Moonwalking: Criticizing You, Then Blaming You for Your Reaction

Does your partner say something that hurts and then walk it back, unsaying it?

Posted Oct 20, 2020

Does this sound familiar? Your partner makes a comment on a topic that’s sensitive to you and you feel a stab of pain. Then, in a split second, the pain morphs into anger and you retort, “I don’t understand how you could say that! Didn’t you know that would hurt me?”

Then, somehow, because you reacted strongly, your partner turns it back against you, confusing you and making you feel guilty, by saying something like this:

  • You’re too sensitive.
  • You’re taking things out of context.
  • I was only joking.
  • I didn’t mean that.
  • You misunderstood me.
  • There you go again, exaggerating!

You become unsure about what your partner actually said or what the intention was and you question yourself. Poof! The focus is off the comment made by the other person and squarely on your reaction to what was said.

OSTILL is Franck Camhi/Shutterstock
Source: OSTILL is Franck Camhi/Shutterstock

I call this maneuver moonwalking. As in Michael Jackson’s famous dance step, your partner is both moving forward (getting in a jab) and backing up (denying it) at the same time. Your partner was able to deliver the message and then claim innocence, offloading the focus onto you and your reaction.

In heterosexual relationships, it’s often the man who makes a joke, jab, or tease, and the woman, who might be prone to questioning herself, who gets upset and put on the defensive.

Here’s an example:

A wife shares with her husband that she’s very happy: She’d written to her ex asking him to pay for shoes for their son and for once, he didn’t say no but instead, immediately transferred the money to her. What a relief.

But what was her current husband’s immediate reaction? He said, “I’ve been telling you for years that you should make him pay for more things.” Crash! She goes from a simple feeling of happiness to a complex feeling of frustration and guilt about having been too accepting of her ex’s refusal to pay for things. 

So she says to her husband, “Why do you have to make it bad? I was feeling good about what happened and you ruined it. Couldn’t you have let me have a few minutes of simple happiness?”

His response: “You’re too sensitive! I was only trying to make you understand that you’re always too easy on him.” And then they get into a long conversation about ways in which she’s let her ex off the hook and why she’s so afraid of him. What started as a simple declarative sentence about her feeling relief that the ex paid for the shoes segued into a depressing conversation about her weakness and failure in dealing with her ex, couched as helpful advice.

Why did it go south? She felt blamed, right at the moment that she felt happy. He was not attuned to her emotional state at that moment and used her news to further his own agenda. A better response on his part would have been simply to say, “That’s great,” and she would have felt that her husband was in sync with her and understood.

By moonwalking, the husband moves forward by using her news as an opportunity to voice a long-standing criticism, and then walks it back by blaming her for her reaction to it. Moonwalking is a cousin to gaslighting, a tactic in which a person manipulates another person with hope of gaining power over them. Often this leads to the victim questioning their own reality, rather than questioning the motives and actions of the person gaslighting them.

Once you recognize moonwalking, you’ll be better able to put the focus back on the original comment. You do this by being able to develop a clear vision of what’s taken place. Too often, we get overwhelmed by emotion and can’t think things through. You need to train yourself to track what’s happening.

In the case described, if the wife tracked back to what happened, she would see that she was happy when she told her husband the good news and, rather than staying with that, he turned the conversation into something he thinks she’s doing wrong.

At that point, in a perfect world, she could say, "I’m not talking about what I’ve done in the past, I’m telling you about something that happened today. Let’s stay with that," keeping the focus on the positive news. It will take practice but eventually, as the moonwalking maneuver becomes visible, you will be able to head off those painfully frustrating discussions.