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Losing Face–a Relationship Grenade

By: Dr. Jim Goldstein

Did you ever wonder why a particular conversation between you and your partner developed into a surprisingly heated argument? You may have the thought, “Wow! Your reaction seems out of all proportion! All I said was …”

If you made the mistake of saying the previous sentences aloud, you’ve seen how they can further inflame the discussion and arouse even more defensiveness (see “You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”)

When you get an unexpectedly defensive reaction it is usually because you have unwittingly said something that touched a level of shame in your partner. If the reaction is really hostile, it may be related to an earlier time when your partner experienced a loss of face in front of others. It may have come from something you said or something you should’ve said and didn’t. Sometimes the worst flare ups happen after a social engagement where one person may have felt embarrassed.

Like it or not, we all have egos. We all have a voice inside our head that judges our behavior on a moralistic scale. It sounds like our own voice but it gets its script from our parents and childhood authority figures. Because we have all been criticized by people we love, we have a level of shame below the surface, a place where we have internalized these criticisms as doubts about our own goodness and worth.

This place must be defended and guarded lest we feel guilty and ashamed. This is what gives the ego its job—to protect us from feeling shame by making sure we look good in front of others. When we don’t look good, there is hell to pay.

My rule of thumb is, “Never let a person lose face (look bad) in front of others.” It sets the stage for some form of negativity later.

This applies not just to spouses but to anyone. Exposing a person’s shortcomings or mistakes publicly, even in a joking manner, runs the risk of pulling the pin on a grenade. When it goes off, it won’t be pleasant for anyone.

It’s not that we should never kid each other or give people feedback about where they need to work on themselves. It’s just that it’s risky to do it publicly. It’s not always easy to know when you’ll hit a nerve.

In the end, this is one of the ways that we express love for our partner and respect for our friends and colleagues. We learn where their “ hot buttons” (sensitivities) are and we don’t push them!



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