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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

How to Communicate without Shaming Your Partner

Updated: Mar 12

Say you have a complaint about your partner — maybe they left their dirty dishes in the sink the night before. I’ve already talked about the best way to communicate — equal parts gentle and open. So that might look like “I noticed that you left dirty dishes in the sink last night. I would prefer that you cleaned them before going to sleep.” For those of you who are able to communicate like this regularly, bravo! For the rest of us, why is it so hard to talk like this?

My theory is that putting it out there as simply a personal preference makes us feel vulnerable and weak. After all, if this is just a preference I have, what makes it better or more important than the preference my partner has to leave his dirty dishes in the sink every night? The answer is — it’s NOT better or more important. These are both just preferences. Sometimes you make sacrifices because your partner prefers it a different way and sometimes they choose to make the sacrifice. Sometimes no one chooses to change, even when it is important to our partner. Either way, unless there are straight up sanitation issues, these are really just preferences to be worked out between two people.

But why can’t I make a stronger argument? That way my partner will want to agree with me. And the answer is, you can! You can sell him on all the benefits of doing the dishes before going to sleep: you will wake up to a clean house, you don’t attract bugs or critters, you’ll have more peace of mind, your partner will be so much happier! But unfortunately, that is not generally how we choose to convince our partners. Instead we try to shame them into complying with us.

First of all, even when you voice a complaint in the best possible way, it’s going to be slightly shaming to your partner. After all, you are telling them you want them to do something differently AND that they disappointed you in some way. But if you didn’t voice your complaints some of the time, you wouldn’t have a voice in your relationship.

The problem is when you pile shame on top of shame. And there are lots of ways to shame your partner. We can let them know that what they’re doing is wrong. Or that a lot of people agree with us and not with them. Or that, let’s face it, they’re just a messy slob. These arguments are neither open nor gentle. They might feel open — I mean you are certainly saying something openly, but they are not openly expressing the heart of what it is that you feel or you want. Instead of this, what would be best is to issue a

  • Complaint — the definition of a complaint is: a negative opinion about a single event. Complaints communicated this way are both clear and they land as softly as possible. So, there is a specific event (you left the dirty dishes in the sink overnight) and there is your preference about what should happen in the future (I would like you to do the dishes before you go to bed). This is perfect. We’re talking about one event and we’re stating our own personal preference.

Now we will start to pile up the shame boulders:

  • Multiple times — this starts to step away from one specific event and talks about multiple times your partner has done the same type of thing. “Not only did you do it last night, you left the dishes in the sink last Saturday night and also multiple times that week before.” You can see how this is making a better argument for yourself, but it starts to overwhelm your partner. The next shame boulder is

  • Kitchen Sinking — This is when, instead of sticking with one topic, we throw multiple topics at our partner. We talk about not just the dirty dishes, but also the socks on the floor, and not taking out the trash, and not standing up for us with his parents. You can see how this can be overwhelming to our partners when there are multiple complaints to respond to. As we continue to pile up these boulders, it begins to be harder and harder to hear your actual complaint. Next up is

  • Trend Talk — this is the term Terry Real uses to refer to statements like “you always leave dishes in the sink” or “you never clean up at night”. Those words — always and never — create sweeping characterizations that start to feel global and shaming. The next shame boulder is

  • Back up — this is when, instead of just standing on the weight of our own preferences, we bring in back-up arguments as reinforcements. “I read somewhere that marriages are better if the dishes are done at the end of the night“ or “my friends all agree that you should do the dishes.” This might help us feel like we have a better argument, but it can be overwhelming and your partner can start to feel like he’s being ganged up on. The next shame boulder is

  • Moralizing — now we are really overwhelming and weighing down our partner. Moralizing really brings down the hammer. “You should always do the dishes” or “it’s only right that you do the dishes“ or “it’s better for a marriage that the dishes are done.” Moralizing turns a preference into a right versus wrong issue. And the final one is,

  • Insults — this is the largest shame boulder and consists of nasty accusations and name calling. This is when we stoop to saying “you are the kind of person who leaves dishes in the sink“ or “you’re a slob“ or “you’re a heartless person.” We are no longer talking about specific behavior and have begun talking instead about the quality of our partner’s character in a negative way. This is also where we are ascribing malicious intent to our partner.

Are there other ways to fight dirty? Absolutely, yes. You can threaten, blame, accuse, gaslight, play the victim (See DARVO). But the shame boulder pile up shows how a single complaint can turn into character assassinating insults. Piling on these boulders will certainly help you to win your argument, but generally it’s at the expense of respect or equal choice in your relationship. As you continue to pile up shame boulders, your partner feels more and more overwhelmed and powerless. By the time we are at trend talk, moralizing, and insults, you’ve rendered your partner powerless to make a choice in an egalitarian way. Each of these boulders loads additional weights onto the your partner until they’re at a point where they’re crushed with shame and powerlessness and unable to make a choice from a place of free will.

And in the end — what you want is for your partner to have the free will to choose to act in accordance with your wishes, either because you’ve done a good job convincing them with your non-shaming arguments OR because they realize it’s important to you and they choose to make that sacrifice. If you have shamed them or coerced them into acting, be prepared for a storm of resentment to start brewing in your relationship — and also for the dynamic to become unproductive and unbalanced.

Let me know what you think — comments are always appreciated!

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