Is your spouse controlling or judgmental? Does your spouse keep score in your relationship?
This blog is about partnership in your relationship–shared work–and how too many partnership demands can result in The Saboteur–a critical and controlling voice from your spouse.
The Partner is achievement-oriented and the engine in your relationship.
When the partner feels over-worked, under-appreciated, or invisible, the shadow—who I call The Saboteur—shows up. The Saboteur is controlling and judgmental. When your spouse becomes a Saboteur instead of a Partner, their help they feels bossy, and their initiative feels like they’re attacking you.
The Saboteur is likely to show up if you’re exhausted, if you’re juggling more than your fair share of a workload, or if you grew up in a home where you were only loved for what you did rather than who you are.
The Saboteur is also likely to make an appearance if your love language is acts of service and you’re not careful about resting and caring for yourself in addition to caring for your spouse or your home.
Identifying The Saboteur in your relationship
Here’s an example of a challenging partner relationship. See if you recognize yourself or your spouse.
Pam and Lilah have been married three years. The first two years were full of bliss. Pam, whose more introverted than Lilah, was invigorated as Lilah dragged her out to concerts, or taught her to mountain bike ride. Lilah, whose mantra is jump before you look, felt supported by Pam. Pam always comes prepared: she has the headlamp, some sunscreen, and an extra coat.
In the past year, however, some tension has been growing in their relationship. Pam is weary of always being the responsible one, and Lilah feels frustrated because every time she loads the dishwasher, Pam comes behind her and rearranges the dishes.
Pam feels taken for granted, and Lilah feels like she’ll never measure up to Pam’s standards.
This is a classic conundrum in relationships where one person’s Partner-mode is more developed than their spouse’s.
There’s no magic formula for Partner, Lover, and Friend. What lets you and your spouse create your happily ever after, is that you’re able to notice imbalances between the three roles, and communicate effectively about habits that will restore balance to your relationship.
Today’s habit will help you keep the Partner balanced so you see less of The Saboteur.
The Partner keeps the light bill paid and food in the fridge. It’s a big job, so don’t expect that you and your spouse will magically have a perfectly balanced partner relationship. You’ll suffer mis-steps and miscommunications as you dial in the balance that works well for your relationship.
The relationship set up: Are you more Pam or Lilah?
Pam and Lilah have an imbalance when it comes to the Partnership in their relationship.
As I tell you their story, see who you relate to more: Pam or Lilah.
Yesterday Lilah had an old friend text her to say she was in town and could they get together. Always the jump-first person, Lilah texted back inviting the friend for dinner.
Then Lilah mentioned the dinner invite to Pam when she got home. Pam wrinkled her nose when Lilah told her, “I was looking forward to a quiet weekend,” said Pam.
“Do you want me to ask her to meet me at a restaurant?” asked Lilah.
“No,” said Pam. “It’ll be OK. And I want to meet her. I just don’t wanna stay up too late.”
This is where their Friday night conversation ends. But there are some things that weren’t said, as you’ll see in a minute.
Unspoken Expectations: How partners turn into saboteurs
The next day, Lilah sleeps late as she does most Saturday mornings. Her job is demanding and she loves a restful weekend. She moseys downstairs to the kitchen about 11:00am, makes a pot of coffee and begins scrolling through her phone.
Pam emerges from around the corner carrying a bucket which she fills at the sink with hot soapy water.
“Check this out,” says Lilah, showing Pam a cat meme, “Cat-alytic converter,”
Pam glances at Lilah’s phone, but doesn’t say anything. Instead, she grabs the bucket, and a sponge from under the sink, and heads out to the porch. She washes off the porch table and chairs. She grabs a broom and sweeps down spider webs from the corners. Then she goes back inside to retrieve the laundry she started first thing this morning.
Pam gathers cushion covers from the dryer, and heads back out to the porch to put them onto the porch cushions. Lilah stops her as she passes through the kitchen. “Check this one out,” says Lilah.
And that’s when Pam explodes. “I’ve been up since 7:30, cleaning this house so we can have a nice dinner on the porch this weekend while you laze around. I’m sick of being your slave.”
Lilah is dumbfounded. She hasn’t even finished her first cup of coffee. “I didn’t ask you to get up early, Pam. I didn’t tell you to clean the porch.”
“But you invited your friend for dinner,” says Pam. “Dinner doesn’t make itself. The porch won’t magically get cleaned.”
The piercing stare that says, “You’re in trouble.”
Let’s pause for a moment to look at what’s happening. Lilah loves novelty. She’s a great lover. She keeps their relationship fresh. But Lilah isn’t always great at seeing the details that help to bring her great adventure ideas across the finish line.
That’s a big reason that she and Pam are a good match. Pam, who never misses a detail, backfills to turn Lilah’s great ideas into reality. Pam appreciates how exciting Lilah is. And details are her forte, so she’s happy to add the practicality to Lilah’s jump-first lifestyle.
Until. Until she feels taken for granted. Or until she’s tired. Or until there’s just been too many ideas and not enough Partner-energy from Lilah.
Lilah doesn’t naturally see the tasks that need to get done in order to have her friend come for dinner. Lilah would typically begin to think about dinner about 15 minutes before the friend arrives.
Pam began thinking about details last night right after Lilah mentioned her friend coming.
Lilah isn’t engaging any partner energy. Pam can feel that lack. So Pam doubles down on partner energy to compensate. This is when any relationship is at risk for the saboteur to show up.
At this point, who are you relating to, Pam or Lilah? Are you good at generating ideas, but not as good at the practical follow-through? Or do you see the details immediately and take on more than your fair share?
Quiz: Who are you likely to be in your relationship?
Here’s a quick quiz to know if you’re more likely to become the Saboteur or if you’re a reluctant partner: When it comes to chores, you’re more likely to:
- Spend time searching through the text chain because you are ABSOLUTELY sure your spouse promised to pick up toilet paper last week and there’s no toilet paper now.
- Gather together a list, get busy working, and hand out assignments to anyone who’s not contributing.
- Wait to be told how you can help, then pitch in where you’re told.
- Announce you’re hungry in hopes your spouse has a dinner idea
If you answered 1 or 2 you’ll want to keep a lookout for the Saboteur shadow. If you answered 3 or 4 you’re in reluctant partner territory and you run the risk of taking your spouse for granted.
How Do You Tame the Saboteur?
Let’s go back to Pam and Lilah. Remember that Pam was frantically cleaning spiderwebs while Lilah was looking at cat memes on her phone. Pam is sick of being Lilah’s slave.
What Pam doesn’t consider is that Lilah would be completely fine sitting beneath spiderwebs, so it won’t occur to Lilah to hop to on that chore.
Lilah gets defensive, “How was I supposed to know all of these chores had to get done?”
Pam puts down the stack of cushion covers, “Why do I have to be responsible for being the organizer, the planner, and the executer?”
Pam feels like the work falls on her shoulders because Lilah invites the friends, but doesn’t think about how much effort it takes to get dinner on the table for a crew of folks.
“I never asked you to sweep spiderwebs, Pam.” Lilah puts down her phone and crosses her legs. “You always do this. You have this invisible list and you start marching down the list, and you get mad at me because I’m not helping.”
Tears fill Pam’s eyes, but she doesn’t let them fall. “I just want things to be nice. I want our guests to feel valued.”
Tears scare Lilah
Tears in Pam’s eyes mean Lilah is about to feel guilty. Lilah is tired because, no matter how hard she tries, she never measures up to Pam’s invisible standards. She pushes the guilt away, “Pam, everyone who comes to our house feels like royalty. I just don’t want to have to feel like a slave all day just so we can have dinner with friends.”
Pam’s tears turned to darts. “But you’re OK with me being the slave.”
“No,” protests Lilah. “I’m not OK with that at all. I wish you’d let yourself do less.”
“Then why do you expect so much?” asks Pam.
Lilah is mystified. “What makes you think I expect you to sweep the spiderwebs away?”
Let’s pause again here to bring you an explanation of how the Saboteur works. Remember that the Saboteur is the shadow of the partner: that engine that keeps all the details of life running smoothly.
A helpful partner is essential to your happily ever after. A saboteur, however, is too much of that good thing. A good thing taken to an extreme can wreak havoc. That’s what’s happening here.
Once Pam is in Saboteur territory, that runaway train has a momentum all its own. One of the traits of the Saboteur is that the saboteur keeps score. That Saboteur inside of Pam is about to show Lilah how uneven the score has become.
What score keeping looks like in this relationship
Pam crosses the kitchen, and pulls open the bottom drawer. “See this drawer? See how clean it is?”
Lilah answers cautiously, “Yes.” She folds her elbows on the table, creating a tower with her arms. “What does this drawer have to do with spiderwebs?”
“Last Thanksgiving,” Pam is angry now and shouting, “when your family was here and your mother opened this drawer and saw mouse poop, you told her we’re savages and she should be glad we cook with a stove instead of over the fire.”
Lilah’s face is blank. She has absolutely no idea where Pam is going.
“Did you ever clean the mouse poop?” Pam isn’t asking. She’s accusing.
“No,” says Lilah.
“Exactly.” Pam has proven her point. She has nothing else to say. And she leaves the room.
This is the dance of the saboteur. Does something like this ever happen in your relationship?
Lilah is stunned and exhausted. This is how conversations with Pam go. Lilah wants to have a relaxed dinner with Pam and her friend. She wants to linger over coffee, then think about the friend and dinner. But suddenly Pam’s furious about something that happened months ago.
Lilah doesn’t even remember the mouse poop incident with her mom.
If we leave these two unresolved like this, Lilah will “make nice” like a puppy, circling around Pam’s feet because she still doesn’t know what’s wrong, but she desperately wants to make it right.
Pam will eventually pet Puppy-Lilah because she hates feeling like the bitch who’s always angry. But she won’t forget about the mouse drawer and now she’ll add the spiderwebs and soon the list of things Lilah doesn’t tend to will be so long it will strangle both of them.
So what helps?
How to balance partner energy before the saboteur makes an appearance
If Pam and Lilah both refuse to tell and to hear the whole story that’s unfolding in this moment, their relationship will get more and more imprisoned. Pam will get more resentful and controlling. Lilah will get more distant and “oblivious.”
The problem is that they both have their own version of what’s happening and they’re not telling each other those stories, but they each assume their version of the story is the universal truth. In order to cultivate your happily ever after, you need to be able to hear your spouse’s version of THE TRUTH.
How do you do that?
The magical phrase that will help your relationship
If you’re like Pam and feel like you’re always the one working and never getting the help you need, here’s your magical phrase: What’s happening in your mind right now? Tell me the whole story that I can’t see.
The key words for you are the story I can’t see. This signals to your spouse that you are open to a version of THE TRUTH other than your own. That’s probably gonna be tough for you if you are caught up in the spell of The Saboteur.
The Saboteur is always right. Critical of others. And exceptional at keeping score. But remember: The reason The Saboteur shows up is that The Partner—that wonderful engine who keeps life chugging along—has been over-worked or under-appreciated. So The Saboteur feels they are entitled to be angry. They’re sick of so much work.
It’s really tough for The Saboteur to ask this question. I know. I was a regular visitor of the Saboteur Shadow. Maybe I did most of the work, but I was drowning in self-righteousness and I could feel my chance of happily ever after disappearing.
I was like Pam.
How do reluctant partners feel?
If Pam said this magic phrase to Lilah, What’s happening in your mind right now, Lilah? Tell me the whole story that I can’t see, then Lilah would be able to say, “If I clean the spiderwebs, you’ll want me to pot the plants. If I pot the plants, you’ll want me to hose off the porch. The jobs will never end, Pam. You’ll always want more. I’ll never measure up.”
This is how reluctant partners feel and why they have no motivation to “wake up out of their oblivion” to the tasks of an equal partnership.
The Saboteur is always critical. So a reluctant partner gives up. They tune out. They become even more oblivious to jobs than they were in the past.
If you are likely to succumb to the Saboteur Shadow, this is how your spouse feels. I know how hard it is for you to even imagine a world other than your own. I know that you feel over-worked, and now I’m inviting you to do even more by reaching out to your spouse and hear things from their side.
I know. This is hard. But this is the way to break the spell of the Saboteur’s Shadow. I will give you a thousand gold stars if you’re able to try practicing this little phrase, What’s happening in your mind right now. Tell me about what I can’t see.
These magic words open your heart and mind to a different possibility.
That teeny, tiny window of possibility—the possibility that there is another way to view the world—is the key to unlocking your happily ever after when you’re a Saboteur.
What helps tame the saboteur in your relationship?
Now, let’s look at how Lilah could handle this moment.
If you are more like Lilah, and you feel like there’s a secret list you can’t see, but you’re expected to do those chores or you’ll get the stink eye, your phrase is Tell me the whole story of ____. Then fill in the blank with the very specific moment at hand.
Today, Lilah has modified the magical phrase and she says. “Tell me the whole story about the mouse drawer, Pam.”
This is magical. Suddenly, Pam feels seen. She’s gonna get a chance to talk about her invisible work.
Pam looks down at the socks on her feet. “When your mom was here, she opened that drawer and she was horrified that we had mouse poop in one of our drawers. Then you told her we’re savages. But you never cleaned that drawer. Three weeks after your mom left, there was still mouse poop in that drawer.”
Lilah says, “That’s because I don’t care about mouse poop being in that drawer.”
“Then why did you tell your mom we’re savages?”
“Because, I know that, no matter how hard we try, my mom is gonna find fault with something in our home. I figured I scored with the mouse poop drawer. My mom sees I’m a failure, I tell her yep, that’s true, and we move on.”
“But you’re not a failure,” Pam’s eyes are soft now, and the tears she was holding back begin to fall.
The tenderness available in your relationship
“Oh Sweetheart,” says Lilah, “I know that.” Lilah wraps her arms around Pam. “Did you clean the mouse poop out of that drawer?” Pam nods. “Why?”
“Because you weren’t doing it,” said Pam. Spoken like an over-worked partner turned Saboteur.
But this is the magic of that super specific phrase, tell me the whole story of ____. Lilah suddenly can SEE how Pam’s attention to details is actually deeply caring and full of concern for her.
When you’re trying to forge your partnership relationship, there will be some chores you’ll be able to let go of because they just don’t matter to you—like Lilah doesn’t care about the mouse-poop-drawer or the spiderwebs.
But there are jobs your spouse can’t let go of, and not only can they not let go of them, they can’t imagine a world where someone can let go of those jobs. Your permission can free your spouse from the grip of The Saboteur.
Lilah pulls back from her hug and looks Pam in the eyes, “I wasn’t cleaning the drawer because I feel helpless against the mice. I clean the drawer, they come back and poop some more. What made you think it was your job to clean that drawer?”
Pam said, “I hated that look in your mom’s eyes. Like she believed you were so lame. I don’t want you to believe that about yourself.”
Why this helps
This is why you and your spouse need to shine a light on your lists. Pam was certain cleaning the mouse poop was on Lilah’s list because she told her mom only savages live in a house with mouse poop.
Lilah tightens her hug around Pam again, “Pammie, you see every detail. You take such good care of us. But just because you SEE all the details doesn’t mean all the details are yours to take care of.”
Lilah’s reluctant partner gets an education. Pam’s Saboteur is tamed.
Lilah sees how Pam’s love arrives in a river of details. Pam is freed from her list, and she’s able to let some items drop.
You’ll know to be wary of the Saboteur if you(r):
- Tend to keep score about chores and tasks
- Feel over-worked and/or under-appreciated
- Spouse never helps and you have to do all the work
You might be a reluctant partner if you:
- Can’t be bothered with the details of living: cleaning, meal-prep, shopping
- Are always playing catch up: “Oh! There’s nothing to eat, I guess I’ll order a pizza.”
Why does it help to know your tendency?
Both the Saboteur and the reluctant partner can damage your happily ever after. When you identify your tendency, you can work to mitigate those damaging behaviors.
If you notice you tend toward the Saboteur, you can be mindful of times you’re tempted to keep score, be critical, or over-control. What tasks can you take off your list and give yourself a break?
Conversely, if you notice you tend toward the reluctant-partner, you can actively look for opportunities to pitch in so that you do your fair share. What task can you put on your list today? And own that task going forward?
What this does for the Pams of the world: You’ve probably picked a Lilah because you don’t want to be constantly identified by the chores you do. Yet you don’t know how to do less. Lucky you! You married a teacher. Your Lilah help you see what you can let go, then how to stop caring what other people think: even your mother-in-law.
How this helps for the Lilahs of the world: You’ve probably picked a Pam because you don’t wanna be caught unaware, failing to do your part to help. Lucky you! You married someone who won’t let you forget. Be grateful your Pam sees the list and more. Then be assertive about saying no to “the more.”
Conversations about chores can cause conflict. When you ask to hear the whole story and you’re truly curious, you diffuse that conflict.
I invite you to do something truly challenging this week: dig up one of those loaded conversations you and your spouse constantly circle back to about shared work:
- Cleaning the bathroom
- Paying bills
- Walking the dog
Talk about that challenging topic when you’re not in the midst of a disagreement and upset, and you’ll find you can be more curious.
Hold onto your magic phrase with the intention of listening to the entirety of your spouse’s whole story.
If you tend toward the Saboteur, your phrase is:
- What’s happening right now in your mind? What’s your whole story that I can’t see?
If you tend toward the reluctant partner, your phrase is:
- Tell me the whole story of ____ (then insert a specific moment of conflict).
- Lilah asked, “Tell me the whole story of the mouse poop drawer.”
When you use this magic phrase—I wanna hear the whole story—you give your spouse room to be right. Room to want what they want.
Listen. Then listen longer.
You’re gonna wanna give up on the listening and defend yourself, or argue, or contradict. Don’t.
Instead, keep circling back saying, Tell me the whole story. What else is part of the story you haven’t yet told me.
Why does this help? A big part of shared work is understanding each other
What does your Partner value? Do you value the same things? When you realize you share the same values, then you can ask yourself, “Am I carrying a fair share of the load?”
When you realize you don’t share the same values, you can politely and kindly make that known. Lilah didn’t need to sweep away spiderwebs to feel ready to invite guests. Is there something your spouse considers shared work, but you don’t value the outcome of that task? Kindly make this known.
Who knows, you might be letting your spouse off the hook for work your spouse thought was mandatory.
When does The Saboteur tend to show up in your relationship? Text me today at 970-210-4480 and let me know.