What to Do When an Important Partnership is Getting Worse

Note:  This article was originally published June 10, 2013

I’ve hit rocky patches with bosses, and when I was the boss, ran off the smooth road with business partners, friends — and even my bride/best friend.  In at least a few cases, we never recovered. In some, we found our way back to the road, but subsequently walked together with suspicious glances.  With Jennifer and some others, I not only recovered, but  moved together better than ever.  Every rocky patch shared a common aspect.  And the prospect of every recovery — to my simplistic mind — turned on how we moved through a single gateway.

Here’s how to miss the gateway.  If you’re in a partnership that’s bad and perhaps getting worse, here’s a certain route that will take you away from recovery:  Package the other person in your mind.  In other words, keep seeing and thinking you know their faults.  Keep looking for the proof of why they are so __________ (small, judgmental ((that’s ironic)), critical, anal retentive, negative, pushy, etc.).  Believe me, you’ll find the proof to support your conclusion. It’ll support your explanation, your summary of their character:  “she think she’s so…” or “He thinks I …”

I was fascinated to read how modern science and psychological study are mapping the ruts that have been recorded in age-old truths.  Here’s a summary of the path we ALL take off the road and to avoid the gateway to a restoring a healthy partnership.  It comes from Jon Haidt’s wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis, which explores what truly makes us happy:

“We judge others by their behavior, but we think we have special information about ourselves—we know what we are “really like” inside, so we can easily find ways to explain away our selfish acts and cling to the illusion that we are better than others.”*

Jesus advised us to take the log out of our own eye before worrying about the speck in our neighbor’s. The Buddha is quoted as saying, “It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice.”**  Haidt says you won’t just stumble onto this speck in your own eye.  If you’re judging someone — like a partner who’s important to you — then you have to be determined to figure out your part (instead of obsessing about theirs).  Try it.  Right now, if you dare.  Think of a frayed relationship.  Haidt wonderfully warns that you’ll hear your “inner lawyer” who will defend you zealously.  

But he points us to the gateway.  Look, he says “for at least one thing you did wrong.”  And I can’t improve on Haidt’s luscious description:

“When you find a fault in yourself it will hurt, briefly, but if you keep going and acknowledge the fault, you are likely to be rewarded with a flash of pleasure that is mixed, oddly, with a hint of pride. It is the pleasure of taking responsibility for your own behavior. It is the feeling of honor.”***

When we can do this, we reach a key gateway, towards apology and restoration and conversation, to

Lead with our best self,


* Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (pp. 67-68). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

**Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 59). Basic Books. Kindle.

***Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 79). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

  • So the question for me would be distinguishing between what has changed in a relationship? Is it that I have changed in some way and therefore am now perceiving the other individual differently, or have they changed and I am truly seeing a different aspect of them? In addition there is the debate of who is “more right” rather than who is “wrong”.
    Thanks for your continuing great writings!

  • Not every partnership is worth saving, nor every person with bad behavior worth turning to one’s self for faults. Turning the other cheek does not solves the problems of the world, and does not lead one to a better partnership. I can think of an especially cruel business owner, who was figured out by an employee. The employee kept his job instead of resigning as many others had in the face of undue criticism and insults by the owner. The employee learned that the way to win with the employer was to apologize for causing a problem, which in fact the owner had caused. If one wants to find a way, one can find a way to preserve a partnership / relationship, but decide how much you want o give up in dignity, mental health, and physical health, as well as income potential first.

  • The problem of the sociopath needs to be studied better when it comes to leadership. A sociopath of various degrees is often found in leadership positions even though they represent only about 3% of the population. They are the key reason that turning the other cheek does not work. It would be interesting to give your students tests to see how many qualify as sociopaths of one degree or another.

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