Do You Correct Your Partner in Public? This Emotional Life - PBS

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Relationships / Blog

    Suzanne Phillips, PsyD

Suzanne Phillips, PsyD's Bio

Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.

Do You Correct Your Partner in Public?


Topics
  • “No Honey, the joke is not about a talking mouse, it is about a talking frog.”
  • “Come on, you never help out around the house.”
  • “We didn’t meet in Miami, the first time we met was at my friend’s wedding.”

The definition of correction is the act of offering an improvement to replace a mistake, to set something right. If you ask people about the advisability of correcting a partner publicly, many will advise against it – some may even suggest it could be dangerous.

Despite all that caution, however,  most people will admit to correcting and being corrected by their partner in public social situations.  How do we explain this?

In my work with couples, I find that the corrections couples make of each other may be conscious or unconscious, controlling, competitive, playful, mutual or invited. They most often reflect some mix of the couple’s relationship, individual personalities, and the social context in which they find themselves.

Many of the valuable guidelines offered to improve couple communication are intended for the private exchange between the partners. The question of correcting our partner in social situations invites us to consider a dimension of the public exchange between partners.

It may be worth looking carefully at when and why you are correcting your partner and how they are responding. Quite often the correction has more to do with your needs than the partner being corrected.  You might identify with some of the following:

Correcting the Joke

While your intent may be to make sure that your partner doesn’t embarrass himself or you by bombing the joke –your partner’s intent may be to tell a joke without supervision.  Generally the listening friends want to laugh no matter how the joke is told. A correction is an interruption of your partner as well as the momentum and the mood.

Reactions

  • Some partners salvage the scene by quickly incorporating the correction “Oh, right – it was a talking frog…”
  • Some partners catch their own mistake and invite correction “Hon, where were we when we first met?”  An invited correction is often a win-win situation for partners and an exchange that the audience enjoys as much as the joke.
  • Some partners feel stopped in their tracks by a correction. They become angry, embarrassed and often hand over the stage. “Forget it.”  “I can’t tell jokes.” “Why don’t you tell the joke?” The perfect joke told by you at the cost of your partner’s feelings is really not a relationship goal.
  • Owning the correction goes a long way toward restoring the bond in a social setting. “No, I’m sorry I interrupted – please keep going.”

Confronting the Reality

What do you do when your partner makes a statement about himself/herself that you know is not true? She’s describing that she likes the gym but she almost never goes. He is agreeing with others that visiting family is important, but he never wants to visit your family.

Public correction of reality does little to effect change or elicit support. The exposure generally fuels shame and defensiveness. While your friends may like reality shows – rarely do they like seeing their friends embarrass each other or feeling the pressure of taking sides.

Consider this instead- At a private time, consider looking beyond your urge to confront the distortion of reality with an acknowledgment of the espoused feeling. Perhaps your partner's distortion of reality is a wish to be different or a beginning contemplation of change.

  • “I imagine you really wished you had more time for the gym.”
  • “It’s great that you think that family is important.”

If you get a suspicious look or an eye roll as a reaction – ignore it.  A compliment is always more motivating than a correction.

Needing Accuracy in Details

Unless lives, egos or reputations are at stake in a social situation, should accuracy of details take precedence over your partner’s enthusiasm and your friends' enjoyment of his/her story? Do you really need to interrupt your partner to point out that it was 10 hours in the airport and not a full day?

  • Some partners feel compelled to correct the details of the other’s story because accuracy matters to them. That’s fine – if it’s their story.
  • Some partners interrupt to protect their partner by heading off correction or doubts from others. Consider that if you partner is telling the story – he/she will be able to handle the audience reaction. You need not lead the way.
  • Some partners correct details as a way to enter into the storytelling of their partner. Mutual storytelling is a wonderful thing for couples. Joining in to add more scenes or details when your partner has finished will be better received than correction of his/her details.

Partner Bashing

Most couples have been in situations where sub-groups based on gender, occupation, nationality or favorite sports team start with jokes and funny stories, and end up with public criticism and hostility. Caught up in the emotional contagion of the situation, partners have admitted to joining in the criticism of their own partner.  Hearing afterward that their partner felt unprotected by them brings with it the realization that nothing “is all in fun” if it allows the criticism of your partner.

Guideline Imagery

Couples share a private and public life together. How they communicate in those venues is central to the relationship they share. As you look closer at your public communication – specifically the correction of each other in public – consider this guideline.

Imagine yourself as a competitive dance team. As you dance in public you hold each other and support each other, you are aware of each other’s moves even as you smile at the audience.

If one or both of you make a mistake you do not stop to correct it; rather, you both keep dancing, adjusting to the misstep in such a subtle way that what the audience sees is a seamless performance. You step off stage feeling your bond as a team, knowing you will practice privately to avoid the mistakes and continue to dance better and better.