Why undermining your partner undermines your relationship

Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence
- Ovid

A long time ago, well before I was married, I saw a couple who were at the same college as me. Because we moved in the same circles, I often saw how she spoke to him and I was horrified at the mocking little digs she often said to him.

The digs were usually about his intellect as he was very smart and switched on. She would make snide comments, like that he had to be brought down a peg or two otherwise his head wouldn’t fit through the door.

Observing this couple gave rise to one of my strong values: lift people up, don’t tear them down. Affirm our partner’s strengths rather than seeking to undermine them.

The impulse to undermine may have many roots – resentments, frustration, inadequacy – but often it is based on a ‘zero-sum’ belief about relationships. This is the belief that for one partner to win, the other must lose. This is a false belief when it comes to relationships: when we’re on the same page, if one wins we both win... and if one loses we both lose.

These ‘little digs’ might be things like our partner telling ‘funny’ stories with us as the butt of the joke. Or just ‘joking’ insults about our knowledge, skills or tastes. It may be our partner putting us down or constantly contradicting us in front of friends and family. Often it hurts so much because what they say holds a grain of embarrassing truth. After all, they are the person who knows us best.

What our spouse says can be so subtle that we start to wonder whether the digs and jibes are really innocent, even loving or teasing and we’re somehow missing the joke. We doubt what we are feeling because we don’t believe someone who loves us could be that mean. We make excuses, feel that it is us being ‘oversensitive‘, or – if we call our partners on it – they make it sound as if we’re at fault.

There may be a number of reasons why they feel the need to dominate and control:

  1. Past trauma where they felt they had no control may have led to a significant loss or an emotional wound;
  2. They had controlling parents and don’t know how to stop history repeating itself;
  3. They were neglected as a child, so now they do everything possible to make your life revolve around them in order to feel less abandoned;
  4. To hide their own insecurities and low self-esteem; and/or
  5. Pride and ego.

Still, even knowing this, these little digs may continue over time make us feel hollow. Eventually, we may no longer respect or value ourselves or our partner. More likely we will start to resent them and withdraw from the relationship for self-preservation.

Listen to your gut instincts. If a story your partner is telling others about you feels hurtful, it probably is. If you want to make your relationship succeed, it’s worthwhile to call your partner on these kinds of passive-aggressive digs. To grow in yourself and in your relationship, it is important to make your partner clearly understand that although you love them, you will not tolerate being undermined even – if it was only meant to tease.

If the behaviour on the part of your partner is rooted in childhood patterns or traumas, it may take more than simply asking them to stop. It may be necessary to help them get some professional help to address these issues.

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