When and how to be critical or understanding?
June 23, 2011 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Keeping one's and one's partner's weaknesses in perspective (and refraining from using each other's vulnerabilities as ammunition in arguments.

Basically, my partner felt that I was judging him for where he is in life, school, and financially. He is a procrastinator who has had financial help from his parents for college. He has not attended expensive schools and he now works full time to support his living expenses (minus tuition). He has been taking college courses for six years (he is 24) and still has a couple more to go as he has been taking things slowly. He has also procrastinated on taking an important test in his field (he plays a lot of computer games...)

I don't want to judge him, and I really understand why he made all the decisions he has made. And even though I think he spends a bit too much time on the computer, I do understand why. I really do (except when he says the reason he plays for ten hours straight is because we got into a fight). I love him and I want to think of him in the best light (and all of this started because I asked when his mom was going to stop making dentist appointments for him).

He got very upset and turned it around on me. I took two years off after high school, living at home, being supported by parents while I worked on my mental and physical health (I was in a very bad place). In the second year, I took some college classes. Last year (my third year since graduating), I did a semester. But, I have gotten very, very, very little financial help for school. Instead, I have been a receiving some money from my parents to help with living expenses (SO and I live together) and I work very part time. Thankfully, this upcoming fall I will be receiving more help from my parents for tuition as well as getting financial aid and will hopefully be well on my way to my degree.

So I guess my questions are, how do we accept our flaws without judging? I am 21, should I feel guilty that my parents are giving me some money to live on? Should he feel guilty that his parents helped him with school for six years? Should I feel guilty that I don't work full time? (Though, even though he works full time I do 90% of the house chores, the money he makes is fully his, so it's not a typical stay at home type situation where I am being supported.) Should he hold it above my head because he does work so much? Should he use the fact that I meandered for two years as ammunition? Should I use the fact that he plays computer games all day instead of studying for the test to prove my point?

He and I are only human, doing what's best for ourselves. I feel like we have gotten help from our parents in different ways, and that no, we shouldn't exploit our partner's weaknesses. I feel like we are in this awkward stage of pseudo-independence.

Basically, when and how to be critical or understanding?
posted by DeltaForce to Human Relations (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Depends on where you want this relationship to go. If this is more a roommate than partner, then no worries: he can play video games and be a mama's boy forever because you won't be there to see it (hopefully). But if you are thinking of a longterm committment with this man, don't be understanding, use analytical thinking to decide if your values are compatible. And why do you do 90% of the household chores: that just sucks! Don't ever let anyone use guilt on you, either.
posted by beckster at 3:26 PM on June 23, 2011

You can go ahead and think less of him for receiving help from his parents for six years and he can go ahead and think less of you for being supported by your parents. You can go ahead and think less of him for playing computer games and he can go ahead and think less of you for not working full-time.

Look, you have laid out an excellent case for judging him. In recognition of the fact that if you judge, you will be judged, you have laid out an equally good case for being judged yourself. If this is what you want to spend your relationship on, your approach is both effective and correct.

So what is the problem?
posted by tel3path at 3:41 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I guess the problem is that while I can look at the situation and be compassionate, I cannot control him however, and it seems like he is thinking all of these things even when he isn't saying them (and unlike me, has no desire for a compassionate change in views).
posted by DeltaForce at 3:42 PM on June 23, 2011

Okay, let me rephrase that: why, given that you have excellent casefiles for judging each other, and are able to do so with theological correctness (both dishing it out and taking it) would you not be perfectly happy to continue your relationship in a spirit of mutual judgement?
posted by tel3path at 3:47 PM on June 23, 2011

Response by poster: @tel3path, A relationship continued in a spirit of mutual judgement is not what I want out of a relationship. I'm supposing that question is in jest, but if not, I would say most people want relationships carried out in a spirit of mutual support and understanding.
posted by DeltaForce at 3:52 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

This doesn't sound so much like a judgment issue as maybe just an issue of not liking one another. You say you love him, but do you like him? Do you enjoy being around him? Does being around him enrich you and make you happier most of the time? If he never changed and your life stayed pretty much as-is indefinitely, would that be OK?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:07 PM on June 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Well, so there is your answer.

Your assertion that you are nonjudgemental is untrue. It may be true that he started it, in which case you're experiencing a demonstration of the inevitable law that judgement is always answered by judgement.

If your partner makes a judgemental remark, you can effectively respond by saying "stop judging me". Long discussions are only going to take you into a tighter and tighter feedback spiral.
posted by tel3path at 4:07 PM on June 23, 2011

Wait, why is this a problem?
Do you know how many college students get help from their parents? Lots. It's pretty common. I mean, one shouldn't assume it's always the case, as many students have to work their own way through school, but this is like judging someone for not liking the end pieces of of bread. I mean, they're edible, but lots of people leave them in the bag and eat the rest of the loaf, instead.

Or is this a problem because you don't like him very much?
posted by vivid postcard at 4:11 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

You both need to grow up. Jealousy over what your parents gave you is childish and more akin to sibling rivalry than partnership. You're young and you haven't figured out your lives. Don't worry about him because you can't control him and don't try to live vicariously through his success. Take all that time thinking about changing him and use it to plan and execute improvement in your own life. Find yourself, focus on your own school and career and this won't be as important.
posted by Nixy at 4:14 PM on June 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I may have not worded my question very accurately. I like him very much, so that is not the issue. I honestly don't have a problem with him receiving help from his parents for school. I will be doing it too. The issue is that when I made my dentist comment, he attacked me and said basically, "Hey you're not so independent yourself." Which I understand and I agree with. But it escalated to the point where I was called a failure for putting off school for two years and not working full time and I retaliated by saying what I said regarding the computer games, and 6 years, etc.
posted by DeltaForce at 4:16 PM on June 23, 2011

You are judging him. You have to decide how important these qualities are to you. It sounds to me like you're judgmental because you care that you think that he's some sort of loser gamer.

But no, you should not attack each other's flaws in arguments.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:20 PM on June 23, 2011

Re: your update.

He was right. You are both approximately at the same level of procrastination/immaturity with school and whatever, especially from an outside perspective. Don't make comments about his dentist appointments and keep on improving your own life and independence. Don't get caught in a pity parade and a race to the bottom.

Young women especially have this cultural programming in the back of their minds to be the supporter and encourage their male partner to succeed. This won't help you in the end and will just take time away from your own goals.
posted by Nixy at 4:22 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

He probably feels judged because he is sensitive about not seeming adult enough. The fact that you mentioned his mother setting up his dental appointments implied that you see this flaw, which triggers his insecurity. You caught one of his soft spots, so he retaliated in kind because he doesn't have the maturity or experience to own up to his flaws.

I suspect (and a lot of the relationship questions confirm) that sometimes when people in their early twenties are just getting into a relationship as a fledgling adult, they put more focus and importance on being a good partner than actually recognizing whether the resulting relationship is sound or not. It's advanced playing house. They get such satisfaction out of playing the role of caring SO just so that it becomes a substitute for the real, mature love that ought to come from their partner. They can't differentiate the two. Almost robotlike, they perform their duties as 'good partner' with the greatest care, then express confusion when relationship bliss does not result.

Your SO is being immature. Your SO is young and will probably be immature for some time, until experiences like this (and the necessary consequences), hammer some learning into him. You cannot rationalize or act away this stage. Be aware that you are also learning to identify and react to these circumstances, which hopefully will serve you well in your own emotional maturation.

It's not about parental support at all, or how to argue (unless you learn that this is not how a mature person responds, and also that your knee-jerk reaction to justify yourself wasn't so great, either). It's a perfectly normal growing process for both of you. Don't invest yourself so much in the role that you are blind to the setting, so to speak. Basically, both of you are arguing over the details of the script and neither of you are being real people.
posted by griselda at 4:28 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Your recent progress in your own life might be making you more sensitive to his lack of progress? It's hard to see people we love struggle through the same issues we're finally getting a handle on for ourselves, and we usually really, really want to help them (especially in a romantic relationship, where you are supposedly building a successful future together). Sometimes that comes out in judgmental comments, or suggestions for quick fixes to deep and recurring issues.

I think the answer is to focus on your own self reliance and your own confidence... and dwell on the things you love about this guy! You don't want him to hold you back or drag you down while he finds his own way. The best thing you can do for him probably is to be encouraging and take care of yourself. You could find that he grows and matures just as you have, or you might find that you grow apart over time.
posted by belau at 5:50 PM on June 23, 2011

It sounds like you are keeping score of all the ways he falls short of your idealized conception of adulthood. So what if his mother makes dental appointments for him? You already know he's immature (making slow progress on his career because of his gaming is ridiculously immature.) So why are you picking on your immature boyfriend over the dental appointments? I guess what I'm saying is that you know he's immature, deal with it. You picked on him, he retaliated in the spirit of "people who live in glass houses ... " etc. This is a scenario where you should either accept that he's immature or move on. Hassling him over the dental appointments just makes you look petty, because it's not really about that.
posted by jayder at 5:53 PM on June 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Basically, when and how to be critical or understanding?

Always err on the side of understanding. Always.

and unlike me, has no desire for a compassionate change in views...

Erring on the side of understanding does not mean a. staying in this relationship and b. tolerating judgment where it is not wanted or invited. It also mean you don't dish it out when it is not wanted or invited, either.

If your search for a more humane way to relate to your partner is genuine and his lack of compassion is accurate, then you really must leave. Compassion and empathy in a relationship are not dispensable values the way that 'must have read the the entire Balzac oeuvre' or 'must like artisan cocktails' are. If you truly believe he does not share your desire for a kinder climate between you two, then you should leave.

all of this started because I asked when his mom was going to stop making dentist appointments for him

Understand too that criticism invites and begets more criticism. If you're going to make a dig about his mom making appointments for him, expect that he will take similar digs at the particulars of your lack of independence from the parent economy. He'll up the ante and marshal more evidence against you...and you will do the same.

So I guess my questions are, how do we accept our flaws without judging?

First accept your own flaws, choices and circumstances without judging, without guilt. The first test of asking this from someone else is if you can ask it from yourself. Then you have a place to work from, some framework of understanding of what this whole acceptance business is all about. Then you can extrapolate that understanding and apply it to others. Then you can say with confidence that you do not judge your partners and will accept no judgment from them.

Lastly, you can't make this relationship better all by yourself, but you can do something. Ammunition has no place in a healthy relationship. The only way to know if things can get better is to put yours away, see if he does the same and leave if he doesn't
posted by space_cookie at 5:57 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

(A sidelight - you should not feel guilty for getting help from your family, assuming they can afford the help and you're doing something either unproductive but essential (getting better) or productive (classes, internships, etc). Don't fall for the "make it on your own, never take money" thing - families exist to help each other out. As I've gotten older, I've come to realize what a pleasure it is to help the younger folks when I can - it's not a burden if you care for someone and they're doing what they need to do. The problem with the "all those rich people help their kids out" thing is that everyone wants to help their kids and poorer folks can't because of economic hardship.)
posted by Frowner at 5:58 PM on June 23, 2011

You may like him, but you judge his video game playing and his procrastinating and his dependence big time in your first two paragraphs.

Draw boundaries - work on becoming independent yourself. Figure out what you want and work on getting there, both for yourself and for your relationship. Ask him what he wants and support him in that if you can. You said it best - you're both only human, and neither of you should feel guilty about that, or the help your parents continue to give you.

Standard metafilter advice: you guys are a team - behave in ways that honor and support that team.
posted by ldthomps at 6:40 PM on June 23, 2011

Most of the responses so far are confusing to me - this guy is 24, works full time, pays his bills, and is a few classes away from a college degree, so I don't see how he's a loser. It sounds to me like he's doing well! That said, OP, your central question seems really illogical. You're essentially saying that for him to bring up your dependence upon your parents is a low blow - while acknowledging that he said that in response to your doing the exact same thing to him. So you don't really have a leg to stand on. It sounds to me like you're doing your best - and if your best right now is that you can only work "very part time" and have your bills paid by your parents, then that's the way it is. I can see, though, how it would grate on your BF to be criticized for how he spends his leisure time (when he's not working full-time and taking classes, that is) when you have enormous amounts of free time that he, apparently, doesn't expect you to account for. It's incredibly easy to be ambitious for someone else, and to feel irritated with how other people aren't living "right". It's certainly easier than it is to make changes in your own life, but it isn't his job to set the world on fire just because you'd like him to. Maybe instead of being critical or understanding, try to assess his life using the same standard that you apply to yourself. If you're ok with your situation (and I don't see why you shouldn't be - it sounds like you've been through a lot) then you should be absolutely proud of how much he has accomplished.
posted by moxiedoll at 6:55 PM on June 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Sounds to me like you just had a big fight with your partner (perfectly normal in any relationship unless it happens all the time), and now you are coming to the internet for validation because you are still upset with him.

You both said some things you shouldn't have. Doesn't matter who was more judgmental, or who had more reason to judge.

What matters is that you both agree that some lines were crossed, but there is some real frustratiom, too, and there are things you need to work on. For instance, he can certainly work on a bit more independence when it comes to his schedule: making his own dental appointments, putting aside a certain amount of time for classes, studying and homework and then playing videogames around that schedule rather than procrastinating so much (I game myself, and I procrastinate more than I should, too, so I understand why he wants to, but he needs to concentrate on school more).

And you shouldn't feel guilty, but maybe you could work a little more hours and owe less money, too.

However, if you talk to him about all that, will he listen or get defensive? Can you approach him when you are not upset, and keep to the actual issue? Can he do the same, without throwing the past in your face? If you can both agree to set some boundaries and put your relationship first, you can weather this and come out stronger for having addressed your problems.
posted by misha at 7:59 PM on June 23, 2011

Maybe I'm repeating what others've said above, but just wanted to say succinctly that you and your partner do not need to feel guilty for any of the reasons you list.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the situations you describe, and to an outside observer it doesn't look like one of you is particularly more virtuous than the other. I hope that if you want to stay in this relationship you and your partner can acknowledge that you each have your share of support and hardship, and try to look to each other for the former, not the latter.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:40 PM on June 23, 2011

I don’t know what the conflict is about for him, exactly, but the way you react to him seems like it’s about you. It’s also about learning how to communicate in an adult relationship.

First, when you ask when his mother will stop doing things for him, are you really asking: when will you be independent enough that we can move our life forward together? You seem like you are struggling to decide if this dynamic is what you want going forward and are looking to him for help figuring it out; trying to ask him if his plodding pace is what he envisions for his future. Because your communication is breaking down, you’re asking him this in a piecemeal way that would make anyone defensive even if you do it while joking. So: apologize for communicating badly (or not at all), tell him you’re struggling with your own ideas about the future (in which you include your relationship, and reaffirm that you love him), and start a non-threatening conversation from there about what both of you are hoping for out of life in the immediate and maybe not so immediate future. In all of the details you write about his patterns and behaviours, you don’t indicate that you have talked to him or know how he feels about his own situation. If he’s frustrated, support him in making whatever changes he wants to make. If he’s not, the topic is off the table and you will have to decide if the patterns he has chosen and likes are going to work for you (as in, whether you want to stay). Better communication will give you the answers you are looking for and save you from feeling like a judgey nag. You live with him. You need this skill.

The second part comes from you asking: how do we accept our flaws without judging? The answer is right there - “our flaws“. I think you’re probably judging yourself. You’re obviously working on getting your life on track. Do you secretly feel like you’re a little behind and had you been a little tougher that you would not have taken so much time off, or that you would be working more now? If you do, forgive yourself and THEN evaluate your own situation and future. Don’t try and atone by doing almost all of the housework. If you can stop going back and judging yourself, or asking whether your situation right now is right or wrong rather than just accepting it for what it is, you will by default judge him less and be able to give him uncontaminated feedback (or small pushes) on things when it’s justifiable and healthy. You‘ll be doing it out of love for him instead of your own 'stuff'. You’ll only know what is justifiable and healthy when you get a better idea what he wants life to be like right now and going forward. See: better communication, above.

Criticism that feels uncomfortable being dished out can usually be traced back to how the criticizer either secretly views themselves or fears others are viewing them. Just follow the hanging thread.
posted by skermunkil at 3:05 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Basically, my partner felt that I was judging him for where he is in life, school, and financially. Here is a full paragraph of me judging him for where he is in life, school, and financially: Judge judge judge judge judge. Judge judge judge (judge judge...)

I don't want to judge him, and I really understand why he made all the decisions he has made. And even though judge judge judge, I do understand why. I really do (except when judge judge judge). I love him and I want to think of him in the best light (and all of this started because I judge judge judge judge).

Your boyfriend felt you were being judgmental because you were -- and are -- being judgmental. You complain "it seems like he is thinking all of these things even when he isn't saying them," which sounds oddly similar to what you're doing. "Compassionate" is a weirdly condescending choice of word for your attitude towards what you describe as his "weaknesses" and "flaws", which you then point out -- as he did -- that you share. But it's okay, you're still better than him, because

unlike me, has no desire for a compassionate change in views).

Oh hooray! That's not judgmental at all!

Yeah, I can kinda see why that fight escalated the way it did. It was pretty stupid of him to call you a "failure," and it was pretty stupid of you to retaliate in kind, and, well, that happens in relationships sometimes. Right now it sounds like you're busily nursing a grudge about it (and likely so is he). This is not a good idea.

Do your fights often escalate like this? Is it a pattern for you two?

The way to not let fights spiral out of control is for both of you to be conscious of not letting fights spiral out of control. Draw boundary lines around what you are fighting about and keep the fight about that thing: do not drag in other things, do not "store ammunition", do not try to "prove a point", do not try to "win" the fight. There is no "winning", there is only making each other feel bad. Don't start a difficult conversation without an exit strategy, a concrete goal, for it -- otherwise you're just fighting for the sake of fighting. If you find yourself in the middle of a fight, try to remember why you're fighting in the first place, and keep to that topic instead of just throwing angriness at each other. Talk about the fact that you're fighting instead of continuing to fight. Agree ahead of time that either of you can ask for a time out if you need one, so you can both calm down and let the adrenaline drain before you get back to it. If you're going in circles, agree to stop. Just stop. You both lost; all you can do by continuing to go around is continue to go around.

All this will take practice for both of you, and a lot of meta-level communication about how you communicate, and learning how to broach difficult subjects in ways other than the terribly snippy and sarcastic line you chose as your opener this time around.

What exactly were you trying to accomplish by asking him when his mom was going to stop making his dentist appointments? Does it make any difference to your life or his? Would him playing fewer video games make your life, or his life, better? Is there a reason you need him, or that he needs, to graduate from college sooner rather than later? If the answer is "yes", that's fine -- it's great, actually, because then you can talk with him about why that answer is yes, and try to find a way together to make that happen, and if that conversation starts to shade into fighting for its own sake you can put on the brakes and go back to whatever was the original point.

You can do this unilaterally and it'll still sort of work if you can avoid getting resentful about it -- but it'd be better if you're both on board.
posted by ook at 7:39 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't understand why the term "weakness" is used so much. It sounds like you are comparing yourself and your SO to what you deem the correct path in a destructive way.

Furthermore, is it possible that he is also in an emotional state making it hard for him to perform up to your standards? Growing up is hard. Many, many men have a really hard time transitioning from the play videos games and have your mom make you a PB&J lifestyle to one of becoming a responsible and independent adult. It doesn't help with economy in the shits with no end in sight. Or maybe he just hasn't matured yet. Some people take longer than others. It sounds like there hasn't been a catalyst forcing change and he has become comfortable in a situation of pseudo-adulthood. Try just talking to him about this with care and compassion instead of sniping comments of becoming independent from his mom. That probably made him feel like SHIT and there was no reason to bring it up like that.

As far as the housework, though, you have to put your foot down. Tell him that you are going to stop doing his dishes and cleaning his stuff. It's not fair and he has no right to make you handle it. This might be a good baby step in helping him getting more comfortable with responsibility.

It sounds like you both have not found a way to communicate effectively your feelings to each other. It needs to happen at time that isn't a fight. Here is an exercise that might be helpful:

Tell him you need to talk. However, follow that by saying it is not one of "those" talks and that you just want to get to know him and understand him better. Get together in a comfortable and quiet environment, maybe with some hot decaf tea to further relax each other. Pick an object and tell him that whoever is holding that object has the right to speak and the other person cannot interrupt or talk. Do this for a couple rounds and then put down the object and talk freely.

Start it with something like: "That fight was terrible and it showed ugliness from both of us and showed us that we need to get to know each other on a deeper level. I was out of place for making that comment about your mom and now recognize you might just be scared of growing up. Do you want to talk about this?"

And then your next turn you could bring up the housework in a that is not trying to incite escalation: "I need to be in a relationship involving equality and trust. I cannot keep doing most of the housework for you. We are a modern couple in a modern time and need to share our responsibilities equally. "

As far as the original question "Basically, when and how to be critical or understanding?" this is simply a communication issue as I said above. Learn as much about his feelings and the situation before making judgements. You may think you know whats going on but many people hide many of their emotions, even from their partner. That is why communication plays such a crucial role in a relationship. It usually much easier to hide your emotions instead of verbalizing them.
posted by mungaman at 9:57 AM on June 24, 2011

It sounds as if you don't respect each other.

My natural tendency is to be a big fat judgmental critical hypocrite, and when I catch myself doing that to my partner, I gotta stop and ask, what am I getting out of my behavior? What am I not getting out of this relationship that I am acting this way?

Well, I like to be right. What's that about? I like to feel validated. Hm, I want my partner to see me as a valid person. So 9 times out of 10 I'm critical of him because I don't feel like I am being heard, that my opinions/wants/needs are not valid to him.

Of course, in my case that's bullshit, that's solely my perception and it's the result of a mismatch in communication styles between him and me. I am not fully out of the woods on this one, but I can say that the key is being able to accept that what he wants/needs/does is valid, and asking him to accept my wants/needs/actions as valid.

Try to come to understandings on things that affect both of you, and leave the other stuff alone. He doesn't want to study for a test? OK, his problem. You'd planned an evening out but he blew the money on video games? OK, you need to talk.

Only stock ammunition if you're preparing for a war, and despite what the song says, love is not really a battlefield.
posted by desjardins at 11:47 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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