“We were doing fine, and now suddenly all of these issues have come up. I can’t believe the things she is saying about me. I mean, why didn’t she say them a long time ago? Isn’t there some kind of statute of limitations on past relationship annoyances? I told her I wanted us to stay current. And on top of that, when I bring up my equivalent issues she says that I’m just being defensive. I’m really not sure we’re going to make it.”

A few months back the topic was harboring one’s dinghy of doubt. We talked about what to do with your doubts about a decision you’ve made, for example to enter into partnership with someone. Even if overall, the partnership seems worth it, what do you do with your ambivalence, your evidence of incompatibility?

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


In partnership, there are huge benefits to a gung ho attitude-full commitment to making it work together. So you tuck your doubts into a little dinghy and float it off to dock somewhere nearby. Not too near, though. To stride forward in relationship, you promote within yourself the means by which to marginalize your doubts, small and ignorable, compact and off to the side. Doubt distracts and detracts. The most productive partnerships are ones in which both parties are 100% committed or, since that’s not realistic, at least 95% committed and ignoring the other 5%, pretending it’s not even there.

Of course, partnerships do end, typically as one member or both move into a state of ambivalence, into the gray area between commitment and exit. In the gray area, attending to doubts becomes either the best or the worst thing to do, it’s hard to tell which.

Entering the gray area, revisiting the value of the partnership, you want to size up the arguments pro and con. You’ve been steeping yourself in what’s right about the relationship, so now, sizing up the evidence means undocking, and unpacking that dinghy of doubt and looking, for a change, at what’s wrong with the relationship. Rather than keeping the evidence against the relationship stuffed down to the smallest size possible, you take it out now and fluff it up. To mix metaphors you take off your rose colored glasses and put on smudge ones instead. You call a spade a spade, or maybe even something larger than a spade. You err on the side of exaggerating your doubts so as to bring your attention to them.

How in partnerships do we signal this transition into the gray area? Often in a panic. For months or years you’ve been sequestering your doubts and now you think they may be really significant after all. Maybe you’ve been suppressing them too long. There’s an urgency to sizing them up. We tend to blurt our doubts.

For years you and your partner have been acting like you’re not keeping track of what’s missing or wrong in this partnership and suddenly one partner starts flooding forth with this backlog of misgivings, but typically as if they’re new. We don’t say, “I’m beginning to revisit my doubts.” We say, “I’m beginning to have my doubts,” as if to cover up the fact that, naturally, we’ve had them all along.

During the relationship it’s cleaner not acknowledging that we have been harboring these doubts. Pretending they’re not there provides gung ho rewards that keep the relationship at its best. But later, revisiting the relationship’s merits, this strategy backfires. Suddenly, it would be better to admit that there have been doubts all along. One reason is that not doing so gives an unfair advantage to the first to blurt.

The first to blurt can credibly claim, “Look, I’m beginning to have my doubts about you because something is suddenly amiss.” The second to blurt, blurting in response, says, ‘Well now that you mention it, I’m beginning to have my doubts too.’ But this lacks credibility. The first-to-blurt can say, ‘Nah, you’re just being defensive, trumping up accusations against me. You’re just trying to deflect my grievances about you.’ If the second to blurt denies being defensive he falls into one of the stickiest tar-babies of human interaction. Tar babies are things that stick to us more, the more we resist them. ‘I’m not being defensive,’ is a classic tar-baby.

Notice how much cleaner and fairer the interaction would be if, when in doubt, we could be more honest and realistic about the dinghy that’s been there all along. If we respected the way doubt works, best hidden when committed but best retrieved when in doubt, we wouldn’t feel the panic to blurt. By not pretending our doubts weren’t there, we wouldn’t be so freaked out by them when they arise.

To broach a conversation about our doubts we could say, ‘I’ve reached the point where I’ve got to revisit the doubts I’ve accumulated over the years about who we are to each other.’ Responding, one could say, ‘Yeah OK, I suppose I can revisit mine too. How should we go about this so we do the least damage and get the most thorough revisiting at the same time?’

Shakespearian chord: To be committed while admitting that you harbor your doubts is actually safer than being committed with the pretence that there is no doubt. It distributes risk more evenly over the life cycle of a relationship. But sacrificing the impression of pristine commitment up- front can feel like an unnecessary burden on a budding bond. Dear Shakespeare gives us a delicious image of what suspended but acknowledged disbelief can look like in a relationship. Here in Sonnet 138, he declares his belief in his young mistress’ earnestness though he doubts it, and his awareness that she believes in his youthfulness though she doubts it.

When my love swears that she is made of truth

I do believe her, though I know she lies,

That she might think me some untutor’d youth,

Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.

Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,

Although she knows my days are past the best,

Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:

On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.

But wherefore says she not she is unjust?

And wherefore say not I that I am old?

O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,

And age in love loves not to have years told:

Therefore I lie with her and she with me,

And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.