Are You Helping Or Undermining Your Partner?

Too often we think we’re stepping in to be helpful, but are accidentally cutting down our loved ones.

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Angry young couple arguing while sitting on couch with marriage counselor in background at office
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Marriage is supposed to be a partnership, with both people functioning as a cohesive unit, working in tandem towards the same goals and sharing the same opinions. Obviously, it doesn’t always work that way. Couples are human and, as humans, prone to error, disagreement, and dissenting points of view. As a result, couples will say or do things that undermine each other.

Chances are you’re sometimes guilty of this behavior, whether it’s correcting your partner in a conversation, sharing personal information with an outsider, or saying “yes” when the other parent says no. Done regularly, this can chip away at the foundation of a relationship. So, how can you avoid falling into this very common trap? Good communication is key. As is having a constant understanding of how your partner might feel about your actions.

Here are a few common scenarios where partners undermine one another and the what they can do to avoid it in the future.

When Disciplining The Kids

This is one of the most common areas in which undermining occurs. Parents will work against each other because they haven’t agreed upon the rules up front. As a result, what will happen is one parent becomes the de-facto bad guy constantly enforcing the rules, while the other is the fun, chill parent, always letting the kids do what they want.

“This dynamic creates negative feelings not only for both parents but also for their children,” says Jan Carey, a licensed clinical social worker. “In some families, the conflict isn’t addressed effectively and each parent ends up parenting in their own opposing style dishing up parenting in their own way inadvertently creating a ‘split’ where the child does what they want.”

In order to keep that divide from happening, Carey suggests creating a list of five rules and talk opening about what they’re hoping for each rule to achieve. This agreement will help prevent one parent constantly undermining the other. “Should the couple disagree on the rules they need to continue to discuss them and it may take several conversations where they discuss why it’s important and identify if the reason they feel strongly about it is related to their own childhood and then explain how. This will provide the depth necessary for the partner to understand the context of why their partner is so intensely organized around the rule.

When Dealing With Your In-Laws

When one partner comes from a very close-knit family, there can be friction as they work to please both their spouse and their family as well. What tends to happen in such a situation is that the family’s needs may end up coming before their partner’s. Plans are made without consulting the spouse, a family member’s feelings are taken into consideration over the spouse, or the partner will resist standing up to the family when their spouse feels wronged.

“Couples who come from an enmeshed family have great challenges in trying to please both themselves and their extended family because there is still a felt obligation to please everyone, despite having grown up and moved away from their family of origin,” says Carey. “Many couples get stuck in trying to meet their own couple’s needs if their needs challenge their family of origin’s needs.”

To avoid this, couples need to be up front about where the lines are when it comes to their needs versus the needs of the extended family. “Just being aware that one person in the relationship is oriented more naturally to taking care of their extended family than the other partner allows the couple to make space for that difference,” says Carey. “Setting priorities as a family will allow a couple to make decisions together with less angst and more harmony.”

When Talking With Friends

It’s not uncommon for couples to talk openly with their friends when their partner isn’t around. However, that openness can end up, even inadvertently, undermining or embarrassing your spouse. For example, if you talk to your friends about a sexual issue you and your spouse are having, how do you expect that he or she will feel the next time you’re all together? Even if you are going to your friend seeking advice or comfort, revealing personal information can harm your spouse’s ego.

Carey says that couples should be up front about what topics are off limits when it comes to peers and make sure that they honor that agreement at all times. However, she notes, if one partner is bothered enough by something (such as a sexual issue) that they’re feeling the need to bring it up to their friends, the other partner should take that into consideration. “The best course of action involves taking the risk of talking to your spouse directly about your frustration in order to motivate them to do something differently,” she says. “Taking the problem on directly allows you to keep things private because it’s being handled.”

When Dealing With Family Finances

Financial matters are one of the most common stressors in a marriage and one the ways couples undermine each other regularly, making large purchases without consulting the other or even just spending on things like lunches out of small, unnecessary items that they can’t afford. Many of these approaches to money are shaped in childhood and can have long-lasting impact. For example, if someone grew up without a lot of money, they may now feel the need to overcompensate and buy expensive things to give the illusion of security. This can be very undermining for the spouse who is trying to keep the finances together.

Carey suggests that couples meet regularly, even if it’s only once a month to discuss the finances and understand where the household stands money-wise. It’s important to approach money as a team and work towards financial goals, as opposed to one partner always feel as though they’re cleaning up the other’s money messes.

“Discussing larger purchase decisions before actually buying anything can avoid one partner from feeling like they are sacrificing or doing without and can enable both partners to negotiate purchases that are important to each person,” says Carey. “Talking about money where both people have a voice can minimize the anxiety which money often creates.”

When Discussing Sex

It’s quite normal for the frequency of sex to fluctuate in a marriage. There are a number of outside influences that can impact a couple’s desire or ability to connect sexually, from work to kids to just day-to-day stress. But even little distractions, such as social media, can get in the way of sex and make one partner begin to feel undermined and like everything else around them is more important than being intimate.

Carey proposes that couples make a weekly date night, but to try and engage in activities that are outside of their comfort zone. Things like taking a dancing class or a painting class can reignite the same feelings of newness and discovery that you first had when you were dating and can put intimacy back on the table. She also suggested not making sex, the actual act itself, the ultimate endgame. “If you enter sex with the idea that the moment will take you both where you need to go and that you touch each other not just to please, but to please yourself too, you suddenly have the kind of sex that dreams are made of,” she says.

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