Ask Me Anything: Our resident psychologist answers your queries about sex and relationships
Question: I love my wife very much, but she constantly criticises my parents. She is a very open and honest person, and I really do love that about her, but sometimes I would rather not hear every fault or mistake my family make.
Now, I have to say, my parents tend to demand a lot of entertaining when they visit, as they enjoy their wine and it doesn’t always suit. We buy each other expensive presents and family events tend to involve a lot of socialising, which she thinks is inappropriate with children present. Over time, I have seen that she is right about pretty much everything she calls them out on, and she has opened my eyes to some things I needed to see, but I don’t really want to hear it anymore. I have said this to her, but it is in one ear and out the other. Can you help?
Answer: There’s such a lovely tone towards your wife in your question and it’s really clear that you love and respect her. Most notably, you love how authentic she is. However, an authentic person is real all the time, she can’t be just a little authentic some of the time.
I think you and your wife need to have a flexible and adaptive conversation. This conversation asks both of you to grow a bit —this will be uncomfortable, ergo the flexible part, which is needed from both sides. The adaptive part is making changes to the way you both respond and react to each other and others, which is the hard part.
A good way to start this conversation is to tell your wife that one of the things you love and value about her is how open and honest she is. Whilst this is a wonderful trait, you need to express how it can sometimes feel too much when it comes as a constant negative stream in the direction of your parents.
Then say that you have learned a lot and have now seen things that were hidden in plain sight to you through her eyes. Truths about your parents that are accurate and helpfu.
It is easier for your wife to see these home truths as she is unencumbered by all dynamics, history and the family norms that you have adhered to and accepted.
Your wife hasn’t liked certain norms, most specifically the family socialising culture and what that entails.
What you are asking for going forward is for her to filter her honesty through the lens of integrity. To think of how her words will be heard by you.
To be mindful that she is speaking about your parents and that how the message is delivered and her intent behind it will help you hear it less defensively.
I wouldn’t encourage you to tell her to stop telling you as this will only create new problems of unvented frustration. Anyone can tell the truth — delivering that message with integrity is a much more compassionate affair. This adaptation will hopefully work for all.
Couples can be quick to jump on each other and retaliate with ‘you are being overly sensitive’ or ‘why can’t you take criticism?’ What I’m saying about your parents is true’. Criticism feels personal.
Ever wonder why it is so easy to fight? Stan Tatkin takes a psychobiological understanding to working with couples and says our brain is wired for war and not love. He suggests creating a ‘couple bubble’ to counteract our fight-first hardwiring. To get off the ‘he said, she said’ criticism/defensive not very merry-go-round you need to get down to what this is really about. The only way this can happen is if you feel safe and that you will be respectfully heard whilst voicing how you feel.
You create your ‘couple bubble’ quite simply by showing your partner that you support them. Does this mean blindly agreeing to everything they say to you? Not at all. It’s about showing your wife that you have her back and vice versa.
What may come up as an argument about your parents is a plea to discuss things that are not sitting well with your wife.
I do believe in couples being very good friends, having respect for what each other is saying, and as you put down the words of war you will then hear what the disagreement is really about. Namely, family differences, feelings of frustration, and pleas for ‘will you support me and can I depend upon you?’.
How can you peel back the layers of this onion? Go back, start at the beginning and question and answer the belief system that underpins your family norms. Ask questions of what the expectations would be for different social occasions, for birthdays, Christmas, etc. What made the day special, what were the hidden or open expectations?
In the ‘mum and dad’ chapter in my book, The Secret Lives of Adults, you can see how the thread of these underlying beliefs connect to how you parent and how you are as a couple.
If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org