boyfriend chronicles – giving feedback in relationships

my prior employer was really obsessed with feedback.  after each meeting, your work and behavior was given immediate criticism/praise.  feedback was provided during the informal “professional development chats” every 2-3 weeks.  formal feedback was provided every 3 months and at the end of each case.  extra formal feedback was provided every 6 months.  it was a relentless cycle of red/yellow/green stop/continue/start charts and professional development opportunities.  checklists for skills grew longer with every box i checked and every year of tenure i attained. 

i wasn’t cut out for that.  it was incredibly stressful, always needing to perform and grow and never feeling good enough.  (and i lacked the motivation to really care about the job.)

but… there’s that other part of me that loves it.  what is life without feedback!  it is a life with inefficiencies and resentment and complacency and dishonesty and not living to your full potential.  

angeles and i had a PD chat once, where we gave feedback to each other wrt the friendship and life in a controlled environment.  it was awkward.  but sort of cool in the sense that… when are people ever really comfortable with complete honesty with each other on our weak points?  why is giving feedback so frowned upon in today’s culture?  

HYPOTHETICAL: you are dissatisfied with your significant other and think that he could do better.  how do you deal with it?  

option 1: be honest with them

risks: they get offended/upset/defensive, and you get in a fight.  you are a bad boyfriend for being unsatisfied/wanting them to change/not loving them for who they are.  you create insecurity.  you come across as being nag-y and just expecting others to cater to your whims.

reward: you can create genuine change and improve interactions.  you can develop healthy communication styles.  

option 2: don’t be honest with them

risks: the non-optimal relationship makes you angry, irritated, grumpy, annoyed.  simmering resentment can be an extremely dangerous thing in relationships–it’s very easy to increase resentment and very difficult to decrease it.  and would it not be really silly for a great relationship to end because you didn’t ask for something that would have been happily given?

reward: you learn how to accept them for their faults and love unconditionally.  you develop patience and tolerance and flexibility and learn how to be giving.

sort of a pick-your-poison situation.  i guess the bias is obviously toward option 1, though there is this sort of martyr complex/noble silent suffering for option 2.  or–minor things likely get filed into option 2, but major things in option 1.  perhaps one of the scariest things, things that you know that they can’t change, goes in option 2.  or option 1.  but that’s… yeah. 

how justified are you in what you want from your significant other?  does that matter? 

a list of things that you might be unsatisfied with your SO:

  • dresses poorly/embarrassing etiquette
  • not cleanly living environment/embarrassing living environment
  • unpleasant friends, or conversely, SO acts unpleasant around friends
  • smells bad/bad personal grooming
  • eats too much/eats unhealthy food/doesn’t exercise
  • miscellaneous annoying quirks and habits
  • is irritable/not respectful/not giving/not fair
  • doesn’t communicate affection/concerns/logistics
  • too direct/not sensitive/condescending
  • doesn’t perform chores that they should be doing
  • smokes/does drugs
  • is not open to open relationships
  • is not ambitious or self-sufficient or does not have a life plan

daniel and i were once having a heated discussion, and daniel responded with, “you can’t get mad at me for [doing this totally reasonable thing that other people do]!!!!” which is an interesting argument.

on the one hand, the request that you make of your significant other should be reasonable.  because we should all strive to be reasonable and not crazy.  because when “fairness” and negotiations can be arbitrary, what better arbiter is there than the general public and prior sentiment?  nobody should be guilted into doing things that are unreasonable.  

on the other hand, why does it matter how “fair” your request is?  because in a relationship, you two are your own universe.  you set your own rules.  we shouldn’t care what others think, we should care about what we think since we are the ones who have to live like this day in and day out.  we are the ones whose emotions are being affected by our behavior.  you telling me “other people don’t want that, so you shouldn’t either” is unproductive and invalidating (see: ex-gay therapy). it promotes working against each other rather working with each other. emotions are important, even if they can’t be justified.

how much do you *really* care?  does it really matter?

daniel and i were watching enlightened, in which amy jellicoe seeks the titular enlightenment by trying to make the world a better place.  the final episode culminates with amy publishing a huge expose on her employer on their corrupt business practices.  as she’s being escorted out of the building, the CEO flips out and yells at her about how she’s an idiot, and stresses the distinction between being, to quote amy’s initial monologue:

  1. an agent of change – legitimately trying to make the world a better place, or
  2. a creator of chaos – changing things to prove that you have power and control and that you matter, with a capital M. 

the idea that amy was fed up with being powerless and basically destroying the things around her under the guise of a noble cause.  one is a very selfish motivation, the other is a very selfless motivation.

[super fun soundtrack.  the show itself… it’s interesting and genre-breaking (as daniel loves to point out).  interesting and compelling at times, but i don’t quite understand the extreme critical support of the show]

amy: everything’s about the short term.  money and greed.  i mean, how much money do you need?
: who are you.  no, i mean… who are you???
amy: i’m just a woman who’s over it.  i’m tired of watching the world fall apart because of guys like you.  i’m trying to take some power back.
szidon: no, you know what you are?  because we read your file, we know your whole story.  you’re a mental patient. you feel, but you don’t think.  you cry about the planet, you weep for the oceans, you bitch and you moan, but you don’t understand ANYTHING.  you are a hysteric.  and if you had the power, if the world was run by you, there would be no abbaddon.  yes, in fact, there would be NOTHING.  you think you changed something here?  you changed NOTHING.  you will always be on the margins because all you have are these fuzzy headed idealistic notions that don’t fucking apply.
amy: well if caring about something other than money is dopey, i’m a fucking moron.  and the only thing i feel now is satisfaction.  i think this meeting is over.

basically there are lots of things in relationships that are actually BIG DEALS, like things that legitimately should change.  but there are other things that are philosophically BIG DEALS but really not too bad.  and the most important thing is, knowing which battles to fight. when you are fighting for something just because ON PRINCIPLE, what they’re doing is similar to killing babies, but in reality, fixing it only requires 5 minutes of your time or taking a deep breath and getting some perspective. 

dan savage’s example (via “price of admission”) is: his boyfriend wouldn’t put the dishes away no matter no many times he asked him.  but you know what, just take 5 minutes every week and put the fucking dishes away.  i get why it’s important that the boyfriend puts away the dishes, but i also get why it’s such a ridiculously trivial thing to get worked up over.  one of those “you could just spend a tenth of your energy just doing it instead of trying to get him to do it.”

i have a housemate who drives me bonkers.  absolutely bonkers.  she doesn’t really treat others with respect and chooses to overstep boundaries and fight for her expanded territory rather than asking permission.  see: using the bathroom that she’s not assigned to.  treating all public space as her own storage space.  shortening laundry room hours.  etc.  and at first i wanted to fight her on every point.  it drives me crazy that she feels like treating her housemates like that is okay.  but like… does it matter if her shit is in this random hallway?  does it really matter if daniel doesn’t do X?  

there is this fallacy that i occasionally fall into, called the “IF HE TRULY LOVED ME, THEN HE WOULD ______” thought process. that is one of the most dangerous false equivalencies in relationships. not to say that you can’t ever start a sentence that way… but if you do… make sure the sentence isn’t ridiculous.  (and we really won’t open the can of worms of what love means.  but it’s not meant to be invoked to get someone to put away dishes.)

best demonstrated practices:

  • OMG empathy!  explain your own feelings, and seek to understand theirs.  and understand the sacrifices that they would have to make to make you happy.  
  • set the tone and expectation of the relationship to be more solution oriented.  it can be hard in the heat of the moment, but after the fact, apologize for what went wrong, state what you personally could do better in the future, and ask for feedback for future behavior.  in general, solicit feedback and convey an openness to honesty.
  • provide constructive criticism/specific things that could be done better and create accountability/clearly defined rules.  
  • create formal periods of time that are meant to provide honest feedback with amnesty, hopefully reducing the feelings of being ambushed, and being able to be open under the lens of collaboration rather than criticism.
  • provide ample positive reinforcement as well.  and not the pat-on-the-back pavlovian stuff.   convey your sincere gratitude for whatever they do. 
  • if you are asking for something, also provide ways that you are also going to give to the relationship or how you will help achieve this goal.   explain things that you could be doing better.
  • you can bring things up a few times, but if they aren’t received well, it is advisable to start finding it within yourself to be happy in the status quo instead of endlessly trying to change the other person.  because you will become the nagger of the relationship!  which is the best relationship role.  (that, or if it’s a big deal, break up with the person.)

other misc comments:

  • i’ve always wondered, does it even make sense to try to compromise in situations like these? like keeping score or “if i do this then you owe me that”?  doesn’t that just encourage people to start with more outlandish opening requests so that you end up having more bargaining power?  shouldn’t we be happy to make the other person happy?  how many couples actually presume that their relationships are “equal” and that each person should sacrifice equally and have equal opportunities to be happy?
  • it’s so easy for your knee jerk reaction to be to defend yourself, when it can very well be that you’re happy to do what your significant other wants from you. how do you avoid that initial feeling of offense?

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