Tit for Tat

Tit for Tat sounds something like this.

“You are cranky,” I say.

“So are you,” he says.

(Both are hurting and complaining)


“Sweetheart, would you mind putting your dirty clothes in the laundry hamper at night. I hate tripping over them in the dark on the way to the bathroom when I have to pee in the middle of the night.”

When one has a complaint, no matter how deftly crafted: right words, even paced slowly, carefully, with the best guessed timing may be met by:

“Well, You……..”

Fill in the blanks.

Your mate feels like an oily duck. Nothing sticks. It all rolls off.

Infuriating! Your angry mind goes to labels, “Prick!” “Bitch!”

Irresponsible you think.

Most of us have a tendency to ward off complaints or criticism with a counter attack:  Tit for Tat, which is a serious relational problem.

Weakened with low self-esteem, tit for tat is a form of retaliation. It signals we are not feeling very good about ourselves or about the relationship.

The egoic thinking of self-preservation is running the show. We are usually in what I call our ‘survivor self’ when we retort like this. Our survivor self is a kid self with the maturity of about 6-18 years old that only cares about ourselves. In this state our thinking is more primitive, less mature. It correlates to a part of our brain that Stan Tatkin has coined the “Primitive”.

We think, “If I am being called on the carpet by you, I have the right to reply with an equal offense I have suffered at your hands.  I have a list that I’ve been stuffing away, thinking they were petty or offending or troublesome in some way. But if you are going to point out my mistakes, I get to point out yours.  Let’s at least level the playing field after all!


Take a few deep breaths.

Get some oxygen into the brain.

Look closely at this person.

Even look into their eyes.

Slow yourself down as you zip your lips.

Remember this is the person who fixed your dinner last night. Or took the splinter out of your foot this morning, or woke up and gave you a big hug and said I love you or scrambled to go grocery shopping between work and picking up the kids.

Then employ the humbling practice of apologizing.

Tit for Tat or Defensiveness, as shown above, is a moment of relational disharmony.

It breaks the connection.

We have to work this all the time.

Here is an example of my husband and I working Tit for Tat.  We’ve been married 29 years.  (You don’t have to be married that long to learn it. It just never goes away.)

We were both tired. We were looking for a park we had seen on-line to lay out our sleeping bag and nap.

As he drove past the park, I looked at the entrance and said, “There is no parking.”

He said, “Yes, there is.”

“I didn’t see any,” I said, trying to be gracious as a slight burn started in my belly at being summarily dismissed.

“You mean no empty spaces?” he asked?

I sensed the tension that just started to build. (We are energetic beings. Our emotions are felt even when we don’t speak them.  Especially between two people who have worked to stay tuned to each other as we have.)

“No.  No parking,” I said.

I had seen that the entrance to the park was a walk way not a drive way.

He turned the car around and drove into the Community Center Parking that I had not seen.

There was no park parking but there was community center parking.

As we entered, we had to go right or left to find a space.  On my right I only saw handicapped parking signs under the trees.  I pointed left to the open lot where there were many spaces out in the open sunlight.

“Yes, there is,” he said.

“Ok,” I said, derision and protest in my tone.

“I don’t like how you are talking,” he said.

“I think it is time for a nap,” I said.  “You will feel better after a nap.”

“It is not just, me you know,” he said.  “You need a nap too. You have been contradicting everything I’ve said.”

I have a choice right here.

Tit for tat:  “So have you.”


Apology:  “I am sorry.”

I choose, “I am sorry.”

I had to swallow my pride.

I find pride is so sticky. It is hard to swallow.  I took a long slow breath and swallowed.

“I am sorry I have seemed contradictory.” (I used his words. I acknowledged his perception was right for him. It didn’t matter if it matched mine. It was his experience of me that I wanted to repair. I couldn’t defend against that.  It is his. I could only be sorry that my actions had come across, to him, as contradictory. That is why defensiveness is useless.)

We are now parked.

I got out of the car.

In my mind I was thinking, “If he says anything but I am sorry too, I might not be able to keep the fighter in me muzzled.”

I came around the car to his side.

He was waiting for me there with his arms open to hug me.

“I am sorry too” he said.

Whew! We’d made it once again.