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Whataboutism in Relationships

Couple Therapy Sterling VA

One of the most interesting things I observe as a couple and family therapist is how societal dynamics play out on the micro-level in relationships. Recently, I’ve been struck by the frequency with which I observe “whataboutism” on my couch, and I can’t help but notice that this is similar to its ubiquity in our societal and political discourse.

Merriam-Webster defines Whataboutism as “not merely the changing of a subject… to deflect away from an earlier subject…it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.”

I’m confident you can easily imagine how this would play out between, for example, two rival candidates for a political office. When one candidate lobs a criticism at another (e.g., “My opponent has a record of voting for tax policies that hurt vulnerable constituents,”), the second candidate could whatabout a response by saying something like, “Well, my opponent accepts campaign contributions from Big Pharma and is totally in their pocket!,” rather than responding directly to the issue (e.g., “Let me tell you about my thoughts on tax policy and why I’ve voted the way that I have.”).

Now, consider how this same dynamic might manifest in a partner relationship. When one partner says something that feels critical to the other, the criticized partner can choose to return the volley, thereby deflecting the criticism; or address the criticism directly, setting the couple up for a (hopefully) productive conversation that leads to a meaningful step toward change.

For example, if partner A states that they believe partner B is driving too aggressively and asks partner B to please be more careful and slow down, partner B can respond by saying something like, “you think I’m a bad driver? Well I think you’re terrible at budgeting. I’ll drive more carefully when you stop overspending every month!” (whataboutism!). Or, they can respond directly to the request to drive in a way that feels safer: “OK, I hear you. I’ll slow down. I’m sorry.” Deflecting attention away from their driving and toward the other person’s budgeting skills is a defense mechanism – if I don’t respond to your comment about my driving, I don’t have to face the possibility that you have a point and I need to own up to it and make a change.

The other major problem with Whataboutism is that it suggests that two wrongs somehow make a right. When we counter a partner’s complaint with a complaint of our own, we’re basically sending the message that we’re entitled to act in ways that are negative, hurtful, or uncaring because that’s what we believe the other person is doing; and we’re saying that our partners have to earn our concern and responsiveness by changing their own behavior. One of the hallmarks of healthy relationships is that partners work to correct their own negative behaviors simply because they don’t want to inflict pain on their partners, and they endeavor toward this without waiting for the other person to make the first move toward change.

My guess is that most of you readers are nodding your heads a little bit, recognizing this dynamic in your own relationship and recalling some personal examples. It’s common, to be sure – but it’s also unhealthy. Luckily, there are a few powerful things you can do to steer yourself and your partner away from whataboutism and refocus on communicating directly:

When you’re Partner A:

  • Choose your words carefully. Since we understand whataboutism as a defense mechanism, we can also understand that it’s typically utilized when the whatabout-ing partner feels attacked. If you’re in the Partner A position, focus on saying what you need to say in the softest way possible. Instead of “you never stop working! No wonder we’re disconnected and never have sex anymore!,” try, “You’ve really been working hard lately. I’m so proud of you and how well you’ve been doing at work and in balancing all of your commitments. I also miss spending time with you. Can we plan a date night next week?”
  • Get your partner’s buy-in on the conversation. You’re much less likely to get a whatabout response from your partner if you get them on board with talking about whatever your chosen topic is, as opposed to dropping a change request on them out of the blue. Instead of saying, “I’m sick and tired of tripping over your dirty clothes. Why can’t you ever pick up after yourself?!,” try, “I feel so much calmer when our house is neat and tidy. Could we talk about ways to make that happen more often?”
  • If you do get a whatabout response from your partner, work to gently bring that to their attention, and ask them to join you in focusing on one issue at a time. For example, you could say “I hear you, and I agree that we should talk about that – it’s important to me, too. Can we first discuss the issue I brought up, and then we can move over to yours?”

When you’re Partner B:

  • Work on recognizing your Whataboutism as a defense tactic, and articulate your experience of feeling attacked. Instead of hitting back with another criticism, try “I see that this is an important issue for you, and I’d like to discuss it. I feel myself getting defensive, and I think it would help if we could both soften our tone a bit. Could we try that?” Another version of this: “My head wants to respond to what you are saying, but my emotions are getting stuck on the way you are saying it. It feels harsh. Could we try again?”
  • If your partner brings to your attention that you’ve given a Whatabout response, work on being accountable and accepting that feedback. Join them in taking a collaborative approach that seeks to move the communication pattern to new territory, rather than repeating an old cycle. You could say, “You’re right. That wasn’t fair, and I don’t mean to convey that your concerns don’t matter to me. I’m listening.”
  • Listen hard for the underlying emotion in your partner’s request. Even if it feels critical, most often your partner is asking you to recognize and take care of an unmet need. Is your partner feeling lonely? Worried? Invisible? If you can respond to that emotion – even if they don’t name it – your Whatabout reply will become unnecessary. Even better, your partner will feel truly seen and cared for by you – and isn’t that what we all want, anyway?

Whatabout-ing is a negative habit, and like any bad habit, it can be hard to break. By understanding what elicits a Whatabout response and being intentional about changing your reactive pattern, you can replace this bad communication habit with improved way of interacting that generate understanding and connection.

Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LMFT, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the downtown Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsey or another member of our talented clinical team.