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Iangry frustrated woman’ve been criticizing my husband’s driving a lot recently.

He slows down to look at something, and I petulantly start waving my hand out the side window, as if I’m the Queen, sarcastically suggesting that he’s creeping along at parade pace. Or we’re speeding along the expressway, and I don’t think he sees something in front of us.  Out pops, “Do you see that truck slowing down?” It’s not overt criticism, but the message is clear.

My husband is a great driver. It’s not him at all.

I’ve got to stop it.

Whether it’s my issues with control, impatience, mortality, or whatever, I need to get a grip.

Couples need to know how to talk about disappointment, frustration or even fear with each other. Frankly, many of us don’t do it very well. You hide through sarcasm, taking pot shots that are followed with, “I’m just being funny…” You say your piece, no matter what is going on around you — or that children are in the room. You remain tight-lipped, and grow ever more resentful. You fly into rages for no apparent reason. You bring up things from the past that may be unresolved for you, but only muddy the waters of the present concern.

It’s not easy.

Yet every day, we receive difficult feedback from others.

Your supervisor calls you in, and says they’ve noticed you not being as focused at work. They ask you to step up your production. Although not pleasant (whether you agree or not…), the structure is in place for that to occur. After all, their job is to find something for you to improve.

Your child’s teacher notes that homework isn’t being turned in, and she recommends you check into it — try to discover what’s happening behind the scenes. In fact, you count on her to give you feedback — to inform you of your child’s progress. Again, you realize the structure of that relationship.

Structure goes out the window when we’re in relationship. We are lovers, parents, financial partners, home owners, best friends, domestic partners. You name it — your lives are completely entangled.

Perceived criticism is harder to take, because of that very entanglement.

Try hearing the same message from your partner that you heard from that supervisor or that teacher, and see how you might react.

Hey, honey, I don’t feel that you’re very focused on us lately… and I really need that from you.”

“I know you’re busy, but it seems like you’re not paying attention to what’s going on with the kids.”

In many relationships, this feedback would be met with defensiveness.

What do you mean? I swear, I’m damned if I do, and damned it I don’t. Do you know how hard I’ve been working?”

“If you would help out more with stuff around the house, maybe I’d have time to be with the kids more. There’s only 24 hours in a day.”

Even it it’s not said, the thought is there.

We have tremendous power with each other. And when disappointment is heard, we don’t handle it very well. We can withdraw, sulk, or hold a grudge.

The authors of the wonderful book,“How To Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It,” (Drs. Pat Love and Steve Stosny) go even further. Their research suggests that men feel actual failure when they hear disappointment from their partner, and then withdraw. When that occurs, women feel more lonely, and become more frustrated and disappointed.

That cycle is repeated over and over… and over.

Men need affirmation that they’re a good parent, a good partner. Women need connection — they need to feel known.

The trick in talking about disappointment takes these basic needs into account.

Women can more intentionally and respectfully approach their male partners with what they’re unhappy about. Brittany said in my office, “I suddenly realized that when I asked him to do the dishes, I was using this ‘tone’, insinuating he never did the dishes. And that’s not true. I wouldn’t do that to anyone else. Why do I do that to him?”

Men can look for more opportunities to connect with the women in their life. Jack said recently, “I realized I wasn’t all in. I used to be, but I felt like it was never enough. And you know, the past year it hasn’t been enough. I don’t give like I did at first.”

These realizations — about the subtle, and not so subtle ways we’re handling our feelings — are key to making things better.

Ask yourself how you tend to show your disappointment. Do you hold onto it? Do you lash out? Do you make snide comments?

If so, you can change that, with intention.

Realize the power you have for your partner. And respect it.

Discover fresh ways to affirm and connect.

Your relationship needs you.

 

This post previously appeared on Margaret Rutherford blog, http://drmargaretrutherford.com/

 

Note: Names not actual names of patients.

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