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I try to avoid all kinds of "everyday life" arguings, but sometimes I just want an explanation for minor problems.

"Why are you late?" and "You know where we keep documents. Why put it in a different locker?" should have responses like "Sorry, I got into traffic!" or "Haha, I didn't realize I did that!" - that's how I see and do things.

Instead, I get - "Why are you blaming me? I hurry so much and you give me this treatment! bla bla"

My significant other gets in such a defensive position, and he doesn't realize he makes me feel really bad, like I don't deserve to receive an explanation for anything. And this doesn't happen often. I let myself be "blaming" like once a month or even more rare.

How should I put out this kind of question, without blaming directly?

My significant other is actually a very kind, good person, always treating me nice and loving, but when it gets to blame he just can't cope with it. He doesn't like admitting he made a mistake. The process is very painful all the time. I want to make it easier for both of us, but I don't know how.

I ask these questions because otherwise I would feel grumpy, because (let's take the example with the waiting):

  1. Waiting is annoying,
  2. The person shows no concern for wasting my time.

Personally, I like being asked such questions, because it gives me the opportunity to explain myself, not just face this grumpy person, without knowing what's going on.

2

I think the key point is that

"he doesn't like admitting he made a mistake"

I would recommend you to help him grow and develop the skill of admitting he made a mistake.

Why you should do this:

This skill is required for personal and professional life. If you can't deal with someone asking you about something you did wrong you will have many problems in almost every job. Any relationship can improve when having this skill.

How to achieve:

Be a good example. I hate to point out other people's mistakes and tried to avoid it if possible. I improved on this because my SO reacts very well when I point something out about him. He reflects his behaviour, seriously considers my opinion and admits mistakes. This way I learned that this is not a stressful situation and we both benefit from talking about it. You can do the same. When your SO points out a mistake you made, be calm, reflect, consider her opinion, and apologize. Don't make a fuss about it.

Reward good behaviour. When your SO just apologizes or provides you a reason, be happy with that. Maybe you can make a joke about it and turn it into a fun moment, so your SO does not connect trouble with admitting a mistake.

Get to know the reasons. Have a open talk about the issue. Tell your SO what you told us and find out if he agrees with your opinion that there is a problem with handling mistakes. Maybe your SO does not know about it and you first have to make it aware to your SO. If the problem is already known by your SO, you both can explore the reasons and work on solutions based on the reasons.

Talking about mistakes and apologizing is a major skill somebody should not lack. Don't help yourself with workarounds like formulating your questions the least accusing they can get, and work together on the real problem.

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    Thank you, I really like all the other answers, but I accept yours because I think it will help the most in my situation. I already tried asking the questions differently like "I was worried, is everything ok?" but he always manages to turn it like I still blame him. – nyagolova Jan 31 at 11:32
85

In both of your examples, you ask your partner why they did a thing. This is not explaining a problem at all. It's announcing a problem and demanding they justify or explain what they did. I am not sure that's helpful. Perhaps knowing why would help -- if there was a good reason. Perhaps it would not.

The thing about questions is it really gives people a sense of pressure to answer the question. And if you don't really want the answer, then the pressure upsets people.

So, take a moment and think about what you're feeling and what you want to say. For example, these are not the same:

  • I was worried about you when you didn't arrive by 9. Is everything ok?
  • When you are routinely late most times we are supposed to meet, I feel like you don't mind that I am waiting for you and feeling worried.
  • This was a very important meeting and I was embarrassed that you were late. It feels as though it wasn't as important to you.

Or for the papers:

  • I finally found the dentist receipts! It took forever because I was looking in the receipt place. They were in the kitchen drawer! What happened there?
  • When you just put papers wherever you feel like and I spend time looking for them, I feel you don't value my time and can just leave the work to me. We agreed where to keep these things.

These examples have more context - are you discussing just this time, or a pattern? They include details about why you care where the papers are or why your partner was late. And they don't always ask a question. They start a conversation about the thing you want to discuss. They don't start with blame (well, some of them come close) and they don't make the partner guess what your issue is. If you want to have a conversation about these things, phrasing like this helps that happen.

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20

His Perspective

More often than not in life, I've found myself in the situation that your SO is in. You mention that he doesn't like to admit mistakes. I used to be the same way. The reason I never wanted to admit my mistakes was because I was afraid of people passing judgement on me for them. In those situations, getting questions like the ones you've mentioned always felt like an attack, because I knew that I had made a mistake, and the question was just another reminder. Now, there's a lot more that could be unpacked in there which doesn't really pertain to the problem at hand. I just wanted to give you a little insight into why he might react defensively.

What You Can Do

Let's take a look at the two example questions you've listed.

Why are you late?

This one isn't too bad. The question itself is very direct and it focuses on the problem, which is that he is late. However, the directness of it can feel like you are placing the blame on him. Being a more senior member of my team at work, I'm often in the position of needing to ask questions about why something went wrong. Usually, I have some vague idea of what the problem might be, and I've found it helpful to ask about that. You mentioned you expect a response along the lines of "I was stuck in traffic", so as about that instead.

Hey, you're a little late, were you caught in traffic?

By offering a possible explanation yourself, you've made it clear that you aren't blaming him, you just want to understand. When I ask my coworkers if a specific thing caused the issue, they are much more open to either confirming my hunch, or providing the actual cause and walking through that.

You know where we keep documents, why put it in a different locker?

This one is a bit accusative. The first clause of your question directly points out that he knows that he messed up. On the one hand, it's entirely possible that he simply forgo where the documents were. On the other hand, even if he didn't, leading with "you did something bad" will just put him on the defensive and hinder any productive conversation that could be had. Again, a simple way to improve this question is to offer an explanation.

Did you forget that we keep documents in the other locker?

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    I feel that "Did you forget that we keep documents in the other locker?" comes across a bit passive aggressive. It might be better to change it to "Please can you remember to put the documents back in the other locker. It took me a while to figure out where they were!" With a light tone of voice, it should come across as less of an issue, and 'disarms' the issue so SO shouldn't feel attacked or put on the defensive. – Digitalpeanut Jan 27 at 13:43
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Jump to the End

My SO is quite lazy about putting things back "where they belong". Not surprisingly, she is very good at losing things and not being able to find them. While I will often help her find something she has lost and gently remind her where I looked first, in general, when you have a problem, it is best to jump straight to the solution, rather than to analyze the cause. This works for both interpersonal and professional problems.

"Is it ok if I send you a text when you're late? I worry about you and just want to make sure you're ok. I get paranoid and might send out a search party! ;)"

"How can I help you remember where we store the important documents? Shall we go through some unfiled papers and practice together?" For "proper place" type problems, it is actually helpful if your SO also regularly loses things. "Can you help me find my coat?" "Sure, where did you look first?" "Uh, in the bedroom, I guess." "Well, I'm going to check the coat closet, because that's where I put it when I find it laying around." After about 10x of having this exchange, they become more biased towards putting things where they belong. Also, they are more likely to anticipate your first response, because it's predictable, and this shortcut also helps motivate the desired behavior. Let's be honest: the answer to: "Why didn't you put this back where it belongs?" is: "I was lazy and I didn't care." So forcing someone to give that answer doesn't get you closer to the desired solution.

Practice Makes Perfect

Another strategy for this kind of thing is to say: "Well, we have a bit of a mess here, don't we? Can we spend 30 minutes tidying up?" Before you start, note which things are out of place so you can look for them when you're done. When you're done, try to find all the misplaced items in their "proper" location. If something is out of place, you can say something like: "Hmm...I expected to see your coat here in the closet, but I don't see it. Did you happen to see it while we were cleaning?" "Oh, I uh, hung that on the back of a chair I guess." "I see. Is that where you planned to look for it the next time you need it? Because if I help you look for it, the first place I'm going to look is here in the coat closet. Finding it there will save you some time when you're late for a meeting."

So don't approach it as a scolding or punishment; but rather, the future reward of doing things in a more disciplined way.

Also, if my SO is really late for something, I just send a text like: "Hey, I hope your event is going really well! Haven't heard from you in a while and just wanted to make sure everything is ok." So the point is to remind her that I fundamentally trust her, but I am concerned about her well-being and will step up to help out if she really did encounter a problem (like locking the keys in her car, getting lost/stuck/etc.).

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    This can be improved by getting buy in from the other person about the way things should be done. For example, if someone scolded me about not putting my coat in a closet--yes, I really do NOT care that my coat is sitting out, it doesn't bother me at all, in fact it is very convenient for me whereas the closet is a pain. On the other hand, if we together came up with a reason and a plan for coat storage (please keep coats off of the chairs on Tuesdays because that's when we have company over), now I do care and it's much more likely to happen. This may involve some compromise (coat rack?). – user3067860 Jan 28 at 22:19
  • Totally agree that agreeing on solutions is a prerequisite. However, if you have a disagreement on that, I think you have separate question from the OP's. But you're right: if the OP and her SO disagree on how things ought to be done, then that is the root cause and they should start there first. – Lawnmower Man Jan 29 at 0:13
7

Just a day or two ago I was late to a dinner with a friend. I had forgotten that traffic would be heavier than it usually was and my wife and I ended up 15 minutes late.

Fortunately, it wasn't a big deal. My friend brought up her problem: that she was expecting us 15 minutes earlier, and was a little worried that somehow she had made a mistake with the date or the time. I explained about the traffic and we were all good.

Key point here is that my friend started with why she was worried: that maybe somehow she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She didn't start with an accusation of "why are you late!".

Bottom line is that if you are worried that somehow your SO got into an accident or had some other problem that made him late, that's legitimate thing to bring up. In other words, bring up your problem. Don't try to attack him and get him to take blame. The blame game is not productive.

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4

It sounds like you may be taking these minor problems personally. Interpreting the behavior of my SO as if it were a form of personal communication gets me in big trouble sometimes and I find it is best avoided.

Asking myself if I would rather be happy or be right often reminds me of what matters most.

In saying this I am not suggesting that the original question is not valid. There are certainly better and worse ways to say something. In cases like this where I decide I need to say something I try to wait until I can ask from a clear state of mind (meaning not afraid or angry). The reason is that in my experience there is no "right way" to say something when I am afraid or angry that won't communicate those emotions. My SO will respond to the feelings communicated and not to the request for information. It sounds like your SO is doing the same so I offer my experience in hopes it can help.

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    Hi Kevin, thanks for sharing your experience with this sort of problem! Does this mean you don't ask these sorts of questions at all anymore? Or, could you give some examples of how you do ask for explanations without getting into trouble? Also since I see you're a new contributor, you may be interested in our FAQ on writing answers too. Thanks again and welcome to IPS :) – Em C Jan 27 at 15:39
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    I try not to ask this kind of question at all anymore. If I feel I have to ask, then I try to wait until I can ask from a clear state of mind (meaning not afraid or angry). – Kevin Olree Jan 27 at 15:44
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    and thanks for reaching out to a new contributor! I will edit my answer. – Kevin Olree Jan 27 at 16:02
  • Thank you for providing backup :) – Belle Jan 30 at 18:39
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Lots of very good answers here. I'll add a slightly different perspective. (On other SO sites, I would put this into a comment.)

I see a few interesting aspects here:

  1. Your SO keeps you waiting.
  2. Your SO does not explain why he is late when he finally arrives. (Otherwise you would not ask.)
  3. When you ask, your SO becomes defensive.

This gives a very slight impression of narcissistic tendencies. Actually, these are three classical signs of narcissists: disregard for agreements, and for others' needs, low empathy (so they will rarely volunteer explanations or even see they did something wrong), and little tolerance for criticism.

I am not saying that your SO is a narcissist, I can't diagnose him based on what you write here. What I am suggesting is that you take a look at narcissistic personality disorder and keep the signs in the back of your head. Narcissists can be very charming at first (the so-called "love bombing" stage), but this does not last.

Do follow the advice in the other answers here. In addition, pick a good time, when you are both relaxed, and tell him you feel you are not picking the best words now and then, and that he appears to feel unfairly criticised, which is not your intent. Work with him on how to package something that he might take as criticism. This seems to be something the two of you should work on. See how he reacts. Any decent person should help you package your questions better... but also see that he himself over-reacted, and that he himself needs to work on his reactions. If he does not see his own contribution to this conflict, I would consider this a red flag. Again, that would be consistent with narcissism.

What I consider important about this is that most of the other answers concentrate on what you should be doing. Yes, this is important, because the only person we can change is ourselves. However, your SO needs to work on his reactions, too. It's a very common theme that partners of narcissists are extremely careful about what they say and how, because their narcissistic partner is extremely sensitive. "Walking on eggshells" is a commonly heard description. If you find yourself walking on eggshells around your partner, above and beyond being kind and considerate, think about what is happening.

Whatever you do, don't mention narcissism to him. It will not help. Either he is not narcissistic (better: his narcissistic tendencies - which we all have - are manageable), then it's not helpful. Or he is a narcissist, then he will not accept that he has a problem. Narcissists do not see their behavior as a problem, and they do not change.

If you feel that there might be something to this, here are a few books I recommend:

In addition, there is a lot of material on the internet.

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