Your reality is created with your words.
“I can’t take much more of this.”
“I can’t believe I ever married you.”
“I’ve had it with you.”
These words may be said in jest, or in a heated moment, or perhaps they’re repeated in exasperation. Regardless, these are words that you can’t take back. They don’t reflect kindness. Instead, they are meant to hurt or grab control. And sadly, they can have a cumulative effect. These words can spark the realization that your relationship could end, create the reality that your relationship might end, and ultimately shape that potential into reality.
Of course, if you mean them sincerely, perhaps it’s time to consider therapy, either singly or as a couple. And if there is abuse in your relationship or your children are being harmed, then by all means act on them. Plan carefully, and leave safely.
If you don’t mean these sentiments and yet you still say or hear them a lot, please realize that they are adding to the emotional chaos of your world.
What happens when you feel threatened or unduly criticized?
The threat of the relationship ending feels real, and what do you usually do when you’re threatened?
You can get strongly defensive, meet the challenge and counter attack. Often this means you stop looking at yourself, and point the finger at your partner. Or you can be submissive, try to ignore what’s being said and feel as if you lose all the time, breeding resentment.
Neither reaction is good for the relationship.
When a couple comes in for a first session, both very defensive and on their guard, the hour can be loaded with “he saids” and “she saids.” No one is taking responsibility for their part of the problem, secretly (or not so secretly) wanting me to fix the other. The room is filled with disdain, often leaving very little time for treatment. It’s like trying to stop a train racing along a downhill track. After an hour of bickering and blaming, I’m asked, “So what do we do until we see you again?“
I give a couple of ideas, but then my final suggestion is, “Try to be kind to each other.” They usually look a bit perplexed, but say okay.
Kindness is essential. Kindness is the building block of empathy and understanding. Making kindness towards your partner a priority helps you suppress an impulse to voice contempt towards them; which is critical to maintaining a healthy relationship.
Let’s take Nan and John. They had two children under the age of 3, both had busy careers, and had had trust problems even before children. Nan felt as if she did the lion’s share of work around the home; John didn’t feel appreciated for what he did. (This is an extremely common theme in marital work.) Add two toddlers to that, and they were at each other’s throats, criticizing every diaper changed, every choice scrutinized to see how the other was living up to the role of being “parent.” More and more distance was being created between them.
Therapy was limping along, until I gave them an assignment.
They both agreed to only make a comment about the other’s choices, if they were first given permission to do so. For example, “Would you like my opinion on what you dressed Melissa in today?” Or, “Can I offer a suggestion on how you might get Taylor to take a bath?”
The next week, they came in laughing. There were a few times that permission had been given and a suggestion made. But most of the time, it wasn’t. Each had flatly refused the other, not welcoming any editorial comments. They each looked at me and said, “You know, his (or her) way of doing things could be just as good. Or even if it wasn’t, it wasn’t a big deal. Mary still got dressed and Taylor either got a bath or he didn’t.” But what was so life-changing? The relief from not arguing all the time was so immense, that it was worth shutting up, and letting the other be in charge.
They continued the practice and got along much better, rediscovering the respect they had for one another, their shared sense of humor, and their affection for one another.
Four important steps in becoming more kind…
What else can you and/or your partner do if you’re in the habit of being critical?
1) It takes attention and self-discipline to stop.
Keep foremost in your mind that he or she is probably trying to do their best, and not intentionally doing things to disappoint or irritate you. Remember what you love about the person you’re partnered with, and stop tearing them down at every opportunity. Habits can be hard to change, but it’s do-able.
2) It takes being miserable enough about the way you’re relating to try something different.
We human beings sometimes have to have things get really bad before we do something about them. For example, tornado shelters are often built after a bad tornado. Recognize that just because your relationship has fallen into a ditch, it doesn’t have to stay there; you can build a tornado shelter for your relationship.
3) It takes both people taking responsibility for the problem.
If your answer for things becoming happier is for the other person to change, then that’s a problem. The only thing you have control over is yourself. Take a risk, and try tweaking your own behavior. Hopefully, your partner will respond.
4) It takes apologies and forgiveness.
If barbs have been slung around, it may take an apology and forgiveness on one or both sides. The above couple could have “stayed mad” about what had been said in the past. I certainly have had to ask for forgiveness in my own relationship, and have given it. You go forward.
These changes are about kindness. “The quality of being friendly, generous and considerate” is the definition.
You can create misery with your words, or compassion. Your choice.
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This was originally published on February 27, 2016 and was updated on February 9, 2019.