When couples first come into therapy, I expect each of them to go after each
other with accusatory and invalidating expressions. They are in a safe and
confidential environment and need to get their frustrations out. Blaming the
other and not acknowledging one’s own accountability is a common part of the
initial therapeutic process.
Unfortunately, those same behaviors, when exhibited publicly, can be severely
damaging to the relationship. Whether they feel they are intentionally doing that
or not, intimate partners often use a public forum to expose their partner’s
vulnerabilities and behaviors to others, thinking by doing so they will be more
effective in getting their partners to change behaviors they don’t like.
If you are the partner who publicly casts doubt on the other, you need to realize
that what you are doing is rarely effective and will deeply damage your
relationship with each other over time.
Here are just a few examples of the kinds of behaviors I am referring to. As you go
through them, ask yourself and your partner if either of you are guilty of making
your partner a group scapegoat, and why you are choosing to do that. Pay
particular attention if you are feigning innocence and could be fooling yourself in
terms of your underlying intent.
One – Making Fun of Your Partner’s Character Traits
Do you find yourself sharing something that you don’t like about your partner’s
behavior that you haven’t been able to change, using the group environment to
share your frustration? You are hoping the group will agree with you, giving your
needs more importance. You’re clearly asking for support but don’t want to state
that directly or perhaps even admit it to yourself.
“Don’t ever expect her to show up on time even if the casserole is worth waiting
for. She and time just don’t have a relationship.”
Two – Sharing Your Partner’s Socially Inappropriate Behaviors
Do you share past stories of things your partner has done and may do again to
gain empathy and support, but wrapping the story as just a funny memory? If you
are honest with yourself, are you trying to make your partner see that is
bothering you yet has not changed anything. Maybe she will listen if you bring it
“Well, he almost made it through the night at the party until he could see they
were running out of the vodka. He’s really a great guy until he hits that threshold
and then anything can happen. And I promise you that you wouldn’t like to be the
one who takes care of him once we get home.”
Three - Exposing an Earlier Trauma
You and your partner have shared certain sacred things from your past and
assume that neither of you would ever share them with others without explicit
permission. You’ve had a few drinks and want to embellish your story. Without
thinking, you break a crucial agreement.
“Sue, this is right up your alley. You’ve been there and know what that feels like.
Tell these people what’s it’s really like to go through something like this. That will
help everyone understand it better.”
Four - Teasing
There are two kinds of motivations that drive teasing others. The first is to use
bantering to up the spark in a conversation. The second Is clearly intended to
expose the other’s fallibilities. Do you tease your partner publicly to play with him
or her in front of others, or are you showing your power and superiority over him
“She can talk about anything. TikTok is a great source for entertainment. Not so
sure it is meaningful source of pertinent information. So don’t expect long, deep
conversations. She might miss something important in the meantime.”
Five - Shared Conversations About Others That Were Meant to be Private
All couples share their deeper, often fleeting negative opinions about friends,
family, co-workers, or best friends when they are upset or just needing to vent.
You know that, but sometimes share her private views in public, disregarding that
“Did you tell our friends about why Fred got fired yesterday. It’s a fascinating
story and could happen to any of us, even help us from losing everything that
way. No one here knows him, so it will I’m sure it would be okay if you share it?”
Six – Sharing A Personal Relationship Issue Without Permission of the Other
Your group is conversing about their lives and relationships. You suddenly take it
to a deeper private issue between you and your partner, asking the group for
their weigh-in. It is very personal and everyone feels a little uncomfortable. Your
partner is noticeably uncomfortable, but you ignore her entreaties to stop. Your
needs are completely more important.
“Oh, c’mon, honey. We’re all friends and all of us have hard situations to deal
with from time to time. Be a good sport. Maybe they can truly help us and
themselves as well. Let’s just get their input, okay.”
* * *
Any of these examples or the multitude of others I’ve heard have the same thing
in common. As either partner is publicly exposed in some kind of vulnerable and
embarrassing way, they lose trust that their partners have their backs. And there
is often no prior consent, so privacy becomes totally unreliable.
If you are engaging in these tattling behaviors, and want to stop, you must change
your definition of trust to include the entitlement of safety and security each of
you has a right to expect. To change these potentially destructive patterns, your
definition of trust must include both partners insuring the others to feel safe that
whatever they share with each other is held sacred.
Don’t ever use the defense that you would be fine if your partner did the same to
you. If you are in a relationship where you routinely publicly expose your
partner’s fallibilities, and there is no retaliation at the time, you have a pretty
good idea that you are safe from that kind of reciprocal behavior.