When your partner embarrasses you

CRINGE: It's safe to say Liz Lemon was embarrassed by Dennis Duffy for about 90 per cent of their time spent together.
CRINGE: It's safe to say Liz Lemon was embarrassed by Dennis Duffy for about 90 per cent of their time spent together.

You might have experienced it, that hot prickle of embarrassment when you're at a sophisticated dinner party and your partner starts talking about how he feels that Nickleback are really underrated. Or perhaps since your girlfriend started 'eating clean' she only ever wears singlets that say things like 'eat clean, train mean' and speaks in inspirational quotes, or your husband becomes a close talker when he's had too many ciders. It's called spousal embarrassment, and it's exactly how it sounds. Interestingly though, according to the Wall Street Journal, we often feel more acutely embarrassed by the behaviour of our partners than we do of our own social faux pas.

"Spouses represent one another. Doesn't it say something about you if the person you chose to spend your life with tells insensitive jokes or dances with a lamp shade on his head? You may feel torn between your spouse and the people watching the behaviour," writes Elizabeth Bernstein in her piece How to Cope When Your Spouse Embarrasses You.

Which really kind of makes sense. And it's something that relationship counsellor Elly Taylor agrees with,

"We're embarrassed by our partner because it adds insult to injury: A) they're acting like an idiot and B) we choose to be with them. We can feel disappointed in ourselves," she says.

According to Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Social Psychology Program at Duke University, there are four kinds of spousal embarrassment.

The first is second hand, like when your partner misses their mouth with their glass of water. Then there is reflective embarrassment, your boyfriend is twerking at your office Christmas party. This is when we worry what people might think of our choice of life partner/Christmas party date. Thirdly, one-sided embarrassment, and this is where it gets tricky; you're embarrassed by their stand-up comedy routine, they think they're hilarious. "Relax," they might say, "everybody else thinks it's funny." The last kind is targeted embarrassment, like if your husband tells your son's home room teacher that you grew up in a 'naked house'. This one, as Elizabeth Bernstein points out, is the kind most likely to end up in horrible fights in the car on the way home.

Spousal embarrassment then, is kind of like how your mother would say that you're judged by the company you keep. And if the company you choose to pick out matching towels with on the weekend happens to enjoy the feel of his unshod feet sinking into the plush carpets of your local David Jones, what does that say about us?

Well, what it might say is that you need to relax, this is the person that you want to be with - fondness for faux accents and all. As Elly Taylor points out, feeling embarrassed about your partner might just say a lot more about you than it does them. Part of the problem comes with not understanding boundaries - your own, and your partners. 

"Personal boundaries tell us where we end and another person begins. I'm responsible for my thoughts, feelings and actions, and you're responsible for yours. Many of us have leaky (or the opposite, rigid) boundaries, because we're not usually aware we even have them," says Taylor.

But even with this in mind, it's undoubtedly crushing that your beloved might at some point tell you that you're kind of embarrassing yourself. To cope with this Elly Taylor says that, again, you must realise that it's not just about you, it's about them too. Then you have to talk about, well, how to talk about your relationship, "there's some shoring up of boundaries to be done," says Taylor.

If you're constantly embarrassed by your partner, for example like Liz Lemon and her terrible beeper king boyfriend Dennis Duffy in 30 Rock, it might be that you're with the wrong person. But for others, discussing why your partner is embarrassing you doesn't have to be deal breaker. 

"To protect the connection between spouses, I'd use the feedback sandwich: positive, negative, positive: "gosh you're gorgeous, but do you know that rolling your eyes that way makes me crazy? It reminds me of my dad. I'd really appreciate it if you didn't: talk to me instead," says Taylor.

As always and ever, working on having a solid relationship built on communication and trust is key.

"The most successful long-term relationships stay fresh because they're a process of discovery, that as people and life events changed, partners shaped around each other," says Taylor.

"If we've discovered it's our problem, we can choose to either disclose or not disclose. But if we do, we need to make it clear it's our issue. But if it's a behaviour that genuinely causes distress to us and potentially to others (like a partner getting drunk and picking fights at parties) this is more serious and really needs to be addressed - potentially with the help of a relationship counsellor."

Ultimately though, as anybody who thought they would probably die of embarrassment and found that the sun does indeed rise the next day, most people really overestimate how much other people notice. They're probably too busy feeling embarrassed about their own partner's midlife crises contemporary jazz band.

Elly Taylor is the author of Becoming Us and a member of the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors 

- Daily Life