One of the most complicating factors that impact couples is the tendency to personalize, and automatically take responsibility a partner’s experience. Personalizing a partner’s experience out of feeling responsible, often carries an underlying defensiveness, in anticipation of needing to do damage control. For example, a wife in a couple I worked with said, “I was trying to tell him I needed him to hear me out before reacting, but he just talked over me.” The husband, having personalized this, automatically became defensive, and responded with damage control, “I was trying to let you know I was listening. But the way you were coming across was attacking. Am I supposed to just take it?”
I asked her why it was important for him to hear her out.
“Because one of the things we’ve been working on is how hard it is for me to express myself. I was trying to make it safe take a risk.”
I made eye contact with the husband to suggest there was something in my next question for him to hear. “What were you risking?”
“That he would get upset and react defensively before hearing what I had to say.”
I returned to the husband. He responded, “She’s not giving the full context. I could tell something was bothering her for days, but she wasn’t bringing it up.”
“Did what was bothering her have to do with you?”
“How would I know? I just couldn’t deal with the tension any more.”
This was a white, middle aged couple who lived in Palo Alto, owned a home, drove European cars, went on vacations, and had successful careers. Although this isn’t necessarily therapeutically relevant, it helps in appreciating what I was about to say.
“One of the guiding principals for relationships I draw from comes from a Jay-Z song. Excuse the language, but…‘What you eat don’t make me shit.’” Neither quite did a double take, but responded to its effect.
Jay-Z’s line offers not only a profound insight, but an apprehending, though graphic, clarity to a mistake that common complicates relationships. Your partner can have what thoughts, feelings, opinions or interpretations they will, but they don’t automatically mean they have to do with you, or that you are necessarily responsible for how they effect your partner. The mistake we often make though, is not recognizing we are separate people, and even though we exist together, not every bit of our existence includes or extends to our partner. The idea expressed in Jay-Z’s could easily be a tenet of Differentiation, in which a couple acknowledges that they are in exclusive, committed, relationship, but accepts that they are separate individuals in that relationship. Differentiation doesn’t imply partner’s live separate lives, but recognize and encourage individuation in the lives they share. By maintaining differentiation, individuals are more able to authentically participate and contribute to a relationship without having to acquiesce or compromise their individuality.
For example, an individual I worked with told me, “My wife said she can’t be herself in our relationship.”
“How did you reply?”
“I asked her why.” His eyes widened with adamancy. I felt a twinge of discomfort. I’d been warned against why-questions throughout therapy school. Why-questions can appear demanding, and make the other feel defensive. But I couldn’t confront him for not observing a rule he wasn’t privy to, or to appease my former professors. I needed to figure out, not why his using a why-question was ill-advised, but how his particular use of it impeded relating with his wife. Imagining myself as his wife in the scenario, I immediately felt defensive.
What was she defending against? Obviously her husband, but more especially, his reaction. Whatever the reason, she was expressing a difficulty she was having being in their relationship. But because he was personalizing this, any further explanation risked him continuing to automatically take responsibility for her difficulty. He was essentially holding her experience of having difficulty hostage. So how honest could she be?
After considering all this, I asked, “Did you know what she meant by ‘having difficulty?’”
“She was blaming me for her difficulty.”
“It didn’t sound like she even said what it was. What would happen if you didn’t automatically assume difficulty firstly had something to do with you.”
“But it’s obvious that it does!”
“From just that slice of conversation, what’s your evidence?”
He didn’t like the question or the direction it was going, and unilaterally switched to a work topic. While I could’ve brought him back to the exchange with his wife, he was too ruffled, and there was a good possibility the theme would emerge elsewhere.
When we personalize, and react to our partner problems as if they are a reflection of us, our partners have little choice but to edit what they say to avoid or then alleviate our feelings. It makes their experience about us. While in reality though, individuals have problems separate of their partners and their relationships, including their individual experience of the relationship with their partner or others. The difficulties my client’s wife meant may’ve been one’s stemming from her family growing up, or her previous romantic relationships, and, to be sure, even their marriage. If my client could’ve avoided personalizing, and taken himself out of the equation, he might’ve stood a better chance of understanding his wife, her experience of feeling that way, or recognize a similar dynamic in their relationship. The irony is that by reacting the way he did, he essentially hijacked her experience in order to protect his own, and in the process, left her feeling not only invalidated, but confirming her belief that it’s difficult to be her self in relationships.
None of this denies that our partners do indeed, hold, or try to make us responsible for their “shit,” so to speak. All of us project, or run stories, based on either our experience or insecurities. For example if a parent, or a previous partner never really listened, or understood our partner, it’s not a stretch that this is what they’d come to expect, and even part of their personal narrative. Being a good partner includes recognizing when their partner, being influenced by these narratives cast you in them. In this way, relationships, like therapy, can help another recognize their narratives aren’t static, but have fluidity through different, positive experiences, which their partner can provide. Otherwise, if they don’t isolate due to their influence, they certainly won’t exercise the possibility to challenge them against valid feedback. If their partner, though, is personalizing, and doesn’t recognize the influence of their narrative, he or she can’t provide helpful, valid feedback. But here’s the kicker: not only does the narrative remain static, and continues to be confirmed, but it potentially confirms their own personal narrative. Furthering the Jay-Z principal, While it’s true, “What you eat don’t make me shit,” being a good means realizing, that sometimes what your partner eats, is making them ill—having diarrhea, to continue the metaphor, and among the right things to do are, clean up after them, make sure they drink water, and when they are tempted by the food again, perhaps reminding them kindly how it effects them. Personalizing to the point of responsibility is the equivalent of shaming them the next time that food tempts them, and risks they will just sneak it when you’re not looking, making a mess in the drawers.
Remember though, it goes both ways. We’ve all noticed that our partner is quiet, distant, or has a change in mood, and asked, “What’s wrong,” our tone having less inquiry than dread, anticipating what we did, or said, to cause their mood. The tone is confusing as to whether it conveys concern or intrusion, but it also implies a conditionality. Let me hear what’s wrong so I can decide whether it’s worthy of being so.This is how a defensive person thinks. They presume responsibility, though resenting it, and set about invalidating what was said to show they have no culpability. In the process they invalidate their partner by making their partner’s problem about them and then belittling it in order to manage tolerating it.
No relationship is without its combination of shared and individual issues, and blending them doesn’t unnerve, or get alternatively attributed to both. When a persons issues get triggered, it short-circuits their perceptions, causing them to react negatively, typically toward their partner. It’s as if the person’s thinking jumps tracks but while continuing ahead with increasing speed. The problem is that they are basing their new destination on the same landmarks and scenery, but aren’t able to recognize it.
The point of the Jay-Z line is to remind us to distinguish ourselves from our partner’s, by recognizing what your partner experiences, doesn’t automatically imply your having responsibility. Unless clearly you do.