Check out my last post to understand this one. I gave a simple solution to dealing with a person who cannot tolerate the smell of blame and therefore will not accept any feedback that he or she hurt your feelings.

The problem, I could hear you saying, even before I finished clicking “save” is that it won’t work. No matter how well you set up the discussion ahead of time so that you attempt to convey that you are absolutely 100% not blaming, when you begin to say, “When you did X, it hurt my feelings,” you have lost your audience.

I’m here to tell you that my suggestion will work. It just needs some sugar to make the medicine go down. Let me explain.

Building Up Self Esteem

We started with the premise that your partner cannot tolerate hearing anything that smacks of blame. So the solution is to fool him or her. This will break the chain of association in your partner’s mind between a “serious discussion of my feelings” and the assumption that the next step will be blame.

What you must do is start setting up “meetings” as I described in the previous blog, only in these meetings you will pay a compliment. Your partner will be on guard for blame and criticism and instead will receive, very seriously delivered, with great attention to how you word it, praise. It could be as simple as telling him or her how much it meant to you that he/she did the grocery shopping/homework with the kids/laundry/yard/bathroom/spoke pleasantly to your mother, and so forth.

The key is to go into as much detail as to why this meant so much to you as you would if you were delivering an explanation of what he did wrong. You must do this frequently for several months before you can have the discussion that I covered in my last post.

My method is based on the research of John Gottman, whom I’ve cited previously, on how many positive messages vs. negative messages a person must hear for the marriage to last. Basically, his research showed that couples who stayed together had 20 positive messages to one negative one when they were getting along and five positive ones to one negative when they weren’t.

Did you see that? Five positive interactions when they weren’t getting along. That’s a good relationship. To understand why your relationship doesn’t work like that, imagine a bank account. We will call that account “self-esteem.” Your partner (or you) perhaps had that one drained long before you met. (I understand that he or she has drained your account or you’ve drained his or hers. I’ll get to that in a moment.) In order for him or her to tolerate hearing what amounts to a complaint, let’s face it, your partner must have a healthy dose of self-esteem in the account. With the account drained, he or she can’t listen. So you need to fill it up as much as you can. And you do that first before complaints. Otherwise, if you give a compliment and follow it with a complaint, the two will cancel each other out.

Actually, you’ve got to do a lot of that because you’re making up for a lot of years and a big rift in your relationship.

What to Do If It Doesn’t Work

Question 1: Will this work?

Maybe. It might not work for two reasons. One is that your partner doesn’t believe and can’t “digest” compliments. The very thing he or she needs most sounds so artificial and false that he or she can’t hear them.

A second reason is that you can’t keep yourself from sharing your own feelings, your own pain that he or she has caused. You’re human, after all. How can you be expected to be kind and giving when you’re not getting back?

This is where therapy comes in. The therapist can deliver whatever it is that is needed in the way of accurate feedback so that people can listen and digest. When clients say they can’t absorb compliments, therapists worth their salt know what to do about it. But this is a process. It’s not something that can be patched up in a session or two because the injuries must have been very deep if your partner can’t hear or believe your true compliments.

Therapy also would take care of giving you a place to vent and a way to work as a team.

Take Care of Yourself First

Question 2: Suppose I decide I’m going to do this compliment thing. How do I keep from screaming because I’ve been so hurt?

I have addressed this in other posts and in videos. It comes down to nurturing yourself and looking at the big picture.

  • Nurturing yourself means meeting your own needs for sleep, food, exercise, quiet time, a clean environment, and other basics. It means treating yourself nicely, setting boundaries, being assertive and saying “No” when you need to.
  • Looking at the big picture means reminding yourself over and over and over that your spouse’s awful behavior is not about you. You’re not the culprit even if he or she tells you that you are. Your partner has been caught up in reacting from old habits that are hard to change. When you can do that successfully, you don’t take what she or he says personally.

Is this all easy? No. But you have an opportunity here to correct a great wrong. Isn’t that what we’re here for, at least to some extent?

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