Good News About The F-word


Failure is part of every relationship. Learning from it is key to your success as a couple.

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.

If Sarah wanted Mike to get interested in what she perceived as his failure, she needed to talk about it in a more user-friendly way. That meant being much more specific and asking a question instead of attacking. “How about trying something like, ‘I was puzzled when you got so annoyed at that waiter last night. What was going on with you?'" I suggested. Sarah rephrased this in her own words.

Mike stared down at his wingtips. “I’m pretty stressed out lately,” he said finally. “I guess I wasn’t good company. I just wanted to hole up in the apartment and veg out last night, but I knew you wanted to go out to dinner.” Big improvement over his earlier, defensive reply.

“I’d be a lot happier if you’d just tell me what you want to do instead of just sucking it up,” Sarah said.

Mike looked surprised. Then he shared some frustration and worries about his demanding new job. Sarah reached over and rested her hand on his arm. She felt less lonely; he was getting some stress relief. From a pattern of criticism and defensiveness that had them both miserable, they’d moved toward to supportive, open sharing. Sarah got the ball rolling when she addressed Mike’s failure in the form of a gentle inquiry, and Mike kept it going when was willing to be vulnerable and admit that he’d been less than his best.

Like most improvement in a marriage, creating a culture of sharing failures takes time and practice. But doing so is essential if we want our relationship to be a success