“We were doing fine, and now, suddenly, all 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 I’m just being defensive. I’m really not sure we’re going to make it.”

In my essay about harboring one’s dinghy of doubt, I talked about what to do with doubts about a decision you’ve made — for example, to enter into a 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 a 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 a 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 percent committed or, because that’s not realistic, at least 95 percent committed and ignoring the other 5 percent, pretending it’s not even there.

Of course, partnerships often end, typically as one member or both members 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 thing 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. 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 smudged 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, does so 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, when you’re 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. (I call this play the First Out’s Unfair Leverage, or FOUL.)

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 reply 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 or she falls into one of the stickiest tar babies of human interaction. (Tar babies are things that stick to us more tenaciously 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 we’re committed but best retrieved when we’re ambivalent, we wouldn’t feel the panic to blurt. By not ignoring our doubts, 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, okay, 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?”