Let's imagine that you're sitting at a dinner party with your partner and a handful of your close friends. Maybe you're drunk, or maybe you're just relaxed and at ease. The topic of conversation shifts to something touchy — say, politics? Before you know it, the group's hotly debating whether or not Sean Spicer should've made an appearance at the Emmy's.
You shoot a look to your partner that screams, Back me up here! But they don't, and you want to flip the table Teresa Giudice-style and call it a night. When someone doesn't take your side in an argument, it doesn't feel good. And when that person is your partner, it can feel extra bad.
"Your relationship is your safety zone, and when your partner is not on your side, an internal signal can go off warning that the connection is under threat," says Jeremy Ortman, LMHC, adjunct faculty member in the counselling psychology department at Columbia University and a therapist in New York City. When you're in an argument, and already feeling vulnerable about your stance, then hearing your partner disagree with you can "leave you with a stinging feeling of abandonment," Ortman says. But that doesn't mean that your partner has to agree with you all of the time.
Attuned couples know each other's buttons, and prioritize safety and support over the satisfaction of winning a debate.
Jeremy Ortman, LMHC
If your partner genuinely disagrees with your point of view, that's fine, but even just their delivery or timing can make it feel like a personal attack. For example, if you're venting about something rude that your roommate said to you, they might try to argue for your roommate's POV. "Your partner's hope is that, if they can rationally convince you that you have nothing to be so concerned about after all, it will relieve you of distress," Ortman says. "Instead, it leaves you feeling invalidated and a battle of will begins." Their first instinct is to try to get rid of or lessen the thing that's bumming you out. You can't blame them for trying, but it doesn't always work.
In some cases, people do purposefully disagree with their partners, because they see it as an opportunity to release their pent-up anger about other things, Ortman says. If there are unresolved bigger issues that are festering in your relationship, then your partner might "take liberties to discharge their aggression when your back's against the wall," he says. This is unfair, and you have a reason to be upset if this feels like the case.
If that sounds like something you do, consider seeing a therapist who can help you end the cycle of hurt and mistreatment, "to move into an emotionally honest and available space where there is freedom to acknowledge a full range of feelings," Ortman says.
So, what should you do or say when it feels like your partner doesn't take your side during smaller battles? First, take a moment to cool off about it, whether that's on the car ride home from the dinner party or the next day. Then, tell your partner what emotions you're experiencing and be specific about what you need. "Let your partner know that they may not have fully realised it but their behaviours had an impact on you," Ortman says.
You can also make an effort to express your interest and concern to your partner, without taking a position or side, Ortman says. Instead of launching into why your partner is wrong when they're in the heat of an argument, first validate their feelings, and then offer your contrasting view on the situation, if it feels like they're open to hearing it.
It's not your job to always agree with your partner, because that's unrealistic and no fun. But it is on you to know where their limits are, and how to help when they're distressed, Ortman says. "In these moments, we crave our loved ones to support us rather than pile on," he says. "Attuned couples know each other's buttons, and prioritise safety and support over the satisfaction of winning a debate." If you can understand that your partner will have your back when it really matters, it'll make the smaller struggles — like bolstering your views about Spicey — seem less intense.