Dear Neil: My boyfriend can never be wrong, and nothing the least bit critical can be said to him without him getting angry, defensive, withdrawn and self-righteous. I’m not talking about me being hard, mean or super critical of him. I’m talking about day to day irritations, or requests about words or behaviors that concern or bother me. The best he’s been able to do, on virtually anything I say that makes him the least bit uncomfortable, is to assign equal fault. He could have done this differently, but I could have done that differently. This makes true dialogue between us stilted and unnatural. I can’t express my true feelings when I’m walking on eggshells trying to not agitate him.
Because of this, I feel a fair amount of resentment and distance toward him. It feels as if he doesn’t care about me and my feelings—certainly he doesn’t treat what I say I need as important. I know this doesn’t sound very promising for a long-term future together. Is there anyway out of this?
Forlorn in New Jersey
Dear Forlorn: Among other things we could say about this (his self-esteem is very low, he’s fragile, feels inadequate and inferior, was likely shamed as a child, is defensive, a control freak, possibly a narcissist and has poor relationship skills), your boyfriend has taken a position of entitlement.
Entitled people act intolerant of anyone that dares to say anything they interpret as criticism. They act grandiose and aren’t empathetic to other people, especially an intimate partner who has the power to criticize, judge or reject them. They act above reproach. Even minor requests (“Would you please blow your nose rather than sniffle.”) can be met with a huge defensive reaction. Their behavior appears shameless, because they themselves are not above shaming, blaming or criticizing others. And because they act one-up, they put their intimate partner in the position of being one-down.
If it’s not already obvious, an entitled one-up position works poorly in an intimate relationship. An entitled person adopts the attitude that “my needs and wants cancel your needs and wants. My rights cancel your rights.” In a recent interview, John Mariner, a psychotherapist at the Relationship Resource Center in Denver, says that the one-up position is a defense designed to help us survive. But survival skills are designed for survival, not for intimacy. Mariner advises that we need to honor our defenses without letting them drive our car. He says, “Picture a five-year-old behind the steering wheel of a car. You need a functional adult to drive the car, not a child.”
Among the skills we need as functional adults is to be able to replace our defenses with boundaries. Boundaries are far more flexible than defenses, because can open up and let intimacy in. Mariner says you can’t have a real dialogue with a person who is in a strong entitlement position.
How do you get out of this dilemma? Relationships work best when we honor our own feelings and needs without claiming that those needs are the only ones in the room. You must find your voice and speak up—regardless of your boyfriend’s reaction—or you’ll never feel valued in your relationship with him. Your boyfriend must adopt a willingness to hear your emotions or issues, and to allow your feelings, needs and desires to have leverage. He must learn to care about you enough to contain his own reactivity and defenses in order to hear what you have to say.
The main piece escaping your boyfriend is that survival is necessary to grow up safely, but it doesn’t work for an intimate relationship. For intimacy to work, we need to have an adult driving our car. “For every hour of entitlement I take, I’m going to get one and a-half hours of resentment,” says Mariner.