Want A Happier Marriage? Stop Asking Your Partner To "Show The Receipts"
Asking someone to give you immediate proof of a problem they’ve shared is invaliding and hurtful. Here’s a better path forward.
Have you ever found yourself being told by your partner that you do something that bothers them, and responded with a phrase like: “Tell me exactly when I’ve done that?” Have you even asked them to itemize their observations, making them, in essence, “show you the receipts?” Odds are you probably have, according to Jeff Guenther, a LPC based in Portland, Oregon. And you need to break the habit.
Guenther, who goes by TherapyJeff on TikTok where he provides bite-sized advice for couples, coined this particular use of the phrase in one of his popular videos. Asking someone to ‘show the receipts,’ he says, is a frequent source of stress for relationships and “one of the most invalidating things you can say to your partner when they discuss their feelings.”
Guenther’s example of “showing the receipts” in action goes like this: Imagine your partner tells you “I’m really starting to dread it when we hang out with your friends because I keep feeling picked on and made fun of whenever we all hang out together.” You’d be asking them to show you the receipts if you were to fire back with an “Oh really? Tell me exactly what I’ve said in these situations.” Far from creating a situation where cool and rational heads can prevail, says Guenther, “you just escalated things really quickly.”
“When you ask a partner to ‘prove it,’ it’s called a defensive response,” says Crystal Britt, LCSW. “John and Julie Gottman [the renowned researchers on marital stability] identified this kind of response as one of the ‘four horsemen’ that indicate a relationship won’t make it. This is because when we’re defensive, we’re not taking any ownership of our behavior or ownership of stepping onto the space our partner is asking us to be in with them.”
It’s worth noting that the behavior your partner is calling out doesn’t need to be yours or yours alone. In Guenther’s example, the responsibility would be shared between you and your mutual friends. It could be something your partner has noticed you doing, yes. But it could also be something they’ve noticed someone close to you doing, or just something they’ve noticed going unaddressed in your presence when they wish you’d acknowledge it.
The thing mentioned can also be comparatively trivial! You might just as easily find yourself saying “really? Exactly how many times have I watched an episode of House Hunters without you?” Regardless of the playful tone, it still isn’t an appropriate response. You never want to make your partner feel like you’re trying to downplay their observed reality. It can only end badly.
Asking someone for proof of an action also isn’t something that necessarily has to come up in the context of an argument. It can be done playfully and still have the same emotional result. Similarly, it’s important to recognize that there is a pretty simple and relatable psychological reason why one might ask to ‘see the receipts’ in the first place. When people are feeling accused — fairly or unfairly — it’s not uncommon for them to get defensive, go back on their heels and want to see some proof. That doesn’t mean it’s a pattern you want to find yourself entrenched in.
This is at the heart of what I share with my couples: You want to respond to the emotional content of what your partner is expressing, and not the words themselves.
So: what’s a better response in these kinds of situations? How can you take the feedback you're receiving in the spirit that it’s being given?
Dr. Carl Nassar, a Denver-based professional counselor, suggests that the key to resolving this kind of conflict is by putting feelings first. “This is at the heart of what I share with my couples and is at the heart of what TherapyJeff shares in his TikTok,” he says. “By this, I mean that you want to respond to the emotional content of what your partner is expressing, and not the words themselves.”
To use Guenther’s example again, if your partner is telling you they feel ganged up on when they hang out with your friends, the critical emotional content of that statement doesn’t change if it’s happened once, twice, 10, or 100 times. The emotional core of what your partner is communicating to you is that they’re beginning to dread an activity that should be fun, and they don’t feel that they have the option to do something about it by themselves. That’s why they’ve come to you.
By speaking to the root issue rather than getting bogged down in receipts, semantics, and exhibits A, B, and C, explains Dr. Nassar, you help your partner feel cared for, which has a calming, soothing effect. “Your partner now feels you want to understand them and relate to their experience, and now believes you are on their side,” he says. “This opens the door to communicating meaningfully together.”
Britt adds that a great way to move forward in this situation is to voice something that is in all likelihood true, if this is the first time a pattern of behavior is coming up: you hadn’t realized it was happening.
By speaking to the root issue rather than getting bogged down in receipts, semantics, and exhibits A, B, and C, you help your partner feel cared for.
“A better response,” says Britt, “would be something like: ‘Oh ok, I didn’t know that — I don’t want you to feel that way in the future, what could I do to prevent that?’ And then brainstorm solutions together.”
This is a crucial reminder for couples trying to point out any kind of behavior being engaged in that one party wishes would change: it isn’t necessarily a personal attack, and the answer to the issue is one you’ll need to figure out together.
“Try to keep in mind that you’re on each other’s team,” says Britt, “that neither of you is criticizing the other’s character, and that the goal is to become closer to each other.”
If this is a behavior you’ve noticed in yourself — try not to beat yourself up about it. Remember, there’s a reason Guenther says it’s something he sees constantly in couple’s therapy sessions: it’s extremely common. If your goal is to treat your partner’s emotions with more compassion, it can't hurt to treat yourself with more compassion along the way.