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Fix yourself, not your partner

My wife and I tried something different over the holidays:

We're both deeply committed to personal growth and discovery, and as a result over the years we have given each other a lot of feedback when we notice something amiss in the other's behaviour or attitude. One of the benefits of being in a relationship with someone for a long time is that you develop an immense amount of context about their patterns, and the possibility exists to act as a mirror for your partner when they are heading towards destructive or unhealthy patterns.

In some cases, this sort of ongoing feedback can be a gift and lead to a lot more self awareness for your partner. However, more often than not this sort of "feedback" has very little to do with improving your partner, and a lot more to do with you blowing off steam or trying to control their behaviour to make them act in a way which makes you feel better in the moment. Generally speaking, it's not about them at all, it's about you.

In my experience, this sort of "feedback" manifests in the daily nitpicking where we convince ourselves that what we're saying is driven by love and the desire to help our partner "improve". We tell ourselves that if only they would just change this, that and the next thing about their behaviour, then things would be better for everyone.

You might be feeling a bit edgy anyway because of something that happened earlier in the day/week/month which you haven't yet processed and is plaguing the dark corners of your psyche, and then your partner does something which acts as a trigger, and provides you with an opportunity to subconsciously blow off some steam, which we then mask as "feedback". With our intimate partner, and often our family, we develop a certain complacency where we feel safe enough in the relationship to blast our unprocessed emotions onto them, subconsciously hoping/knowing that they won't outright reject us. We're all human, and if this happens every now and then it's fine, our partner and family can be there to hold and accept us, but there is a limit. When this sort of behaviour becomes an engrained pattern, it becomes incredibly destructive to a relationship.

Anyway, my wife and I were starting to head down this slippery slope towards the end of last year. November and December were really tough months for both of us... sick infant, death of a dear friend, business challenges, family challenges, a horrible case of covid etc, and we found ourselves both nitpicking each other's behaviour constantly. Again, we would always mask it as "feedback", but I don't believe that's what was driving our behaviour at all. The crazy thing about relationships is that when one person nitpicks the other's behaviour, then the other person starts to feel unsafe, and starts to do the same thing reciprocally in an attempt to balance the relationship energetically. This behaviour is like a snowball that gathers momentum until there is some sort of inflection or breaking point.

Thankfully we caught ourselves doing this just after Christmas, and made a simple decision:

No feedback, only love and acceptance.

Well, that's not quite true. We decided that if something is important enough to provide feedback to the other person, then we would save it for our Sunday meeting. I've mentioned this many times now in previous posts, but my wife and I meet every Sunday before dinner to plan the week ahead, ensure that we book quality time for ourselves during the week, and ask each other, "how can I love you better this week?" In addition, we now ask, "have you noticed any blind spots I should work on this week?"

In practical terms, this means that there is absolutely no complaining/feedback/nitpicking etc during the week. Nada, nothing, zero. If we have feedback for each other, it needs to be significant enough for us to make a mental note of it during the week, and remember to bring it up in our Sunday meeting.

The impact of this decision is that we both feel safe enough emotionally to be ourselves, and we're not constantly walking on eggshells feeling that at any moment we could get crapped on by the other person. It also means that if my wife does something that would normally trigger a response from me during the week, my first port of call is now to investigate whether this is actually an issue in me that I'm projecting onto her, rather than just blurting out some form of criticism. The crazy thing is that 9 times our of 10, it's actually my stuff, not hers.

When we get to our Sunday meeting, we're providing feedback that is grounded in love, and we're doing it in a setting which is conducive to giving and receiving feedback.

How often do you criticise your partner? How often do they criticise you? How often does this criticism actually lead to some form of behavioural change for the better? These behavioural patterns can become so deeply ingrained that we don't even realise we're doing them.

My encouragement to you is to pay attention to the patterns in your relationships this week. With a sense of curiosity, just notice the dynamics that are at play. I've used the example of a partner, but the relationship could be with a member of your family, a friend or a colleague.

Someone always has to take the first step, to lead. You can make that choice today.


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