If you ask people about the advisability of correcting a partner publicly, many will advise against it. Some may even suggest it could be dangerous. Most will admit to correcting and being corrected by their partner in public social situations.
“We didn’t spend the weekend in the airport…it was more like eight hours”.
“You never played ball with my brother… you didn’t even like him.”
“ No, the joke is not three ministers on a golf course. It’s a minister, a rabbi and a priest.”
The definition of a correction is the act of offering an improvement to replace a mistake, to set something right.
Why Do We Correct Our Partners in Public?
In my work with couples, I find that the corrections partners make of each other may be conscious or unconscious, controlling, competitive, playful, mutual or invited. They most often reflect some mix of the couple’s relationship, their individual personalities, and the social context they find themselves in.
Many of the guidelines offered to improve couple communication are intended for the private exchange between the partners.
The question of correcting our partner in social situations invites us to consider the dynamics set off in the public exchange between partners.
Have You Ever Corrected Your Partner In Public?
Is it possible that the correction had more to do with your needs than the needs of your partner?
Do these situations sound familiar?
Correcting the Joke
While your intent may be to make sure that your partner doesn’t embarrass himself or you by bombing the joke –your partner’s intent may be to tell a joke without supervision. Generally the listening friends want to laugh no matter how the joke is told. A correction is an interruption of your partner as well as the momentum and the mood.
- Some partners salvage the scene by quickly incorporating the correction “Oh, right – a minister, a rabbi and a priest were golfing…”
- Some partners catch their own mistake and invite correction “Hon, were they three penguins or three ministers? None of the above?” An invited correction is often a win-win situation for partners and an exchange that the audience enjoys as much as the joke.
- Some partners feel stopped in their tracks by a correction. They become angry, embarrassed and often hand over the stage. “Forget it.” “I can’t tell jokes.” “Why don’t you tell the joke?” The perfect joke told by you at the cost of your partner’s feelings is really not a relationship goal.
- Owning the correction goes a long way toward restoring the bond in a social setting. “No, I’m sorry I interrupted – please keep going.”
Confronting the Reality
What do you do when your partner makes a statement about himself/herself that you know is not true?
She’s agreeing that she likes the gym but she almost never goes. He is agreeing with others that visiting family is important, but he “never wants to visit your family.”
Public correction of reality does little to effect change or elicit support. The exposure generally fuels shame and defensiveness. While your friends may like reality shows – rarely do they like to see their friends embarrass each other or feel the pressure of taking sides.
If you feel you must say something, consider looking beyond your urge to confront the distortion of reality and instead acknowledge the expressed feeling. Perhaps your partner’s distortion of reality is a wish to be different or a beginning contemplation of change.
“I bet you really wish you had more time for the gym.”
“Families are not always easy but visiting can be important.”
If you get a suspicious look or an eye roll as a reaction – ignore it. A compliment is always more motivating than a correction.
Needing Accuracy in Details
Unless lives, egos or reputations are at stake in a social situation, should accuracy of details take precedence over your partner’s enthusiasm and your friends’ enjoyment of your partner’s story?
Do you really need to interrupt your partner to point out that it was 10 hours in the airport and not a full day?
- Some partners feel compelled to correct the details of the other’s story because accuracy matters to them. That’s fine – if it’s their story.
- Some partners interrupt to protect their partner by heading off correction or doubts from others. Consider that if you partner is telling the story – he/she will be able to handle the audience reaction. You need not lead the way.
- Some partners correct details as a way to enter into the storytelling of their partner. Mutual storytelling is a wonderful thing for couples. Joining in to add more scenes or details when your partner has finished will be better received than correction of his/her details.
Most couples have been in situations where sub-groups based on gender, occupation, nationality or favorite sports team etc. start with jokes and funny stories, and end up with public criticism and hostility. Caught up in the emotional contagion of the situation, partners have admitted to joining in the criticism of their own partner. Hearing afterward that their partner felt unprotected by them brings with it the realization that nothing ” is all in fun” if it allows the criticism of your partner.
Use the Dance Team Technique
Couples share a private and public life together. How they communicate in those venues both reflects and impacts the relationship they share. If when you consider your public exchange, you realize that you do correct each other in public– consider this technique.
Imagine yourself a competitive dance team. As you dance in public you hold each other and support each other. You are aware of each other’s moves even as you smile at the audience.
If one or both of you makes a mistake, you do not stop to correct it. Instead, you both keep dancing, adjusting to the misstep in such a subtle way that what the audience sees is a seamless connection. You step off stage feeling your bond as a team, knowing you will debrief the mistakes, practice privately and continue to improve as you keep on dancing together.
Listen in as Dr. Geoffrey Grief discusses “Couples and their Couple Friendships” on Psych Up Live