No one wants to stay in a relationship that makes them feel more judged than admired. Yet, it’s too common for couples to see the other person as the problem.
And since the other partner is the problem, the only solution is for them to change…right?
- If only she would stop criticizing you and start appreciating all of the things you do to help out with the family, things would get better.
- If only he would give more attention to the house and kids, you wouldn’t have to nag him with what needs to get done.
It’s hurtful to be on the receiving end of criticism, and it feels even worse to feel like you have to nag your partner because your requests are being ignored.
Like you, I’ve been on the receiving end of critical statements such as “you never take me into consideration.” I’ve also dished it out and said things like, “you’ve never shown any interest in my entrepreneurial efforts. You clearly don’t care about me..”
Knowing what I know now, it breaks my heart to see two people in love hurt each other with their words.
We often use criticism as a form a self-protection. It’s much easier to poke our partner by telling them that they’re the one with the problems, than to drop our shield of criticism and say, “my needs are not being met, help me.”
And when our partner is critical of us, it cuts us right to our core, right?
Criticism can become a go-to approach when things are not going well and sadly, it sabotages your attempts to communicate with your partner. Criticizing your partner is different than voicing a complaint. The latter is about a specific issue, whereas the former is an attack on your partner’s character. You are tearing them apart, piece by piece, when you criticize them.
- Complaint: “I was scared when you were late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would call each other.”
- Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior affects other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful. I think you’re just selfish!”
The use of criticism guarantees that your partner will be caught in the trap of self-defense, making it nearly impossible to hear your needs. I know that when I was criticized by the woman I loved, I felt assaulted, rejected, and hurt. It was like I had been sucker-punched by my partner’s words and I had no idea what she needed or what I should do to improve things. I felt helpless.
Fortunately for you and me, criticism is very common in relationships. If you or your partner are critical of each other, this doesn’t mean you’re headed for divorce. According to Dr. Gottman, criticism exists in healthy marriages because it’s just one step away from complaining.
The problem starts when criticism becomes a habit, as it paves the way for more negativity and far more destructive relationship habits. It causes the both of you to fall into an escalating pattern where it reappears with greater frequency and intensity.
Withdrawal becomes a customary response to consistent blaming, and both are toxic to a bond. Both partners end up feeling lonely. I know I felt like I was the only one in the relationship when this happened to me.
The Birthplace of Criticism
No matter who you love, you’ll always have some complaints about your partner. It would be crazy to expect two different people to love each other – or live together – without complaints. Each of us have our own needs, desires, and habits that are bound to collide. These will all create conflict between us.
But there is a major difference between a complaint and criticism.
A criticism is a non-specific statement that expresses negative feelings or opinions about your partner’s character or personality.
“You’re such a slob. I always have to put the dishes away.”
Two very common forms of criticism include the words “you always,” or “you never.”
Or even worse, “what’s wrong with you?”
Criticism creates war or retreat on your partner’s part. It increases stress for both of you and will cause your partner to feel overwhelmed.
When I was being criticized, I felt frozen. Paralyzed. I just sat there and allowed myself to feel numb. It was the only way I knew to survive the hurtful words being thrown at me.
Criticisms are often birthed from not expressing your needs clearly. As your partner continues to do the thing that offends you, your complaints begin to add some intensity. Eventually, you start blaming your partner and focus on being critical of their character, rather than their behavior.
Criticism can also appear when you’ve gotten in the habit of bottling up your needs. You’ll eventually explode on your partner with criticism – this happens if you stockpile feelings of resentment. By using this tactic to avoid the negative in your relationship, you paradoxically create a negative story about your relationship.
You will start counting your partners’ injustice. And eventually, your negative perception will block you from noticing the positive that’s there.
Over time, you will either distance yourself emotionally to avoid the pain, or you will explode on your partner.
Since your partner has never heard a word, they will be caught off guard. There is little chance for your partner to start meeting your needs because they don’t know what’s wrong in the first place.
The other choice to not expressing yourself well or exploding is to complain in ways that are clear, specific, and focus on the here-and-now. Complaining in a healthy way improves intimacy, actually solves problems, and strengthens the relationship.
Complain, don’t blame
Criticism is avoided when you express a complaint gently. When partners are gentle with each other in conversations, it often produces a resolution that resolves the conflict.
Because of this, both partners feel positive about themselves and the relationship. I once coached a couple who gave each other a double high-five to celebrate getting through a really tough conflict together.
Watching them work through their issue by complaining to each other, instead of following their first reaction to blame each other, warmed my heart.
These positive experiences get stored in our memory banks, and it cultivates an optimistic attitude to resolve the next conflict that arises. Let’s focus more on the definition of complaint. A complaint focuses on a specific behavior or event.
- “I’ve realized I didn’t tell you how busy I am lately, and I’m frustrated the dishes didn’t get put away last night. Can you do it when you get home from the store please?”
A healthy complaint has four parts 1:
- Taking some responsibility (“I’ve realized I didn’t tell you“) – instead of pointing fingers and blaming your partner, you are point fingers at yourself. Taking responsibility prevents conflicts from escalating.
- Here’s how I feel (“I’m frustrated”).
- About a very specific event (“the dishes didn’t get put away last night”). – Be as specific as you can when you complain. This will help your partner understand why you’re upset.
- Here’s what I need (“Can you do it when you get home?”). – Must be a positive need. To transform a negative need into a positive, look for the longing in your negative emotions. I find it helpful to ask myself, “what is my secret dream behind this feeling?” or “what is a recipe I could give my partner so she can be successful with me?”
Be as detailed as you can when you complain. Think of your complaint as directions to your needs. Turn right here, then left here. It’s much easier to follow explicit and clear instructions. This is especially true when it comes to sexual complaints. Most of us still act like awkward teenagers when it comes to sex, even those of us who are married.
If you’re the critical partner, don’t expect your partner to be loving and cooperative once you start using healthy complaints. Partners often need time to trust this new way of talking, as they are often anticipating criticism. Be patient with them and avoid falling into the trap of giving up or escalating the issue. If you continue to do this, your partner will eventually respond in a better way.
How to Respond to a Critical Partner
While it is your partner’s responsibility to speak non-critically, you may sometimes find yourself on the end of a destructive and negative statement. So what do you do?
Most people become defensive. This makes things worse because both of you throw accusations and end up feeling hurt.
When you’re responding to a criticism, you are also response-able to pull both of you from the nasty confrontation. To do this, focus on listening non-defensively. Move gently towards the complaining spouse, not away.
- “Gosh, that sucks you feel I never do the laundry. Would it help if I did it every other week?”
- “You’re right, I have been distant, and we do need to have more fun together. I miss those times.”
Responding like this lets your partner know that you’re considering their perspective, even if you don’t agree.
Letting your partner know that you understand them is one of the most powerful ways to heal your relationship. Understanding is the antidote to criticism.
- Taking some responsibility. Acknowledge that your actions may provoke your partner’s response.
- Apologize. Express that you feel sorry that your partner is feeling this way. Doing so has a powerful effect on the conversation.
- Compliment. Let your partner know that you are glad they expressed this because now you can work together to resolve it. This admiration goes a long way.
Breaking the Habit of Criticism
Criticism often begins when a partner is feeling unknown, disrespected, and unloved. The best way to turn this around is to focus on injecting lots of positivity into your relationship. Below are some examples of what you can do:
- Update your Love Map by asking questions and intentionally getting to know your partner on a regular basis. Check out this post for more ideas.
- Create a culture of admiration and appreciation. Get in the habit of telling your partner one thing every day that you admire and appreciate about them.
- Intentionally create time for emotional connection. Start by having an end-of-the-day conversation, and going on a weekly date.
The way we perceive our partner and the meaning we place on their actions depends on our emotional connection. We all create a story of our relationship that fits our personal unhappiness and centers on the faults of our partner. This is why it’s vital to improve the positive interactions in your relationship and build your friendship. As a result, you’ll have a positive Story of Us, which will eliminate criticism from overtaking your relationship.
Not to mention, learning how to healthily complain will improve your relationship, because you’ll get more of your needs met. And your partner will understand you better. It’s a win-win for everyone.
I hope this article gives you some ideas on how to rewrite your conversations. I see the habit of criticism too often in long-lasting relationships, and it kills me cause I know the pain it causes. By over-practicing healthy ways to communicate, partners can drastically improve the connectedness and happiness of their relationship.
- This comes from Dr. Gottman’s research in his books: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, and 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage. ↩
- This also comes from Dr. Gottman’s research. ↩
This post was previously published on Intentionally Intimate Relationship.
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