Dear Carolyn: I love that you are big on each spouse “having the other’s back” – as they are on the same “team.” However, when is it OK NOT to have your partner’s back?
My spouse routinely makes statements that are patently and demonstrably untrue – easily disproved with a couple of clicks of a mouse. Yet I am berated (later) for not “having my spouse’s back” when I don’t publicly agree with spouse in the face of nonbelief by Spouse’s particular audience. When is it OK to say, “Honey, I love you, but when I believe you to be completely wrong, I won’t have your back this time”?
– I’ve (Not) Got Your Back (This Time)
I don’t think standing by a spouse who is in the process of being “patently and demonstrably” wrong about something fits the definition of having his or her back. If anything, the “team” is better served by a partner’s gentle intervention on the spot, to keep the untruth-speaker (let’s use “Pat” from now on) from digging that hole any deeper – and from asking a partner to lie.
Obviously such intervention is tough to pull off, and risks being seen as undermining; Pat’s reaction is Exhibit A. But different partners can maneuver around this problem in different ways depending on their temperaments.
These include anything from fig-leafed phrasing – “Er ... X is a really common misconception [i.e., you aren’t an idiot and I’m not calling you one in front of all of our friends], but in fact Y is true” – to saying Pat may be right but “I’ll Google it just to make sure ... “; to developing a discreet set of hand signals; to agreeing beforehand that you’ll stay out of it when you know Pat’s skeptics are right.
That you have this problem “routinely” suggests Pat is stubborn, thin-skinned or both, and either one makes it hard to challenge the status quo. But gently persisting your way through the conversation – when you two are alone, aren’t rushing off to anything, and aren’t actively upset over one of these conflicts – can make future incidents less stressful for you both.
You’ll have to bring it up cold, but it’s doable: “I’ve been thinking about [past incident], when you were upset with me for not backing you on [patent falsehood]. I’m wondering what you would prefer I do in a situation like that.”
Then of course you listen.
If Pat suggests something reasonable to you, then you tweak the details and file the plan away for next time.
If instead Pat expects your backing even when wrong, then you say why you’re unwilling to do that – your integrity, perhaps, or your belief that people look stronger admitting errors than doubling down on them. Explain that your version of having a spouse’s back is to give Pat a chance to change course. Ask again if there’s a way Pat would prefer that you do this. Offer ideas.
It might be that you never agree on how to handle this – but if so, you merely shift to a broader view of having a partner’s back, one that makes more sense anyway: It’s about standing by people for who they are and making them your priority. That can coexist peacefully with disagreements on getting one’s facts straight.