Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Admitting fault quickly is a critical part of communication
Anonymous: About Monday's column on criticizing a mate: I've been to "Crazyville," and it stinks. My mom was (and still is) very critical of my dad, and growing up with it couldn't have helped me. Even though I can see it, it's still hard to shake, but I've talked with my husband about it. He knows I'm aware of it, and trying to do something about it, and that helps with his patience. And when you catch yourself doing it, say so: "I'm sorry, I think that was overly critical for me to say." And then try to do better. Sometimes just putting it out there helps both parties.
Carolyn: Thanks, I agree — admitting fault quickly and completely is a crucial part of "great communication." Even if it's a warning of more nasties to come — "I'm being a complete jerk and will probably stay that way until I make deadline/Mom's out of the hospital/I kick this cold" — taking responsibility makes it clear it's about your shortcomings, not your partner's.
Anonymous 2: Re: Crazyville: I'm dating someone who vacations there occasionally, and I agree about apologizing on the spot. I know she nitpicks when she's stressed, and she knows I know; all I want is for her to acknowledge it without my having to say my feelings were hurt.
As someone who has broken bad patterns this way, I know the repetition of prompt acknowledgement got me to the point where I could anticipate having to apologize as I was actually doing something, until finally I was catching myself before I did it. Repetition is the best way to break patterns like this.
Carolyn: Clapclapclapclapclapclapclap …
Anonymous 3: Re: Crazyville: My partner sometimes becomes a self-acknowledged complete jerk when his work gets stressful. He knows it, and apologizes, and I've learned to give him space during these times … to take the dog for a walk in the short term, or to plan a full weekend for myself when he is under a deadline.
But the way you describe this makes me wonder: Where is the line between forgiving jerk-ish behavior and forgiving abuse? Anything physical would be obvious, of course, but barring that, is it the intent (or the lack of intent) behind it? Or what?
Carolyn: While it's a valid question, I think it can lead you down a path of justification/nonjustification that ends at a brick wall.
The question I would suggest is "Is this what I want?" Do you want a partner who unravels under stress? When you make it about abuse, then you're almost letting that make your decision for you: If it's abuse, you leave, and if it's not, you stay.
But behavior that doesn't fit the abuse definition can still be something you just don't want to be around, blow your weekends on, or accommodate anymore.
If on the other hand you see his moods as a small con in a world of pros, if being calm through his freak streaks is a labor of love, if you're relieved that this flaw of his gives your flaws a little more breathing room, then so be it. You don't owe anyone anything here except an honest assessment of what you want.