Sometimes clients come in and they spend a majority of the session just venting about what a real dingbat their partner has been. Or how selfish that person is, or how they went out and spent a bunch of money without talking about it first. They aren’t usually talking about big problems this way, it’s just an accumulation of a bunch of small stuff that they want to process in a safe place. And while I do the good therapist bit of nodding appropriately and commiserating on what a chore it is to be in a relationship with that person, I often find it necessary to work through some uncomfortable realities in these situations. Namely, how your partner is just the dirt worst.
That’s not the only uncomfortable part though, the reality is that you’re also the worst. Me too. We’re all kind of the worst in our own ways. That’s unfortunately just facts. Speaking truth over here. But while its indisputable that your partner is a real piece of work, it gets tricky because it is simultaneously true that your partner is like insanely incredible. They are unique, do so many cool things, and are uniquely deserving of love. It can be mind-boggling how someone so amazing can also be occasionally so dense. But most of us know this is true, not only for our partners, but also for ourselves. We are each special unique snowflakes unlike anyone else on the planet, and we’re also ongoing dumpster fires that can barely muster human decency (case in point, I’m being a bit too harsh here, right? Therapists shouldn’t be mean like this, we’re positive and full of love!).
So when someone comes in and just wants to vent about their partner, what we usually end up doing is venting for a bit, and then the message gets subtly shifted until we’re highlighting all the good-to-great things that partner also does, often in spite of our own terribleness. Then we often sit with both of these truths, just kind of hanging in the air, and most people laugh about it with a glimmer in their eyes for what a nonsense concept love turns out to be. And it’s great, because it’s real, genuine emotion rather than some cheesy rom-com or fairy tale ending.
I have a fun (I think it’s fun anyways) technique to get better at holding both the good and bad of our partners and ourselves. It’s called hero-victim-villain. The idea is that in any interaction, each partner can simultaneously fill the role of hero, victim, and villain all while the other partner is also filling those roles.
**Big caveat here, if you’re in an abusive relationship this doesn’t work. No one is a hero who actively creates an unsafe environment, and there is no villain role that justifies abuse, not ever.**
So, hero-victim-villain goes something like this. Jenny and Craig get into an argument about getting their kids to be on time. Craig always plays too much and gets the kids all riled up, while Jenny has to be the serious one to get everyone to sleep. Oh, all while she makes lunches for the next day while Craig just gets to play. Pretty clear cut that Craig is the worst here, right? Let’s apply hero-victim-villain. All three roles, simultaneously, for both partners. Jenny is the hero because she works hard to keep the kids on a consistent schedule, knowing that is healthy for their development. She’s the victim because Craig isn’t helping her and is making her work harder. She’s the villain because she’s not supporting Craig building a positive relationship with the kids. Craig is the villain because he is disrespecting the hard work Jenny puts in to keep the kids on schedule. But he’s the hero because he’s having great interactions with the kids and building positive relationships with them. He’s the victim because he is being made to feel badly for having fun with his kids. So now, who’s right or wrong? Well, no one, right and wrong isn’t a helpful way to approach this, it just leads to arguing. So, there are good aspects to what both parents are doing, and there’s work to be done to clean up the negative interactions. But if we approach it this way, assuming that our partners bring some good to the table (instead of just being the worst all the time), then we can work with that to create a better system. Craig can and should interact positively with the kids, but he can be better about starting earlier in the night so the kids stay on track. In this totally made up and not-at-all based on many couples I’ve worked with over the years, there is likely more to it. But this is a simple example of how the technique works, and how it softens our approach with our partner, creating more space for problem-solving rather than arguing. It’s not an easy technique to use, because many of us have well-worn patterns in our head about our own righteousness and how bad our partner is. So if you get stuck, reach out and I can help you work through it.
What did we learn today? You’re absolutely right, your partner is the worst. But so are you. And you’re both amazing people who deserve all the love and kindness in the world. Let’s all be proactive in tapping into that love and kindness.