This month’s Harvard Business Review is The Failure Issue: How we handle failure, learn from it, get over it. Given the economy right now, I figured it was a chance to learn from the experts. What could they tell us about relationships and marriage, I wondered.
For a corporation, writes Charlene Li on the HBR blog, the key is to create a culture of sharing failures as well as success. She gives the example of Domino’s Pizza, whose CEO decided to face up to customer complaints and in national TV commercials flashed quotes from customers like "Domino's pizza crust is like cardboard" and "Microwave pizza is far superior."
After test-driving dozens of cheeses, 15 sauces, and nearly 50 crust seasonings, Domino’s came up with a new recipe. Store sales rose and quarterly profits doubled.
Imagine if we took that approach in our romantic relationships. That might mean changing a pattern, because on the home front most of us don’t like to own up to our failures. According to a study published in 2010 by psychologists from the University of Waterloo, people are much more likely to apologize to strangers (22% of the time) than to romantic partners (11%) or family members (7%).
When our partner says, “You’re always on your BlackBerry,” or “Your laundry is all over the bedroom floor,” or “We haven’t made love in weeks,” many of us are likely to protest: “You’re exaggerating.” “You’re always complaining.” “What’s the big deal?”
Fail. Over time, those defensive reactions can really hurt a relationship. They create an emotional brick wall, blocking healthy change and growth.
Once we get comfortable with sharing failures we can own up to our shortcomings and even get curious about our partner’s point of view: “That’s fair.” “You’ve got a point.” “Any ideas what to do about it?”
Turning our relationship into a safe place to share failures usually means making two big changes. First, we need to lay off the criticism. Second, we need open up to the idea that we are not perfect, that we are learning how to be in relationships all our lives.
“You’re a huge control freak,” a twenty-something I’ll call Sarah told her boyfriend, Mike, in my office recently. “You get so hyper in restaurants, it’s embarrassing. You’re so busy trying to get the waiter’s attention it’s like you don’t even know I’m there.”
“You’re always criticizing me,” he said, scowling.