“I Love You, But…” How Couples Hear And Deal With Criticism
I can go through phases where I criticize my husband’s driving a bit too much.
He slows down to look at something, and I exaggeratedly start waving my hand out the side window as if we are on a parade float, silently suggesting that he needs to pick up the pace. Or we’re speeding along the expressway, and upon seeing break lights up ahead I ask, “Do you see the cars slowing down?”
My husband is a great driver and while it’s not overt criticism, but the message is clear. Whether it’s my issues with control, impatience, mortality, or whatever…the problem here is me, not him. The good news is he understands me and takes my criticisms with good humor; and I grant him the same understanding when the shoe is on the other foot. We communicate well about these types of scenarios. We’ve had plenty of practice.
When you’re half a of a couple, you need to know how to navigate criticism and other more negative emotions that arise in your relationship. Frankly, many of us don’t do it very well. Perhaps you hide through sarcasm, taking pot shots that are followed with, “I’m just being funny…” Or maybe you say your piece no matter what’s going on around you, and even if children are in the room. You might remain tight-lipped for prolonged times when upset and thus grow ever more resentful…or perhaps you fly into rages for no apparent reason, or bring up things from the past that only muddy the waters of the present concern.
Regardless, communicating criticism is not always easy.
But if you think about it, every day we receive difficult feedback from others. Your supervisor calls you in and says they’ve noticed you not being as focused at work as you normally are and they ask you to step up your production. Although not pleasant (whether you agree or not…), the structure is in place for that to occur. After all, their job is to find something for you to improve.
Your child’s teacher notes that homework isn’t being turned in, and she recommends you check into it and try to discover what’s happening behind the scenes. In fact, you count on her to give you feedback and to inform you of your child’s progress. Again, the structure of that relationship is what allows this type of information to be shared without taking it too personally.
Structure goes out the window in a romantic relationship. Your relationship is complex: you are lovers, parents, financial partners, home owners, best friends, domestic partners. You name it — your lives are completely entangled, and your ensuing emotions are as well.
Perceived criticism is harder to take in a romantic relationship because of that very entanglement.
Try hearing the same message from your partner that you heard from that supervisor or that teacher, and see how you might react.
“Hey, honey, I don’t feel that you’re very focused on us lately… and I really need that from you.”
“I know you’re busy, but it seems like you’re not paying attention to what’s going on with the kids.”
In many relationships, this feedback would be met with defensiveness.
“What do you mean? I swear, I’m damned if I do, and damned it I don’t. Do you know how hard I’ve been working?”
“If you would help out more with stuff around the house, maybe I’d have time to be with the kids more. There’s only twenty-four hours in a day.”
Do you have a greater need for positive affirmation or deep emotional connection?
Is there a way to prevent this? Yes! You have to take each other’s your basic emotional needs into account; what is of most importance to you at a deep level might be very different than your partner’s. In general, there tend to be two camps here: you might need to feel that you’re providing actual value to your relationship as a partner, or you might need to feel known, seen, and understood by your partner.
If at your core you need to feel that you’re providing value, then positive affirmation that you’re a good parent and partner is going to make you feel most secure. If you hear disappointment from your partner you might literally feel like a true failure in that moment. For example, years ago a woman described to me this moment, “I suddenly realized that when I asked him to do the dishes, I was using this ‘tone’ that insinuated he never did the dishes. And that’s not even true. I wouldn’t speak like that to anyone else. Why do I do that to him?”
She gained a new understanding of her husband. Her repeated use of a condescending tone was one of the issues that contributed to their marital issues; it was driving her husband away emotionally. By simply approaching her husband with intention and kindness about issues that were making her unhappy (such as household chores) he didn’t lose his sense of providing practical value to their relationship. Happily, their marital issues got much better.
If at your core you need deep emotional connection and to feel seen/known, when that’s lacking you can become frustrated, disappointed, and lonely. A patient once told me about his marriage, “I realized the other day that I haven’t been all-in like I used to be. We’ve been so busy with the kids that I’ve grown lazy about spending time together and being romantic. She’s told me she needs more, and now I get it. I’m going to do things like I did when we were newlyweds like leave fun notes on her car window.”
In this situation the wife was needing more displays of affection to feel an emotional connection; his lack of providing this was driving her away. By making an intentional decision to make sure she felt understood and known, she felt more secure and their relationship strengthened.
These realizations can be key to making things better; by recognizing and honoring your partner’s core needs in the relationship (and vice-versa) you can each feel valued in the way that’s most meaningful to you. This lays a very healthy, solid foundation. So when difficult discussions are necessary, including being criticized, that foundation doesn’t crack and you can continue to build your relationship together.
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