Taking Others' Sides in a Relationship
July 13, 2017 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Say your partner is having an issue/conflict with someone else. They tell you about it, and you actually feel like the other person may not entirely be in the wrong or that your partner's the one overreacting, etc, do you share your feelings or shut up and take your partner's side?

This has happened both ways in our relationship and I feel like there must be a balance between being honest about your feelings but also not making your partner feel unsupported. Is it more important in this situation to not share your feelings and support your partner? How do you deal with situations like this?
posted by monologish to Human Relations (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You can always try to be gentle and sympathetic but honest. Like, "I totally see what you mean, and I do think you have a point, but I also think the other person might not be totally wrong here."
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:30 AM on July 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

It depends on the people. I always appreciate a second opinion, especially when it's one that makes me feel better about the world, but there also has to be basic trust in my judgment.

I've had friends specifically point out that their favorite thing about me is that I'll tell them when I think they're being too harsh on someone or justing someone too quickly. So, some people appreciate it, but also I think that's a pretty solid data point that not everyone works that way.
posted by Lady Li at 7:38 AM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I tend to go for explicitly asking what my partner needs out of our conversation. "Are you looking for a sympathetic ear? Do you want me to help you think about ways to respond? Do you want me to help you brainstorm ideas about where they might be coming from?"
posted by solotoro at 7:39 AM on July 13, 2017 [38 favorites]

Yes! I trust my partner to call me out on any of my biases or flawed thinking, done with much love and care of course. I realize that my feelings and my thought patterns can be flawed or clouded with too much emotion, and sometimes it takes a second opinion to gently point that out. I'm not always right, you know, even though I feel that way at times. And it goes both ways.
posted by moiraine at 7:45 AM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Why not both? Taking sides isn't about deciding who is right and who is wrong, it's about being supportive and empathetic. You can offer support and empathy to your partner by understanding their feelings and perspective and letting them know that you get where they are coming from. Once that is established, your partner might want help thinking through the situation, which is where you can help your partner see the other person's perspective.

You might understand and feel empathy for the other person's perspective first, but your partner is not likely to be receptive to hearing that until you have shown empathy to your partner. People need validation and empathy, and that's one of the main jobs you have when you have a partner.
posted by cubby at 7:47 AM on July 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

Whenever I hear about a disagreement, I usually sympathize to some extent with both sides of the story. Almost never do I feel that someone is 100% right. So in a situation like this, I'd also see that my partner is not 100% wrong, and I would choose to sympathize with that portion of their story. ("Wow, that's awful that this thing happened when you were already 15 minutes late and had just ripped your shirt, your whole morning was a real mess, and that person standing in your way sure didn't help any," sympathize with the mood and the frustration) And I spend a little while talking with them about the parts I can relate to, and not mentioning the parts that I can't - I try to be cautious about not saying things I don't mean, and even little things like "Yeah, that sucks" can sound like agreeing with their interpretation. Then as the emotions are running a little cooler, I might point out what the situation might have looked like from the other person's perspective. "Can you imagine being the other guy, though? This person is strolling along and stops to check their phone when someone comes barreling up and knocks it out of their hand. Only morons try to walk and text, but I bet I would have yelled at you too."

My general path is to support my partner in the moment that they're telling me, and to be reassuring that I love them no matter what (even when the world is against them), and wait until they've sorted through their feelings before I start spreading my sympathies around a bit. Of course for more major issues it gets more complicated because they could continue to be hot and indignant for much much longer.

On the other hand, one thing that I look for in a partner is an ability to be reasonable (after some time to consider) and to show empathy for the people that have pissed them off, so I can usually be confident that they'll cool down eventually, and be open to the idea that they're not 100% right. Not everyody is like that, there are some of my friends who I'm more likely to nod and smile and change the subject (but I wouldn't date them!).

That said, if my partner is only 50% right (or less) I'll talk them down to believing they're about 60% right and let it go, I'm not going to try to change their mind entirely.
posted by aimedwander at 7:48 AM on July 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Oh, and this video on the difference between empathy and sympathy may be helpful.
posted by cubby at 7:53 AM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Craig Ferguson's threefold question:
  1. Does this need to be said?
  2. Does this need to be said by me?
  3. Does this need to be said by me now?
If the answer to all three is "Yes", then it's appropriate to take someone else's side against your significant other. Otherwise, nope. Be on their side.
posted by Etrigan at 7:59 AM on July 13, 2017 [14 favorites]

Context really matters here, but I say err of the side of your partner. Especially if you are the sort who argues for the sake of arguing, loves to correct people, loves to "play devil's advocate." Because if you're that sort, you might overestimate your helpfulness/rightness. If you set yourself up as the ultimate arbiter of a situation, that's a jerk move, as it sets you in a superior position.

If it's a minor thing and your partner just wants to vent/feel heard/have one person in the universe agree with them, then if you take their opponents' side, that's a jerk move as well.

If they're really working through something and you have real insight, then you can offer those insights without taking a side.
posted by kapers at 8:20 AM on July 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

In public, I think it's disrespectful to one's partner not to support them especially in interpersonal disagreements, if you have to take a side at all. I think the more "important" a subject seems to the group, the more important it is to have your partner's back and the more trivial subjects are fine to quibble about publicly. One of the benefits of partnering up is social support and protection, and leaving your partner hanging is just kinda shitty.

In private, I think it's important to be an empathetic listener but ultimately honest about your opinions with your partner. They deserve your truth.
posted by windykites at 8:21 AM on July 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is an under-acknowledged difference in relationship philosophies. Some people think that you should support your partner no matter what. Some people (including me) think that you should let your partner know when they're in the wrong, and be receptive to hearing the same from your partner. And I'm sure there are shades of gray in between.

Ideally, being in a relationship helps make you a better person. And one way you can become a better person is by having someone you respect point out when you're wrong, and listening to them.
posted by adamrice at 8:25 AM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Depends if they asked for my advice. If not, usually not.

Otherwise I assume default role is to offer understanding and empathy and leave the criticism to the rest of the world, because otherwise who can they depend on?
posted by johngoren at 8:27 AM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think that when someone is your partner, you kind of have a duty to be always on their side unless they've done something so egregiously horrible that you don't want to be their partner anymore. To me, that's part of what being partnered is about—you work for the good of the team.

That doesn't necessarily mean always thinking that they're in the right in every situation, though. Sometimes the best thing for one's partner and for the partnership is to gently readjust the other person's perspective when they're being self-centered or self-pitying, as all of us are from time to time. Another part of being a good partner is being receptive to such readjustments—if you've got your head up your ass, your partner should be the person you trust to tell you so and help you get your mind right again.

The key is to do this within a framework of support. Being on someone's side means that you support them even when you're giving them counsel that goes against their instincts. Saying things like "You know I'll support you whatever you choose to do here, but I think you're looking at this the wrong way," or "I love you and want you to feel better about this, but I think the other person wasn't totally wrong here," can help. Of course it's frequently best to work on helping your partner feel better before you bring in the "but you were wrong" half of the equation, but hopefully you see what I mean.

Now, sometimes you can't get all the way there with your partner. "Feeling better" can be a more important goal than "being right," and the two aren't always really compatible; it depends on the specifics of the situation. Other times you're going to have to admit to yourself that you weren't there during the original upsetting episode, and that your partner has a more complete view which you're not in a position to helpfully criticize. And you're not going to have a lot of success with any of this unless you already are in an emotionally strong place in your partnership, with a solid track record of mutual support such that your partner trusts that you have their back even when you're telling them things they don't want to hear.

Ideally though, I think one of the most important roles one plays in a partnership involves being the person who can—when it matters—tell the other person things they don't want to hear, and be listened to. We all need someone like that in our lives.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:38 AM on July 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

For me, being able to depend on my partner being honest with me is a crucial way they should be supportive. Platitudes, lies of omission, polite dodging, all of these are easier than telling the truth, or they wouldn't happen. Telling difficult truths takes effort, and also the time to build the kind of relationship in which disagreeing with someone happens within the larger context of assured love. Knowing more about myself, and how my views on a situation might diverge from how others see it, is important if I'm going to work well within the world.

Not having that kind of honesty from _somewhere_ means I'm going to make more mistakes and hurt more people. It's very important to me that I have someone in my life telling me the truth about my actions (although nobody but me can know the essential truth of who I am).

Telling me the truth about something difficult is supportive.

It might be important to follow that kind of support with other, less challenging kinds of support, like hugs, free time, gifts, and the kinds of truth that reinforce our best hopes about ourselves - the kind of things that a partner can provide well.
posted by amtho at 8:45 AM on July 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

As soon as a relationship becomes a cozy nest where you can run to and expect someone will always have your back no matter what, you get into "compound mentality", where you build an exclusive, insider philosophy of values and norms that is weird and out of sync with the rest of the world at best, at worst it can be dangerous. When my partner's view on the world becomes skewed in an unhealthy way, I feel it is my responsibility to help them, kindly, recalibrate, so they can better deal with situations and people. And I expect them to do the same for me (and they do), because it is awful to work yourself into a state when you are overreacting or not seeing a situation clearly and causing a lot of damage in the process that may have long-term consequences, and not seeing the world clearly does have consequences.

Figuring out how to talk about situations in a way that is helpful, and relieves things takes work, and it needs two people to agree to it and the value of doing it, and then figuring out ways of discussing that both people benefit from.

(This does not apply to just having a shitty day, or feeling upset at the ups and downs of life. That is always full on tea and sympathy, because hey, life can really suck and sometimes there is nothing you can do about it).
posted by nanook at 8:48 AM on July 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think for the most part my friends are problem-solvers like I am, and most of the time just saying "you're completely right and everyone is wrong" isn't helpful or even comforting because they're trying to find a way to make the situation more bearable*.

That's not to say I don't start first with "I'm so sorry, that's bullshit and it sucks for you" because you can do that and still kindly point out that other people may have their own rights and boundaries in a situation.

*Although sometimes, there's just nothing anyone can do to fix a thing, and in that case just sticking to "that other person can go fuck themselves" is the only useful support one can provide.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:48 AM on July 13, 2017

This happens with my partner and I occasionally when they have spats with their sister. I tend to approach it like, "Yeah, I totally get where you're coming from. It's [frustrating/dismissive/invalidating/other feeling word here] when she does a, so of course you want to respond with b. But that's probably just going to make her feel c, which just makes her more likely to do d. "

Basically I acknowledge their feelings and what may have led them to the point of acting in the way they did, framing it as understandable but not necessarily the best course of action. Then I try to point how what the other person may have been feeling to lead them to the point of acting in the way they did, that seems to help them a lot and reduce some of their own anger. But I don't generally tend to try and press it and be like "you were in the wrong!" because I don't know all the details, I'm not in both people's heads, so I can't say for sure what's going on. Maybe the other person truly was just being spiteful; I don't feel it benefits me to insist that my partner is wrong (unless they're clearly, irrevocably so, but I haven't encountered a situation like that yet), just to suggest that they might be (while supporting them emotionally) and let them do with that what they will.

Of course, my partner is also very open to this approach and usually once I point out how they're making someone else feel, they feel bad about it and see how they may be in the wrong on their own. If they didn't do this and tended to brush it off, perhaps I would press a bit more? But I can't really say, not being in that relationship dynamic. I do tend to agree that while you should always support your partner emotionally, sometimes you need to point out that their actions are wrong in order to help them be a better person--and so that they feel comfortable doing the same for you.
posted by brook horse at 9:15 AM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

As someone said above, in public always support.

In private, first listen and sympathize ("ugh, what a rotten way to start the day" "that sucks, I was really hoping that would go better", etc) and if there is another point of view, I bring it up as a musing or question rather than a statement. Like "do you think he might have been under his own VP's pressure?" or "I wonder whether they've found that doing it the other way costs less", &c.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:19 AM on July 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

As I've gotten older, I've gotten much less likely to do this. Why did I, in the past, feel inclined to find the errors in my partners' behaviors when they shared stories of their lives with me? I think a pretty crappy part of my personality drove that behavior.

Sure, I sometimes do share some loving feedback with my partner. Along the lines of: "Is it OK if I share my perspective? I just wonder what you're hoping to get out of this situation and if [that thing you're doing] is helping you get that?" Or I may, very sparingly, just say, "Uh, that's kind of fucked up!" But saying that once is enough and I don't want to dig in and debate her.

Generally, not only do I try to avoid taking the other person's side in my partner's conflicts, but I don't even think to much anymore. My role with my partner is I try to listen supportively to her when she shares her conflicts and interactions. I trust that she knows her life best. We can all benefit from a little gentle perspective sharing, but beyond that, it's not my job to say what she's right and wrong about when it doesn't pertain to me.

(It's possible I'm not as good at this as I make out here, but it's certainly my intent to be)
posted by latkes at 11:45 AM on July 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Something that works for me when I'm in a situation where my partner/family member is in a situation where they want sympathy but they sound to me as if they were in the wrong, if it really seems as if honesty about my reaction is necessary and warranted, is to say it framed explicitly with the fact that I wasn't in the situation and don't have a first-hand understanding of what happened. It's really easy to assume that the story you're hearing is slanted toward making the person telling the story sound as if they were right, but people don't always tell stories that way. Often, I've had someone tell me a story that made them sound terrible, and when I've probed a little, they remember the missing bit that seemed so obvious to them that they didn't say it on the first time through that justifies their conduct.

Even when there's not something like that, where you change your mind about who's wrong after hearing more of the story, being clear to your partner that you know you don't have a first-hand understanding of the facts so your opinion on the rights and wrongs is of limited value can give you a lot of room to be honest about your perceptions without making your partner feel attacked.
posted by LizardBreath at 12:07 PM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Agree with latkes! I found I was confounding the frustration my partner was venting with him being in the wrong. Not so! So I focused on finding healthy ways for him to assert himself and navigate the situation, or simply let him vent. I married a smart guy. He knows what's up. But he's coming to me for emotional support. So I try to give him that.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:24 PM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes! I trust my partner to call me out on any of my biases or flawed thinking, done with much love and care of course.

Me too. To me part of love and partnership is that while I will care about them and love them (almost) no matter what, that doesn't mean they're right about everything. My partner and I got together when we were already in our 40s and have some differing outlooks. We also definitely have the TEAM US philosophy which means that even if we may feel differently about things (and in some cases these involve conflicts with other people we care about) we try to approach things publicly as a team even if privately we're not exactly on the same page.

I can support my partner's feelings without always supporting his viewpoints. I can help him constructively work on conflicts he may be having. I can privately talk to my friends (usually this is family stuff but not always) if I think they need to hear from TEAM US that this is a topic of some sort of complexity if they seem confused or worried.

And sometimes the right thing to do for TEAM US is for us to change our view on a thing, or an interaction with another person. I'm often one of those "I can see both/all sides of this" person so a lot of times I talk a lot in broader hypotheticals ("Well I think sometimes when this sort of thing is going on...") and not "I think you're wrong about this" but also most of the time when this sort of thing was happening, my partner would be asking me about it not telling me about it in the first place.
posted by jessamyn at 12:40 PM on July 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

In my relationship, the rule is 'be completely honest but don't be a jerk about it.'

In a situation where one of us thinks the other one is wrong and some third party is right, there's a few things we do:

1) We don't broach it while our partner is *upset*. If one of us is just seething or miserable or otherwise feeling too rotten for a calm discussion, it can wait.

2) We don't do this in front of third parties. That's just no good.

3) When we do discuss it, we make sure to acknowledge and discuss why the 'wrong' viewpoint is still arrived at in good faith. Like, I might say something like, 'I think you feel the way you do because [speculation about why], but I think you should reconsider because [reasons].' Then we hash it out in a civil fashion. Usually, we end up agreeing by the time we're done, but we have different values about a few edge cases that we agree to disagree about. The goal isn't necessarily to be in perfect agreement, but to understand why we disagree and maybe think the whole thing over in a little more detail. Like, the hope is that both of us walks away from a talk like this with a better understanding of the opposing viewpoint, maybe better able to come up with a resolution that's good for everybody, (often including third parties).

I've learned a lot from this, and if I were ever with someone else, I wouldn't settle for less. I don't want someone to just pretend to agree with me because we're together, and I would probably not be able to accommodate a partner with that desire after getting used to doing things this way.

That said, we have that arrangement because we both like it and agree this is how we should behave. I think every couple has to come to an understanding about what they need and how they want their partnership to work - like, some people definitely prefer 'my partner right or wrong,' and so I think the thing to do in a relationship where this isn't clear is to talk it out and figure out what both people actually want and need.
posted by mordax at 1:46 PM on July 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm reminded faintly of the "would you rather be right or happy?" question that came up as part of another comment thread recently. This is similar to me: would you rather feel self-righteous and virtuous but actually be wrong, or would you rather know you had been wrong, feel dumb for a bit, and be smarter next time?

You have to be careful, though, to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Little is as annoying as a loved one second-guessing your description of events.
posted by Lady Li at 10:51 PM on July 13, 2017

You can't always be right, but you can try always to be honest. Don't try to stem a rant. In rants, it's probably best to let your partner just go for it. But when the time comes for you to respond to a direct question, you may better serve the issue by asking for more information before you respond. If you do that, it's not necessarily being mealy-mouthed to point out that the other person may have had reasons for acting like a pig-headed fool. However all that shakes out, the part about being right ought not to be as important as being honest, so if you believe your partner is wrong, give some thought to whether it's going to shake up your universe to let them just be wrong in the full knowledge that you have their back, however that shakes out.

I can't imagine a healthy relationship that would place a disagreement above dishonesty as a damning factor.
posted by mule98J at 10:04 AM on July 14, 2017

« Older Is there a governing body over airline contracts...   |   What to do in Florida? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments