I’ve often heard people say communication problems are the #1 reason relationships fail. Hell, I’ve probably said that a few times myself. But what does that even mean? That’s like saying the #1 cause of death is your heart stops beating. Ummm… ok. Thanks for the mind-blowing insight?
Today, I’m gonna highlight one of the most corrosive forms of communication: criticism.
While criticism generally sucks for everyone all the time, it’s particularly destructive within romantic relationships. These are the places we really hope to feel loved and accepted for who we are, not scrutinized and cajoled.
You already know your boss is gonna have some critical shit to say. Or your coworkers, or siblings, or neighbors. Certainly there are legions of internet trolls and salty Facebook aficionados just waiting with bated breath for you to have an opinion they can crucify.
But your significant other? They’re supposed to be your safe haven, right?
Why We Criticize Those We Love
Gary Chapman once wrote, “Since love is our deepest emotional need, the person who meets that need will have the greatest influence in our lives.” This statement can be viewed as neither good nor bad. However, what it often amounts to is the notion that this person is somehow responsible for our emotional well-being — that they “make us feel” this way or that.
The deeply and widely held belief that other people are responsible for my feelings and I am responsible for theirs is the driving force behind soooo many dysfunctional, counterproductive, and outright destructive behavior patterns. Codependency, people-pleasing, nice guy syndrome, self-abandonment, resentment, contempt, and yes, criticism — all manifestations of missing emotional boundaries and a distorted sense of interpersonal responsibility.
Along these same lines, Marshall Rosenberg says that “All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently, those people deserve to be punished.”
He’s saying ALL violent things people say and do are rooted in the belief that others are the cause of their uncomfortable feelings.
I want that to sink in.
Now, please don’t shame yourself for the times you said “She makes me feel insecure,” or “He makes me feel invisible,” or whatever. You’d hardly be human if you didn’t fall for this erroneous assumption. It’s a tale as old as time. But hopefully this article will grab you by the shoulders and shake that foolishness out of you.
The Difference Between Complaining and Criticizing
Complaining to your partner is not a problem so long as you use I-statements and express your feelings about a specific thing.
“I get flustered when I see used dishes sitting in the kitchen. I’d prefer if we cleaned after every meal instead of letting things accumulate.”
Here, you are simply expressing your personal feelings and desires. No one is being blamed, shamed, judged, or accused of anything. You’re stating facts. This is how I feel. This is my preference. There’s nothing to get defensive about.
But criticizing your partner is definitely a problem. It usually comes as a you-statement and is a generalized attack.
“You never clean up after yourself, and that’s why our kitchen always looks like a bomb went off in it.”
Notice the global qualifiers “never” and “always.” These are telltale signs of an exaggerated emotional reaction. And you-statements absolutely destroy safe connection. Criticism is not an invitation to connect or find a solution. It’s usually more along the lines of unwelcome, weaponized rhetoric.
The Domino Effect
If someone physically tosses something at your face, your body will reflexively react by shielding yourself or moving away before you even have a chance to think about it. It’s a physiological response. Similarly, human beings are wired to react to criticism with defensiveness. It’s automatic. This defensiveness could be shield, counterattack, or retreat. Either which way, healthy connection typically doesn’t follow.
Criticism and defensiveness underly the demand/withdraw dynamic that is characteristic of many recurring relational disputes (especially in anxious + avoidant partnerships). You know that same-ass argument that never gets resolved? As soon as criticism fires the first shot, both partners man their battle stations and conflict resolution becomes virtually impossible. And as the war rages on over time, we start to resent our partners. I got into this relationship to feel safe and loved, not afraid and alone, we may think as we grow contemptuous of our partners.
Pamela Meyer said, “When someone is angry with you, you’ve still got traction with them. But when they display contempt, you’ve been dismissed.” Contempt, the polar opposite of love and respect, is the inevitable result of recurrent bouts of criticism and defensiveness. It’s a way of emotionally distancing from someone you no longer feel safe around and permanently moving into your battle station where you can gather intel and fire off offensive rounds to keep the enemy at bay (obviously not a great way to describe a romantic relationship).
After criticism repeatedly triggers defensiveness and eventually gives rise to contempt, the only place to go from here is to withdraw further for self-preservation. Relationship researcher John Gottman refers to criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling as “The four horsemen of the apocalypse,” which he says lead to distance, isolation, loneliness, and ultimately, the dissolution of relationships if left untreated.
If the four horsemen have been paying frequent visits to your relationship, the following are recommendations to course-correct (inspired by Gottman’s book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail).
- Commit with your partner to not fueling or participating in criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Forge an alliance and shift the apparent “you versus your partner” arrangement to an “us versus the four horsemen” pact. Hold each other accountable in a loving way to save your relationship. When any of these things crop up, call an immediate timeout and work together to find a healthy do-over.
- Intentionally cultivate expressions of respect, validation, and admiration. Give thanks, appreciation, and compliments. Do nice things for each other. Relationships require a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions if they are to survive (based on Gottman’s empirical research). When negative interactions dominate, your relationship is circling the crapper.
- Stop using you-statements. For real. Fucking cease and desist. You-statements are poison.
- Learn to identify the moment you get physiologically aroused into a state of fight/flight/freeze/fawn. Learn to pause before you escalate the situation. Take a break. Self-soothe. Practice ways of regulating your nervous system and calming down so you can reengage with your partner from a place of self-control rather than a trauma response.
- Practice turning your toxic criticism into a healthy complaint (Nonviolent Communication can teach you how).
Surely there is more work involved in taking a dying relationship to a place of euphoric bliss. But these suggestions should stop the bleeding long enough to give you a fighting chance. Do them like your relationship depends on it.
I don’t believe in relationship problems. I think each partner has their own personal problems, and when you rub them together, sparks fly, and we blame each other. In other words, if you work on healing your shit and your partner works on healing their shit, your “relationship problems” will magically disappear.
Therefore, what I always tell people is that you need two willing participants. Two partners who are humble, willing, and able enough to take full responsibility for their dysfunction in the relationship. Everybody has baggage. If your partner seriously thinks their shit don’t stink and all your relationship challenges are your fault, they’re fucking delusional. It takes two hands to clap. That’s a fact.
If you are critical, defensive, contemptuous, or withdrawing, I want you to stop blaming your partner and take full responsibility for those destructive-ass behaviors. Learn how to speak and listen non-defensively. If that’s hard for you because you were raised in a Hell’s Angels meth lab, fine, go get professional help. But blame and shame will get you nowhere.
And neither will criticism.
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