How Couples Can Use Criticism Constructively

Criticism shows up in relationships at one point or another, if not frequently. When two people with different experiences, perceptions and ideas about how life “should” be lived (and how things “should” be done), spend time together, even the most compatible couples will find themselves being critical of each other at times.

Criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. In the context of relationships, criticism is the projection of one’s beliefs and opinions onto another person. Criticism often has a negative connotation, but criticism is neither negative nor positive. It is how criticism is given, how it is received, and the conversation that follows the initial critique that factors into whether or not criticism will lead to deeper connection, or further distance between partners.

In relationships, criticism is inevitable because each partner’s beliefs about how things should be done feel very real and valid. When those things are done differently by the other partner, in the blink of an eye it can cause partner #1 great discomfort. That discomfort causes instant reactivity, often in the form of criticism: they tell their partner how to do things differently, or, the “right” way. It is usually at this point that defensiveness arises within the critiqued person, and arguments ensue. The criticized partner often feels hurt; the criticizer feels undervalued and unheard. The arguments escalate and more wounds are inflicted. The initial issue is usually not resolved, and will likely come up again and the episode will repeat. Over time, criticism can further distance between partners.

However, couples can learn to use criticism to foster closeness instead. It is what couple’s do with criticism that determines whether it will build closeness in the relationship or create distance. When couples learn how to relate to criticism differently, and to change their conversation around it, criticism becomes an opportunity for deeper connection.

The following will help you learn how to use criticism as a tool to promote teamwork, connection and closeness in your relationship:

1.   Learn to chew. When you feel criticized, you may react defensively. Perhaps you deny the criticism, argue against it, or begin pointing out what you perceive to be your partner’s flaws instead. This is an example of spitting out the criticism, instead of, “chewing” on it, or in other words, actively considering it. Reactively spitting out what your partner says can leave them feeling invalidated. They will likely try to prove themselves right as you continue to try to prove them wrong.

Or, when you feel criticized, perhaps your automatic reaction is to become immediately apologetic. This is an example of swallowing the criticism whole, or, taking it in without chewing on it. Your partner may feel validated, but over time, this can lead to resentments for both partners, and other relational challenges. 

a.   Chew and tell (a tip for the receiver of criticism). Instead of automatically swallowing the criticism or automatically spitting it out, chew on it. Ask yourself if there is any truth at all in what your partner is telling you; what parts of the criticism do you agree with and what do you disagree with? Then, tell your partner which parts feel accurate and which do not. This is especially useful when you’re told you, “always,” or, “never,” do something. Usually, that leads to an argument about whether it’s truly always or not, rather than a discussion about the actual issue at hand. 

Chewing on criticism this way gives you a choice in what you want to agree with and take ownership for. This choice is empowering to make; you get to choose what you want to work on improving, and what you don’t based on your own beliefs and not just because your partner thinks you should. In the process, you’ve validated some element of your partner’s projection, which lessens the likelihood of arguing. Criticism can go from painful and disconnecting to useful and an opportunity for a connecting conversation.

b.   Chew and swallow (a tip for the giver of criticism). As the person who initially offered the criticism, the skill you can practice is to receive your partners’ response without defensiveness. Once your partner tells you what they agree with and what they disagree with, it’s your turn to chew. Be sure to swallow the validation from your partner for the parts of your perspective they have taken ownership for. Then, consider whether your initial criticism wasn’t entirely accurate. See what, if anything, among your partner’s perspective you can agree with and swallow, expanding your initial perspective. In this process, you’re both being validated, and being given an opportunity to see your partner more accurately.

This is a different kind of conversation than one in which partners fight each other for validation. During this process, both partners are listening to each other and validating each other; they are working as a team to better understand each other and themselves. Both partners are supporting each other, and are willing to be wrong. This kind of conversation takes vulnerability, a willingness to take ownership for their projections, a willingness to be seen, flaws and all, and ultimately leads to deeper connection between partners. 

2.   Practice vulnerability. The process of chewing, described above, requires a willingness of both partners in a relationship to be vulnerable. Both partners have to admit that they are not perfect and have things to work on; both partners have to accept their own flaws and let their partner see them too. And, finally, both have to admit to being wrong—slightly or entirely. This is difficult and often scary. It’s hard to look in the mirror and to see the parts of us we’re less proud of. It may be even harder to know your partner sees those parts too. Your defensiveness makes sense; no one likes feeling exposed. However, when you practice vulnerability, and you admit that you struggle with certain things, you change the direction and the tone of the conversation. It is no longer a battle for rightness. Your partner can go from battle mode to feeling validated, and perhaps from there, they can access empathy. And perhaps then, you can access your own empathy for your partner, who has a hard time sometimes with behaviors or skills you’re still working on. This begins a cycle of empathy and support.

3.   Take ownership for your projections. When you criticize your partner, you are projecting your beliefs onto them. Regardless of how right you believe you are, your beliefs are not facts. Your partner has the right to do things their own way. If your partner has chewed on your criticism and decided that they either disagree with a lot of it, or, that there is plenty of truth but they are not interested in working on changing that particular thing, you have to begin the process of acceptance and letting go of control. By acknowledging that your projections are just that, and not rules for everyone else’s life, you can begin to let your partner be the way they are, instead of battling them to change what they have clearly said they’re not interested in changing. This acceptance lessens anger and resentment, and it helps your partner feel better about themselves too. When partners can accept each other, they create safety for more closeness and connection.

4.   Aim for balance. When you focus on what you think your partner needs to improve on, and your partner also focuses on all the things you think they need to improve on, the relationship can become unbalanced. If one partner is less vocal with criticisms than the other, both partners can easily forget that neither partner is perfect. The partner whose flaws receive most of the focus can worsen feelings of low self-worth, making improvements even harder. The partner who is more vocal with criticisms can then become even more resentful. A cycle can ensue, in which anger fuels low self-worth, which fuels more anger and so on. It’s important that both partners remember the more vocal person has flaws too, and does things that impact their partner just as much. It can help to ask the less vocal of the two to be a bit more vocal. When one partner is frustrated by the other, being reminded that that partner can be difficult too, can help couples be more accepting of each other’s flaws, instead of blaming one person and focusing entirely on them. My partner is not very vocal about things that bother him about me. I could tell myself I’m just perfect, but in reality, that’s not the case. I know there are things I do that have to annoy him. As part of my research, I asked him to tell me what those things were. When he told me that leaving my shoes all over the place annoyed him, I was thrilled. I would never have thought that would bother him because it didn’t bother me and I was used to doing it. But I could see how that could be annoying to someone else! We had a big laugh about it. The point is, it helps to know we’re both working on accepting each other, flaws and all.

It takes time and practice to learn to use criticism in your relationship in a positive and useful way. Instead of trying to suppress criticisms, let them come out. Start trying to work together with your partner to deal with criticism in new ways. You have to be willing to do it badly, until you can do it better. With practice, criticism can begin to promote closeness and connection in your relationship.  

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