Critical partner? Trust yourself to honestly give your side
As Ellen reached for the dinner roll, she could see her husband’s eyes darken with disdain. Jerry (not their real names) didn’t say a word, but he didn’t have to. She knew what he was thinking. He had said many times before that it was just a matter of self- discipline. She didn’t really know how those 15 pounds had crept up on her, but she could swear that Jerry had chronicled every bite. In his eyes, there was no excuse for laziness, sloppiness or activities of excess and readily showed his contempt. Ellen had fallen into a pattern of trying to gauge his reaction before she spoke. She was ashamed to acknowledge that she sometimes hid things from him: Whether it was stopping at the McDonald’s drive- through and eating the burger in the car, or sneaking the shoes she had scored at the Bloomingdale’s sale into her closet. If she missed a gym workout, she knew Jerry would not be pleased. She wasn’t sure why she let him get to her the way he did, or why she didn’t speak up in her defense. Llately she just felt so diminished. Why was she so intimidated? He was her husband, for goodness sake! Most of us enter our most important relationships with the highest of hopes and expectations. We are usually seeking a partner who admires us, treats us with rerespect and consideration, and supports us as we face the challenges of life. It can be disheartening if the relationship deteriorates ri to an environment of cynicism, crcriticism or negativity.
It’s probably a natural inclination for most of us to react defensively to criticism. If we feel attacked, it’s tempting to lash out with equally cutting retorts, with an attempt to even the score. Or else, we may protect ourselves by withdrawing in stony silence. Of course, we know that either reaction escalates the negativity. Finding a way to effectively speak up in a dignified manner, while maintaining our self-respect, requires a tremendous amount of restraint and self-care.
Ellen realized that when she felt demeaned by Jerry she would often retreat to her room, cancel plans with her girlfriends or sabotage her diet by gorging food to the point of self-disgust. Although she was painfully aware that none of these behaviors were in her best interest, she felt locked into this self-defeating way of handling the hurt.
When Ellen considered how she, herself, felt about her weight gain and “alleged” lack of discipline, she realized that, on some levels, she agreed with many of Jerry’s complaints. She was mortified that she had put on the pounds
and was critical of herself for not having a better routine. She carried scars from a childhood where she was not treated kindly, and had spent much of her adult life feeling self-critical and ashamed. She focused on what she believed were flaws and rarely felt worthy to “treat herself” with extravagances. It was difficult for Ellen to assert herself in many areas of her life without feeling tremendous guilt. She was worried that her relationship with Jerry could not tolerate a discussion of their differences.
Ellen discovered she could take steps to demonstrate that she is, in fact, quite accomplished and has many attributes she can be quite proud of. This eventually helped her, not only to believe in herself, but to stand up for herself in a much more confident way.
Being able to speak assertively without hostility will remain a challenge. It may be intimidating to tell Jerry that she has been feeling criticized and judged. If she has the courage, it may ultimately have a tremendous impact on her self-esteem. It would be important for Ellen to see if Jerry begins to understand how hurtful his attitude has been and if he is respects her feelings. If he continues to relate in a disdainful way, it may be necessary to reiterate how painful and upsetting his
criticism has been, and that she expects him to stop. It will be important for Jerry to acknowledge that his judgments have been hurtful and to demonstrate that he will be respectful going forward.
It would be a further step to open up a dialog with Jerry to understand why he has been so focused on her weight. If she can listen carefully to what has been bothering him, and communicate that she will participate in a respectful conversation (but not in one where she feels put-down), she may gain better insight into her husband.
Jerry’s critical, superior attitude may be a cover for insecurities not only about his own self worth, but also about the appearances the two present to the outside world. It may bolster a shaky ego to be in a one-up position with his wife, maintaining a relationship where she defers to him, and he is in charge.
Over time, Ellen might or might not be open to discussing the struggles she is having with her weight, but ultimately this is a task that is hers to address on her own. Ironically, if she could trust Jerry to react to her without judgment, she might be inclined to enlist his support. It may be unsettling, at first, for this couple to adjust to a relationship where Ellen is comfortable speaking up and the two of them relate on a more equal footing. It requires a willingness to learn new things about themselves and each other. However, if they can ultimately create a climate of trust and security, they may both discover that these changes can be enormously gratifying. ¦