The Evidence Trap

In relationships

The Jury

When the going gets tough in an argument with your partner, you may have a strong compulsion to provide evidence for your position. This can take many forms including:

  • “Raul agrees with me that you’re selfish”
  • “My family thinks you’re too emotional”
  • “Most people don’t…”
  • “Ask anyone!”
  • “My therapist says…”
  • “It’s common sense!”
  • “Dr. Solley, what do you think?!”

Under the gun — and especially when feeling unheard, misunderstood, and/or rejected — we pull out whatever we can. We have to bolster ourselves up to feel OK, to try to get some more bulk or heft on our side. Even more so if the relationship is not going well, if there has been an accumulation of hurt or resentment. Or if we feel inadequate and insubstantial to begin with (and who doesn’t at some level?).

In therapist-speak this is a problem of thirds, as in a “third” entity outside of the couple that gets brought into the relationship in a troublesome way. There are lots of ways that thirds can be thorny, and lots of people and things can be thirds. Commonly the thirds are either people or “standards” that one or both partners use to reinforce his or her position in the argument. “Everybody knows you’re difficult!,” brings in the crowd as proof. “Who doesn’t say hello when they walk in?,” appeals to a standard of politeness, casting the non-greeter as deviant. Past examples may also be trundled in, sometimes with multiple citations: “You did it that time and that time and then there was that other time!”

(Incidentally, in-law and family problems in couples are usually problems of thirds, and affairs and chemical dependence are the extreme examples. Also retreating into work. But these cases are less about rallying evidence and more about meeting needs in unhealthy ways.)

When couples come in to therapy, it is the rare couple who don’t each tell their side of the story to the therapist. Implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) each is hoping that the therapist will see the wisdom or “rightness” in his or her side. Often the partners will go back and forth trying to persuade the therapist into being an allied third. And, by corollary, hoping to demonstrate how the partner’s version, memory, or desires are flawed.

Essentially, evidence presented, and endeavors to recruit the therapist, are all efforts to substantiate a right/wrong tussle .

So how is this problematic? For one thing, think about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of these kinds of statements. They are the opposite of glowing testimonials. Rather, they are damning confirmation of what a lazy, meddling, infuriating, out-of-control…[fill in adjective of choice] person you are! In short, these statements and appeals are laying on the blame thick and fast. Blame feeds Threat Mode, which means if you’re the one stacking up the goods against your partner, you’re basically provoking them to be less rational, more angry, more defensive, and so on. Furthermore, evidence on one side tends to call for either evidence on the other side, or attempts to discredit the first evidence, and then the war is on around evidence.

So don’t do it!

Here are some pointers on what to do instead:

  • Be aware of your own tendency to invoke thirds and try to avoid the temptation. Even better, notice whatever feelings of inadequacy or fear you’re trying to bolster (e.g., “I’m worried you’ll crush me in this argument,” “I’m afraid I can’t get through to you,” “I’m scared I’m not enough for you”) and talk about those.
  • Move away from the right/wrong/proof mentality and towards mutuality (see my right/wrong post). Before you try to remake your point for the third time, express some understanding of what your partner is trying to get at. “I realize you get nervous when I drive this way.” Attempt to hear not just their position but what’s significant to them about their position — what it means to them as a person.
  • If you’re enticed to bring up past examples, instead bring it into the present in terms of how it affects you, what you’re wanting, and how it would feel if you had it. Instead of “You were late yesterday, and last week, and five instances before that,” try “It’s really important for me to be able to depend on you. When I don’t know what’s happening I worry about you and also whether you care about me. When you’re on time it makes me feel good and solid.”
  • Monitor yourself, not your partner! If you chide your person for mustering evidence against you, then you’re the blaming one! If you must say something about it you could try something like “Let’s keep this between us here and now. I think you’re trying to tell me that you’re wanting [fill in the blank] from me. Is that right? Tell me more about that.” And then you really have to try to listen!

Thanks for reading! If you found this helpful or interesting please ❤ below. [Image courtesy of MCAD Library on Flickr.]

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