For Couples: How to Criticize and Increase Love by Geraldine Merola Barton, Ph.D.
“When I say anything the least bit critical, she gets defensive, counter-attacks, and off we go into yet another battle. If I can’t say what’s bothering me, how can things get better between us?”
It’s a dilemma I encounter often in my work with couples. Is there a way for spouses to give critical feedback yet not cause bad feelings? There is. Moreover, spouses can learn to air marital complaints in a way that can actually produce positive change and nourish the marriage.
Criticism is tough to hear and anguishing to deliver. When criticism is experienced as attack, communication breaks down and conflicts stay unresolved. Yet, when delivered and received with love, criticism is a rare gift. It provides a glimpse of how others experience us. It can be the “shake” we need to grow.
So, how does one deliver criticism with love?
To which of these messages would you respond more favorably?
“You are an inconsiderate slob. I have asked you a hundred times to put your dishes in the dishwasher. You never listen. I do all the work around here and I’m sick of it.”
"You work hard and I know you're tired at the end of the day. I feel frustrated, though, when dishes are left in the living room, because a clean house is important to me. I'd appreciate it if you’d make it a priority to put your dishes into the dishwasher.”
I’m betting you chose the second message. The first message will be experienced as an attack. The second will most likely be received as positive, friendly and loving, and the receiver will be much more likely to want to comply with the request.
When criticism feels like an attack, it's common to re-experience the feelings you had when scolded as a child: vulnerable, blamed and scared of punishment.
When feeling under attack, you have three basic choices:
Counter-attack! Make yourself big and scary, so you won't be vulnerable to your partner's attack. You get so caught up in refuting the charges ("I do plenty around this house and I work hard.") or in hurling accusations in return ("You have the nerve to complain about me, well look at the mess you left in the bathroom, you slob."), that you can’t hear whatever truth might be in your partner's message. Instead of functioning like the partners you are, you turn into adversaries, each trying to win.
2. Run (or Walk) Away
Retreat! Wanting to avoid the confrontation, distressed by feeling accused of being “bad”, you remove yourself emotionally. Retreat is counter-productive in a relationship, because it leaves us feeling more like strangers than partners.
3. Cave In
You're right, and I must be wrong! Cave-inners try too hard to please their partner, often out of fear of abandonment or retribution.Subservient on the surface, they are secretly resentful, and this comes out in all sorts of relationship destructive ways.
None of those responses is likely to produce a happy, healthy relationship. There are better ways to air grievances. Imagine learning to actually work through your conflicts and come out the other end feeling closer and satisfied. That means, among other things, learning to criticize with love.
Strategies for Criticizing With Love
1. First, approach your partner with a loving attitude.
The goal is to resolve conflicts in a way that makes each partner feel cared for and respected.This outcome will powerfully increase the satisfaction and love between you. If you keep your attitude loving, your criticism is more likely to be experienced as loving.
2. Give 9 compliments for every complaint.
We can take criticism better when we feel loved and admired by the person delivering it. When a couple regularly treat each other with affection and respect, a reservoir of good will is created which is a cushion in times of conflict and critical feedback.
3. Before criticizing, ask yourself, “Will this help or hurt our relationship?”
If in doubt, don’t say it, or find a more loving way to say it.
4. Do not criticize in anger.
Make it a groundrule: No shouting, name-calling, sarcasm, insults or violence. (It gets easier with practice.)
5. Criticize as little as possible.
Practice letting go of things that bug you. Before making an issue of it, ask yourself, “Is this worth complaining about?"
Here is a wonderful exercise to develop the skill of differentiating what irritations are truly important. Agree that for a week, neither of you will criticize. Instead, each write down everything bothersome the other does. At the end of the week, privately go over your lists and cross off everything that no longer seems worth bothering about. Meet with your partner and use loving criticism to discuss the important matters. You will be amazed at how petty many of the irritations seem after the passage of time.
6. Stay loving.
Use criticism to grow the relationship, never to win or to hurt your partner.
7. Ask permission to criticize.
Give your partner the option of hearing it at another time. Do not criticize when your partner is tired or down.
8. Begin a criticism by affirming things your partner is doing that you like.
It’s easier to hear critical feedback when we feel admired, understood and appreciated by the person delivering the feedback.
9. Make your point in as few words as possible.
The longer you talk, the more overwhelmed, battered and resistant your partner will feel. Say it clearly, calmly and caringly.Say it once. Stop if you hear yourself lecturing, nagging or repeating.
10. If you have a history of misunderstanding each other with spoken words, consider offering your criticism in a letter or email.
For example, some couples who have difficulty with face to face confrontations, handle critical discussion better over the phone or in emails.
11. Only criticize specific behavior, never attack character.
Don't say, “You are so cheap.” Instead, say, “I understand that you're concerned about our budget, but I felt embarrassed when you didn’t tip the waiter.”
Demonstrate that you love and respect your partner even when you object to his behavior.
12. Use specifics and recent examples.
Don’t drag in ancient history. Don’t say “you always” or “you never.” Instead, stick with one or two recent incidents. Otherwise, you’ll both get caught up in too many details and nothing will get resolved.
13. If your partner admits to a mistake, don’t beat her over the head with it.
Feeling safe helps us to admit a mistake or fault. If you use an admission against your partner, you destroy feelings of safety and trust.
14. Describe a solution that would satisfy you.
What specific changes would you like? Ask your partner to suggest possible solutions. Be ready to hear how you can change as well.
Don’t say, “I’d you to be more loving,” because that's too vague a request. Instead, describe specific behaviors that would feel loving, such as, “I feel loved when you look in my eyes while I am speaking.”
15. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements.
A “you” statement tends to blame your partner and is likely to be experienced as an attack, as in: “How could you have forgotten to call. You are so inconsiderate!”
An “I” statement focuses on the effects of your partner's on you. It's not blaming, simply speaking of your experience, as in: "I felt worried and angry when you didn’t call to say you’d be late.I’d appreciate your calling next time.”
16. Avoid using threats when complaining about your partner’s behavior.
Threats of retaliation, violence, divorce, or taking away the kids or the money only generate fear, mistrust and anger, and result in the payback responses of fighting back, withdrawing or caving in, and build up of resentment.
17. Set a regular time to air grievances.
Call a "safe place" during that time, when you will practice being fully receptive to each other, speaking without attacking and hearing without defensiveness.
This accomplishes a few things. First, you’ll have time to choose which annoyances are worth bringing up and to practice letting go of the rest. Second, you can relax and enjoy the rest of your time together, assured of a time and place to “safely” air grievances. Third, by regularly discussing what’s bothering you, differences are less likely to build into resentments that end in explosions or distancing.
Try to schedule special, fun and/or intimate time afterward.
18. Agree on a code word to use if one partner has begun criticizing in a non-productive way.
Find a code word that has a special meaning for you both. If the code word is funny, so much the better. The rule is, as soon as the code word is said, the criticizer stops, takes a break, comes back and tries it another way.
Receiving Criticism With Love
No matter how lovingly it's delivered, it takes practice to stay receptive when receiving criticism. Here are some tips:
1. Don’t allow your partner to criticize in a manner that feels abusive.
Loving criticism might sting but it doesn’t leave you feeling demeaned.
2. Don’t counter-attack by saying, “But you do the same thing.” Or “How can you criticize me when you have so many faults yourself?” Working on one issue at a time is your best shot at resolving conflicts instead of having the same argument over and over.
3. Stay open to the possibility your partner is correct.
To do this, listen to the entire criticism before responding.We all make mistakes and we all have faults. Remember, being imperfect does not make you bad or unlovable. Even if much of your partner's criticism sounds absurd or wrong, try to stay non-defensive long enough to hear any aspects that might be true, and acknowledge where your partner may have a valid point.
4. Don’t withdraw.
If you respond with silence, distance, or a sarcastic “whatever,” you cut off the possibility of resolving the conflict and improving your relationship.
5. Don’t just cave in.
Acknowledge mistakes but don’t just agree with your partner out of fear. (I’m assuming here that you are not in an abusive relationship, because that’s a different story.) When you cave in, you may appear subservient on the surface but will feel resentful toward your partner and this will inevitably come out in destructive ways.