you to seriously reflect upon:

In the case of Norma and her husband, Phil would often become protective of his wife and angry for her whenever she shared how her boss treated her. Phil became Norma’s advocate and supported her when she complained about the unfair treatment she received from others.

But when Norma had the same (or similar) complaint about Phil, he had a totally different reaction:  Rather than support her emotional experience, Phil became defensive and minimized his wife’s experience (“You’re making a big deal out of nothing…”) and he refused to take ownership of the impact his behavior and words were having on his wife.

So if others mistreated Norma, Phil was supportive and empathic, but when he mistreated Norma, Phil became overly defensive and refused to listen to his wife.

Relationship Help: Refusing to Own How You Hurt Your Partner

I have a feeling that Phil isn’t alone in this regard—many of us become incensed when someone we love is hurt by someone else, but when our spouse/partner accuses us of doing the hurting, we react very differently.

In these instances, we become experts in diverting responsibility: Sidestepping, rationalizing,  minimizing, attacking, and even denying our role in what happened.

The truth is, some of us are more defensive and closed to feedback (especially unflattering feedback) than others. Part of this truth lies in the reality that it pains us deeply to discover that we’ve hurt those closest to us. To fully acknowledge our own potential to hurt (and even destroy) what we cherish the most, is, at times, too difficult to bear. (But this should never been seen as an excuse to take full responsibility for our actions, even when our actions unintentionally hurt our spouse/partner).

So rather than see ourselves as culpable in our loved one’s emotional pain, the defensive-tendency is to psychically run to higher ground and look down on our spouse/partner, viewing them as somehow unreasonable, too sensitive, misinformed, etc. Unfortunately for our spouse/partner, this superior position only adds to their emotional pain.

Remember, a failure to take ownership for the inevitable wounding that occurs in close relationships is a recipe for increased marital relationship conflict, ongoing disagreements and ultimately, emotional disengagement.

Are you ready to take ownership and responsibility for your behavior whenever your partner tells you that you’ve hurt him/her in some way? 

Until next time,

Dr. Rich Nicastro


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