How Your Brain Justifies Emotionally Punishing Your Partner

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I'm a certified coach and work with grumpy girlfriends who want to dump the grump and enjoy their good relationships.

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Emotional punishment and manipulation sound like things that occur in abusive, really bad relationships. And they do. But it’s much more frequent in good relationships than you might think. Grumpy girlfriends often engage in emotional manipulation without being aware of it themselves. In this post, I’ll show you how your sneaky brain will justify it and make it make total sense.

Many of the girlfriends I work with tell me about how “just being happy” and “being fine” with things feels wrong. Why? Because their partner doesn’t deserve that they’re just happy and fine. They don’t want to benefit their partners with their own fine-ness. So they choose the much more appropriate grumpiness instead.

This applies to situations like when your partner forgets something, does something in a way you wouldn’t have done it, makes things harder for themselves than they need to be, and so on. Any situation where you feel a need to punish your partner for their behavior so that it won’t happen again.

I know you intellectually don’t think this makes a lot of sense, but this is what many girlfriends do. They identify unwanted behaviors and then try to manipulate their partners to stop that behavior by emotionally punishing them.

“If I am just okay and fine and happy right now, this behavior will continue. Therefore I must show that I am not okay with this and I do not like it.”

But this is not how the world works. And this is definitely not how happy, relaxed, joyful girlfriends think about things. So let’s debunk these thought errors once and for all.

“If I show that I don’t like it, they’ll change”

No. Your partner’s behavior is none of your business. I know that might sound really strange to you since their behavior obviously affects you in the relationship. But whether your partner changes their behavior or not is up to them.

You are not your partner’s mom, you have no authority over your partner. You’re equals. That means that your partner has every right to be the way that they are and do the things they choose to do.

What you can do is choose how you want to think and feel about their behavior, what you want to do when they engage in that behavior (a boundary), and when you no longer want to be in a relationship with a person who engages in that behavior.

You can, of course, also inform your partner how you feel about their behavior but that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll choose to change. There are certain things we are willing to adjust to please our partners and make their lives easier and there are things we are not willing or perhaps capable of changing just to make someone else happy.

But constantly being grumpy about it in hopes that it’ll get your partner to change is literally just emotional manipulation. “If the emotional consequence of this behavior is severe enough, they’ll change”. Let’s just all agree that this is not how we want to behave in healthy, adult relationships.

“They don’t deserve that I’m fine”

Ah, yes. We think that we’re the ones winning and our partners are the losers when we are grumpy, upset, and annoyed by things they do. But the truth is that if our partners are fine with whatever is going on and we choose not to be… how’s really losing here?

It is very ingrained in us that our emotions can either punish or benefit other people. Have you ever stayed mad at someone because they don’t deserve that you forgive and let it go? Or have you ever chosen not to love someone because you don’t think they deserve your love?

I think most of us have had experiences like this.

But what I want you to understand is that no one is punished by or benefits from your emotions other than you. You are the only person in the entire world that feels your emotions. Because they only exist in your body. So if you choose to love someone, they don’t benefit from that (unless you take actions from love that happen to benefit them). And if you choose to grump around because your partner forgot something or didn’t take out the trash or anything else, your partner doesn’t suffer from your grumpiness. You are the only one who has to feel it.

So the question is not whether or not your partner deserves that you are relaxed, fine, and happy. The question is if YOU deserve it. That’s a much better question to ask.

Do YOU deserve to feel grumpy or annoyed about this? Why? If not, you are allowed to choose not to feel that way and change your thoughts about it.

“It’s toxic positivity to just be fine with everything”

There’s a big difference between pretending things are fine when they aren’t and actually being fine with things that you want to be fine about.

There is nothing toxic about being relaxed, easy-going, and happy. There is nothing toxic about letting things go when they’re not a big deal. There’s nothing toxic about choosing thoughts and feelings that serve you, instead of choosing thoughts and feelings that other people think are “right”.

The grumpy girlfriend clients that I work with all share a common desire to change. To be happier and to enjoy their good relationships. They can clearly see that they have unreasonable, unhealthy reactions to things and they want to work on changing that.

A big part of this work is holding space for your thoughts and emotions, not villainizing them, not judging them, and just letting them be. Once they have been processed and you can think clearly again, you can decide if this is something you want to be upset about or not.

I am not suggesting that we should ever be happy and fine with things we don’t want to be happy and fine about. The problem is when we are grumpy and upset about things that literally don’t matter and just cause unnecessary grumpiness and conflict in the relationship.

Toxic positivity suggests that we are positive against our own will or at our own expense. That’s not what this is about. This is about making high-quality decisions on what to think and feel based on who you want to be and how you want to experience your relationship.

What I want to show you with this post is that a lot of the things we believe to be true in relationships actually create unnecessary suffering. Our brains are really good at telling us lies to fuel learned behavior. So in order to start changing your behavior and feeling better, you need to question those lies and choose what to believe on purpose.

You deserve to be happy, relaxed, and joyful. You’re the one who benefits from letting things go and moving on. You’re the one who gets to feel better if you do.

It’s not your job to punish your partner or monitor their behavior. You get to observe their behavior and then choose how to respond. That’s very different than responding in order to manipulate or change who they are and what they do.

xo Katrin

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