You are at a party, turn around and your spouse has a lamp shade on his head and is doing an impression. Or maybe, you are visiting friends and he tells an off color joke. How about the time she revealed something intimate about your sex life to your boss?
Yes it is and one of the ways conflict can come about in a relationship. Usually the person who feels embarrassed will try to repair his or her image as if he or she is the one who did the embarrassing.
Social psychologist, Mark Leary, at Duke University says that when our spouse embarrasses us, it feels like a reflection of who we are–afterall. we picked this person! And we wonder, how far will he or she go. This feels out of control!
In fact, there are four categories of ways to embarrass your partner:
1) Empathetic embarrassment where your partner unintentionally embarrasses you. This happened to me the other night at an event. My plate of food slid to one side while I was holding it, and landed on my white pants. It caused a stir as I tried to clean it up. My husband was kind, but it was embarrassing. This type of embarrassment is the mildest but happens the least.
2) Reflective embarrassment is when your partner does something humiliating. You know the type, yelling in a restaurant, telling people awful jokes, etc. We worry that people will pity us for being with this type of person.
3) One-sided embarrassment is when you feel horrified by what your partner did, but he or she doesn’t. For example, he drinks too much at the family get together but doesn’t think it is an issue. This one usually leads to conflict because the person usually denies there is an issue.
4) Targeted embarrassment is when your partner intentionally or directly embarrasses you. Think about the times you have heard stories from people and think, she really should not have said that. Or the wife who tells her neighbors what a bully you are, etc. At the time, the other person may remain cool but when the couple leaves the social situation, problems erupt.
So when you are embarrassed in one of the four ways, how can you respond?
1) Try telling yourself that the behavior may not be that bad and that everyone does something embarrassing once in awhile. This is easier to do when the embarrassment is the empathetic type.
2) If the embarrassment happens once in awhile, let it go and ask yourself if this is part of the person’s personality. You can talk it through later, but trying to change another person does not usually work. Instead, talk about the impact of the behavior on those around him or her.
3) If this is a pattern, wait for a neutral time and bring up the issue. Focus on how other people will react, not your reaction, and discuss whether that is something your partner wants to happen. What triggers this type of behavior –is it social anxiety, the need for attention, etc. Then talk about whether or not the embarrassing behavior is effective.
4) If the problem continues despite your discussions, you may need couple therapy to get at the root of why this continues in the face of the social consequences and the impact it has on your relationship. Being sensitive to the needs of your partner is important. If your partner is telling you that a certain behavior is embarrassing, that is reason to stop or it will wear at your respect for each other.
5) Think twice before you reveal private things about each other to others. Have a conversation about what is appropriate and what is not in terms of violating privacy boundaries. Keep your relationship safe in order to to keep the bond strong.
For more from Dr. Linda Mintle, visit her blog Doing Life Together.