How to Identify and Avoid Criticism in Relationships
A Guide to Healthy Communication with Your Partner
By Corinne Farago
The Consequences of Criticism In Relationships
One of the fundamental requirements of building intimacy in a relationship is safety. We want the feeling that our partner has our back, understands and supports us, and wants the best for us.
Trust, communication, generosity, cooperation, sexuality, affection, attention, humor all require the sense that we are safe with our partner, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
When a couple allows criticism to seep into their communication, they have become domesticated adversaries. They are either bracing themselves for the next painful exchange, or they’re healing from yesterday’s wounds.
It’s no wonder that Dr. John Gottman includes Criticism as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and identifies it as a precursor to separation and divorce.
Identifying Signs of Criticism in Your Relationship
It’s helpful to understand criticism and identify this deadly horseman in a relationship.
Criticism is not complaining. We can complain about a situation. We can complain about something we’d like to change, but complaining turns to criticism when we blame our partner for our troubles. More specifically, when we blame and label our partner’s personal traits as being wrong or bad.
Here’s a simple example of the difference between criticism and complaint:
Adam and Nora struggle with communication. When they have disagreements or conflicts, they tend to resort to criticism.
Adam forgot to take out the trash, and Nora got upset about it. Instead of expressing her feelings in a constructive way, Nora criticized Adam, saying, “You’re so forgetful and lazy. You never remember to do anything around the house.”
In response, Adam felt defensive and criticized Nora, saying, “You’re a nag. You obsess about all the things I do wrong. You never appreciate anything I do around here.”
Their communication about the trash quickly escalated and ended in anger. The issue of the trash going out wasn’t resolved, and they were left feeling hurt and misunderstood.
Criticism is eroding their emotional connection and threatening their relationship.
If you’re triggered and your statements start with words like, “you always…”, “you never…”, then you’re resorting to criticism. If you’re labeling your partner using negative words like lazy, irresponsible, stupid, flaky, hysterical, controlling, you’re resorting to criticism.
The exchange between Adam and Nora demonstrates their lack of effective communication skills. The first thing a triggered person will resort to in the face of criticism is defensiveness, usually followed by criticism in return.
Here’s the thing — how we relate to our partner on a day-to-day basis can either build them up or tear them down.
The Slow Drip of Daily Put-Downs
If a person hears negative comments about themselves regularly, it can affect their self-worth and make them feel inadequate, which can lead to resentment, anger and contempt towards the person criticizing them.
They’ll feel attacked, judged, and insecure in the relationship. They’ll learn to either fight back with their own criticism or withdraw emotionally and mentally from the relationship.
Ongoing criticism lowers their overall self-esteem and confidence in themselves. It increases defensiveness, making communication and problem-solving difficult. This cycle of negativity, inevitably ends with the criticized person feeling attacked and the criticizer feeling unheard.
Stepping out of this escalation takes some skill and awareness. Most of all it requires practice.
3 Steps to End Critical Conflict and Rebuild Your Relationship
1 – Lay Down Your Weapons
Make the agreement with your partner that if you catch criticism being used as a weapon in your disagreements, one or both of you can call it out and lay your weapons down.
Take some steps to back out of the battle and shift to a more constructive way of expressing your frustration.
If emotions are ramped up, deescalate by calling for a time out until you feel calmer. Taking a time out doesn’t mean sweeping it under the rug, and never talking about it again, however. Agree how much time you both need. Maybe that’s 5 minutes or an hour. If you call for the time out, you need to be the person who comes back and moves the conversation forward.
Start with what you’re feeling: Confused, lonely, sad, frustrated. Name it, and don’t blame your partner for making you feel that way. Use I statements rather than blaming, and putting them back on the defense.
Take turns identifying the need your partner has that’s not being met in this situation. Don’t assume you’re getting it right. Ask them and listen until you do get it right.
Both of you, take responsibility for how you contributed to the escalation.
Most importantly, agree on an action you can both take going forward to avoid repeating the same conflict. Get on the same team to solve the problem and find solutions before the conversation ends.
2 – Nip It In The Bud: How to Prevent Criticism Before it Starts
Once you get good at identifying the signs of criticism, you can nip it in the bud before the battle.
Did the critical words already leave your mouth? Ask for a redo. Nothing stops conflict in its tracks quicker than someone catching themselves and asking for a redo.
Re-approach the conversation from a better mindset, and rephrase your complaint without attacking your partner’s character or shortcomings.
And remember, even in the midst of a heated argument there is a deep yearning for connection.
If you or your partner use criticism as a way to communicate dissatisfaction or frustration with each other, take it seriously.
Your partner is your teammate, and behind every successful team is a coach who helped them get there.
3 – Reach Out For Professional Help & Get the Support You Need
If you’re struggling to navigate a relationship that is filled with criticism, then reach out for expert relationship coaching. Coaching can help equip you with the tools and strategies necessary to build healthy relationships, identify areas of conflict and develop effective communication skills.
Don’t let your relationship be held hostage by criticism; take the first step to getting back on the right track today.
Criticism can be toxic in relationships, but it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. With communication strategies, emotional awareness and practice, you can break the cycle of critical conflict and foster a more positive and productive relationship with your partner. So don’t wait; start building healthier relationships now. You’ll be glad you did!
Ready to start rebuilding your relationship? Schedule a Discovery Call with me today and learn how to overcome conflict and create a connection based on respect, kindness, and understanding.
Stay well and love deeply,
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