“It hurts to think we are failing on some important measure.”
I’m going to start this chapter with an assignment. Using a sheet of paper folded in half, write out the things you believe your partner expects of you, then put a blank by each item. Ask for a letter grade on how you are doing on these items. Leave a couple of lines for more items to be added as needed. This “Report Card” is your To Do list for behavioral change. Ask your partner to complete it, then ask her to talk with you about any concerns and just listen without defending.
Now the tough question: Did you feel really nervous about this assignment? Are you worried that you might get really bad grades, like
in school, and have a lot of explaining to do to someone–in this case, you?
Many men have difficulty receiving feedback, especially from their partner. Often, we react defensively because we know how hard we try to be good providers, fathers, and husbands. It hurts to think we are failing on some important measure.
At work, you may have experienced a 360-degree feedback exercise. In this process, you receive written feedback to a prepared set of relevant performance questions, from those to whom you report, those who report to you, and those who are your peers. It’s anonymous, but it doesn’t take away the sting of learning some people see you as doing less than perfect work. Their feedback may include very direct comments as well as measurement indicators. Of course, you also get to rate yourself and my experience is that many people (women more than men) rate themselves more harshly than their colleagues do. We are typically not totally unaware of where we might be missing the mark. The point here is that no matter how hard we may be trying, others may evaluate our performance differently. Maybe we are not giving them precisely what they need. Maybe we have drifted off the job description, or maybe we are not giving 100%. At work, we are expected to submit to some form of evaluation as a means of justifying our salary. So maybe this is a good idea for home as well. I recently read an article in which both spouses renew their written contract every year with very specific requirements of each other.
What Gets in The Way?
Learning to receive feedback is possibly the most valuable trait you can develop. It may not be pleasant, but how else can you learn what is expected and needed from others? Feedback is a gift. But nobody is likely to continue to offer you feedback if your response is to defend your behavior. So, while it is not easy to do, it is wise to hear the feedback without defensiveness. It’s possible your wife has tried to gently give you feedback and given up because of how you reacted or over-reacted to it. Ask her to try again. Think of feedback as a loving contribution to your success. Someone has risked their status with you to help you improve and become a better person. Be grateful.
So why is it so difficult for us to receive feedback from our partners? Do we believe we are perfect? Do we worry that the feedback is masking larger concerns she may have? Is our ego too fragile to learn from someone’s helpful observations? Do we feel we have lost her acceptance?
(Just a note: At this point you may be asking yourself, “When do I get to give her feedback and tell her what I expect?” Just remember, this is a book for your development and deals with keeping your side of the street clean. For now, let that be enough for you.)
She Is Not Your Mom
Sometimes it might be that getting feedback from our partner is too similar to criticism we may have received in earlier days from our mom or dad. Those early attempts to instruct us also bruised our ego, particularly if they were not handled well. So when your wife does the same thing, all those memories come rushing back. We re-live the feelings we had as children or young men getting corrected and feeling a strong sense of shame, a powerful emotion. Needless to say, we will do almost anything to avoid those feelings. When we get criticism from our spouse or partner, it is natural that we would be
defensive and try to deflect the incoming fire. It can seem like an attack and the body and brain gears up to defend the “fort.”
If this over-reaction to feedback is something you would like to change about yourself, keep in mind:
- Your wife is not your parent or your ex-lover or your ex-wife. She is the person closest to you and is therefore the one most aware of your shortcomings. She is also likely the one who is most interested in your success. If you could ask her, she would say that her feedback is lovingly intended to make you an even better person. She sees it as a nurturing gesture. She would probably be crushed to think you saw her comments as an attack or that she caused you pain or anxiety.
- I’m assuming you don’t want to be without her feedback, but would like it to be less painful. The pain is not a function of the words she is saying so much as it is how you are hearing those words. So the best option is to change the way you react to her feedback by not attributing a motive to her.
For example, when she says, “You’re not going to wear that shirt, are you?” you quickly feel your emotions rising and you may, in fact, say something you’ll later regret. You may be wondering why she is so critical. It’s time for a little angel to appear on your shoulder and whisper: “Here is the chance to change the direction of the conversation. Instead of a defensive reaction, take two seconds and think what is going on. She is wanting to help you and she is probably right in her comments. To make the best of the situation, you might ask her what problems she sees with that shirt or why she does not like that shirt, paying attention to your tone of voice.1 If you will do that, you can understand that she really wants you to look nice and be proud of you. Then you can see her comments as helpful.” Thank the little angel.
Assume positive intent
In dealing with a partner, it is always good to “assume positive intent.” This means that (unless she has psychological problems) you should assume she is intending good things in her actions toward you.2 If you cannot convince yourself this is true, perhaps there is a deeper problem requiring counseling for one or both of you. But if you can objectively evaluate your feelings and listen to what she is saying, it is easier to believe she intended good things for you. There is no reason to get angry, defensive or hurt about what she said. It is only a shirt, after all, and it is really not worth a fight. So just ask her which shirt she prefers, give her a kiss, and move on. (Think about other situations where this approach could work.)
To go back to our earlier exercise, take advantage of the report card as a way of getting constructive feedback from your partner. Think of it as you would a physical checkup. You want to know as early as possible if there are danger signs that need your attention. With that approach, make the best use of that feedback by changing things that need to be changed. Keep in mind that even if you don’t see your behavior as an issue, if it’s a problem for her, it’s a legitimate concern. (We are not talking about her shortcomings for the moment, only yours.)
Here is something you might be able to identify with: Sometimes in a session, one or more guys will accuse me of “taking the wife’s side” of an issue. I try to assure them that my goal is to take the right side of the issue, favoring neither the husband nor the wife. Sometimes our years of thinking a certain way or our conditioning early in life may give us blind spots which keep us from seeing ourselves accurately as well as the implications of our behavior. If your approach is to defend yourself, punish your wife, win an argument regardless of the cost, then de-fusing a situation with kind or neutral language might seem like caving in. If you can be charitable and assume positive intent just for a moment, your life can be better. Always listen to the angel.
Just to belabor the point, remember that defense is a wall or fortification that you construct to protect yourself from the arrows (or bullets) of the enemy. In conflict with your spouse, it may feel, at a deep primal level, as if your life is at stake so it feels natural and necessary to “defend.” Actually, it is probably ego, your “manly” self-image that is endangered. But you can handle this!
The challenge for men is to tear down that wall—to allow the arrows or bullets to come through and know that they are not lethal, that you will survive. This is the ultimate act of vulnerability, the willingness to be “wounded” momentarily for the sake of the relationship.
Nobody likes to receive negative feedback about themselves. But if someone is willing to give us feedback, we should pay attention because there is value in it–even if it stings for the moment. If we are defensive instead of receptive, the other person is not likely to continue offering us this gift, but if we can assume positive intent about the other person’s motives and believe they want the best for us, we can learn from the feedback and not feel bruised in the process. Plus, it saves a lot of conflict. It is important to keep our emotions under control while we mull over the feedback and plan what change is required.
The Balanced Approach
On a spectrum of “always defensive” to “never defensive,” we need to move more to the direction of never defensive. Even small movement is helpful. We need not defend anything really. Hearing someone’s gift of feedback is helpful to our growth.
|Why would you be defensive?Ask yourself why you are defensive on certain topics:
· Are you insecure?
· Have you had a bad experience?
· Do you have strong control needs?
· Are you a perfectionist?
· Do you lack trust in your own ideas, beliefs, values?
· Do you feel your manhood is being challenged?
· Do you have trust issues?
- Do you frequently get defensive in response to comments from your wife?
- At work, do you become defensive of your ideas or comments when they are challenged?
- Can you visualize yourself almost never being defensive? Would that be a worthwhile goal?
- Do you feel you are frequently “on guard,” ready to defend your actions? Where did you develop the need for this?
- Have you received feedback at work or at home that you are defensive? That is worth investigating.
- Can you separate feedback you receive from motive you might ascribe to the giver?
- What changes do you think you need to make in the area of defensiveness?
Action Steps Men Can Take
- If this is a serious problem, get some counseling for yourself.
- Really get honest with yourself about the reason you believe your partner’s motive is hostile or malevolent.
- Think quietly before responding to things that make you defensive. Choose a more neutral response. Postpone responding and mull it over.
- Thank the person for their feedback (even if it is hard to do).
- Remember feedback is almost always about a behavior, not you or your character. You can change your behavior.
- Pick an issue and ask your wife for feedback about it. Resolve to listen and never defend.
- Think back about why you learned to be defensive. Who gave it? Remember that person is not in charge of your life.
- Keep a record of any fights with your spouse. Revisit the list to see if your defensiveness added to the conflict.
- Record your commitments on the Personal Action Plan on page 194.
Action Steps Women Can Take
- Apologize for causing him pain, then gently remind him that you trust his feedback and you want him to trust yours.
- Examine your choice of words and tone of voice in giving him feedback. Make it as neutral, non-judgmental as you can.
- Don’t back away from offering feedback. Help him to learn to accept it.
- Forgive him for his emotional response as you try to empathize and understand his defensiveness.
- Make your feedback about behavior—what he said or did—not about attributes or character. Ask for what you want him to do, not what you want him to be.
- Use “I” statements, not “You” statements. (I have noticed….vs. You always….)
- Rehearse before delivering feedback. Keep it constructive, never personal (about his character, nature).
- Thank him for his good traits and commitment.
- If defensiveness is a problem for you also, get counseling together.
- If your partner already demonstrates a good model in this area, tell him directly.