You're not to blame - Mel Schwartz Blog, Westport CT

Don’t Personalize Your Partner’s Issues

They may impact you but they may not be about you

Our close personal relationships often feel like we’re under a microscope, as we examine, react and judge each other’s actions and intentions. Under the distress of the current COVID-19 pandemic these interpersonal tensions may feel even more acute, particularly when we’re in confinement with each other. This tension can boil over causing us to lose balance and a healthy energy in our relationships. Let’s take a look at this damaging tendency and rethink our role in it.

Relationships offer a unique opportunity for our personal growth, though typically not without some disturbances and challenges. Our closest relationships showcase the underlying chronic issues that each person brings into the union, as our personal history and wounds spill over into the relationship.

Our tendency is to blame each other for these disturbances, which usually results in each person feeling invalidated and devalued. When this occurs, we pull back from the sense of oneness that likely brought us together at the start. We then begin to differentiate issues as his problem or her issue. What may have begun as a loving connected partnership begins to dissipate into conflict.

Coming Undone

I’d been working with a couple in the early years of their marriage. Jill had divorced shortly before she met John and had two teenaged children from her prior marriage. She maintained a close, if not amicable, relationship with her former spouse. As our sessions progressed it became evident that Jill’s need for cordiality with her ex-husband and her inability to say no to her children was masking an underlying issue. She actually felt compelled to be well thought of, by both her kids and their father, which caused her to avoid confrontation on any level.  She appeased her ex and avoided appropriate parental guidance for her children from her need to avoid any upset.

This provoked her new husband John, who felt undermined, if not betrayed by her behavior. He experienced Jill as being more sensitive to her ex-husband’s needs than to his own. We came to appreciate that Jill’s need to avoid confrontation and displeasing others had its roots in her childhood. Because she felt unloved by her parents, Jill’s coping mechanism was to try to please them to get any positive attention she could muster. So, Jill not surprisingly acclimated to her role as a people pleaser, which she continued to exhibit later in life. The irony is that she was actually displeasing her current husband so as not to upset her ex and her children.

John came into their marriage with abandonment issues dating back to his mother’s abandonment of him at an early age. He shared that he was particularly sensitivity to issues of rejection since childhood. Feeling unloved by Jill, he critiqued every aspect of her interactions, texts and emails with her former husband and her children. He didn’t feel partnered with her. As a result, Jill felt perpetually examined and criticized by John. Their relationship started to unravel as they blamed each other for its demise.

How am I contributing to our struggle?

When we see each other’s insecurities and challenges as their problem, but don’t see how our past wounds may contribute to the conflict, we are tricked by the illusion of separation. Think, “It’s their fault.” Their issues become our issues as ours become theirs.

The problems may be different, but they are in no way separate. Picture a drop of ink as it drips into a beaker of water. The ink disperses throughout, and you can no longer find its trail. The same thing happens in relationship. Each person’s fears, hopes, challenges and issues become entangled with their partner’s.

In couple’s counseling I often hear, “I have no issues, but my spouse surely does.” How silly. Your partner’s unresolved issues no doubt impact you and your personal challenges. You are both as inextricably connected as two people on a seesaw. Ask yourself, “What are my issues that I should be addressing?

As I continued working with John and Jill I helped them understand how their core wounds and coping mechanisms each contributed to their overall upset. I worked with Jill to develop a stronger self-worth-to find her voice- enabling her to overcome her timidity around parenting. I helped John see that Jill wasn’t abandoning him so much as operating from her own preexisting fear.

Their problems were indeed very personal to them, but it was essential for them not to personalize them.

They each came in to their marriage with their own history of fears, doubts and insecurities. These issues were of course quite personal to each of them. And these matters no doubt impacted both of them. Unresolved personal issues always ripple out and impact those close to us. The goal is to recognize the burdens we both carry and to choose not to think, “They are doing this to me.” As we release this habit of victimization we can reflect on how we might assist each other and as importantly look at how we contribute to the upset. This approach invites mindful relationship, freer from reactivity, blame and anger.

This article was excerpted from Mel’s book The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics can Improve the Way You Think, Live and LoveMel offers virtual therapy globally.

The 5% Rule — Breaking Through the Argument


failed communicationargumentEarly in my career as a therapist, I found myself feeling frustrated in my ability to assist a couple with whom I was working. They were tirelessly mired in argument and it was like watching a Ping-Pong ball being knocked back and forth, only no points were being won or lost. This kind of flailing about represents the low point in so many of our relationships. I was searching for a way to help them slow down and listen to each other – to get past their gridlock. In the midst of one session, I reflected for a moment on how I might approach their impasse differently. I’ve learned that when I pause, get out of my own way and set my intention for an insight, it often appears. This was such a moment.

It came in the form of my asking the husband, John, (I’ve changes their names of course to protect their confidentiality) “Can you try to find just a small percentage of what Barbara is saying that you might agree with? Let’s look for just 5% you can acknowledge, and temporarily suspend the 95% you’re sure she’s wrong about.”

I was asking John to go against the grain and act counter-intuitively by neither defending himself nor trying to score a point. I explained to John that he wasn’t pleading guilty or surrendering, the goal was simply to establish a repartee so that they could hear each other. He finally managed to affirm one of his wife’s complaints and took ownership of a particular action.

I noticed that Barbara barely paused, as she was about to go right back into the argument. I raised my hand gently, suggesting to her that she reflect for a moment about how it felt to be at least partially validated. Somewhat begrudgingly she offered, “I appreciate your caring about my feelings and seeing that you did hurt me.” I then asked Barbara to validate some part of John’s issues with her and as she did so, they began to turn the corner. Their energy began to shift. A new technique was born for me—one that I now call “The 5% Rule.”

Even if you disagree with the vast majority of what you are hearing from the other person, you can ordinarily find some small content that you can acknowledge. We typically marginalize if not ignore this part because our automatic default is grounded in the right vs. wrong battle. Out thoughts seek to refute rather than confirm. Even though we say we care about each other we don’t act lovingly.

If we break free from the insane goal of winning an argument and try to find something in what the other person is saying that we might concur with, the results can be astonishing. After all, if you need to “win” that means the other person must “lose.” How do you think that works out in relationships?

Once your partner feels heard and moreover affirmed, he or she may be in a far better position to take in what you have to say. Timing is essential here. You cannot just say, “Yes, but…” That is part of the process of invalidating. Instead, affirm something, pause, and let the conciliatory spirit fill the space that would otherwise be occupied by the noisy back and forth of argumentation. That shift now becomes fertile ground for a meaningful transition and constructive exchange. If you rush to reframe or assert your own position, your affirmation appears disingenuous.

Affirming the 5% in no way means that you have to abandon your position regarding the 95% with which you disagree. You have simply laid the groundwork for the other to take in what you have to say. This process permits us to halt our addiction to being reactive and move toward being responsive. The success of this approach allows both parties to behave with compassion and empathy, cooperating rather than competing. The goal is not to win but to care. You can immediately apply the 5% Rule in your communications with others—whether it’s your intimate partner, a friend or relative or a business relationship.

Once you’ve found that small part of the other’s issues that you can validate, they’ll likely feel heard and may then open to what you have to say. What you want the other person to hear is very important! But you need to set the stage so to speak so they can take it in. From there a healthy communication might emerge. We must interrupt the compulsion to be right and our default to being reactive. When we react in an adversarial way without pausing to reflect we are just as the Ping-Pong ball. Our reactions –by definition — are not well considered or purposeful.

The 5% Rule is just the first of many steps on the road toward attaining excellent interpersonal skills. Developing these tools allow our relationships to prosper. Just as relationship skills and emotional intelligence ought to be core educational requirements, communication mastery should be the bedrock of any life that aspires to happiness, success, and fulfillment. It’s vital that we learn the necessary nuances and skills of communication so that our words may actually be heard.


Learn about Mel’s live, interactive online workshop — Mastering your Communication Skills: Breaking Through to the Other Side.


mel photo 3Mel Schwartz, LCSW MPhil is a psychotherapist, couples counselor, and author practicing in Westport, CT, Manhattan and globally by Skype. He earned his graduate degree from Columbia University. Mel’s approaches assist people in working through limitations, activating defining moments, and embracing life’s uncertainties. His methods strengthen communication, create resilient relationships, build authentic self-esteem, and enable us to overcome anxiety and depression. Mel has written The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion and the forthcoming The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love(Sounds True, Fall 2017). He’s authored 100+ articles – read by over 1 million readers – for Psychology Today and his blog, Illuminating the Possibilities. Mel works with clients globally via skype. He can be reached at