Written by: Amanda Levison, M.S., LMHC, LPC, CCBT
Relationships are essential in every aspect of life. This is not limited to romantic relationships but also friendships and familial ones. We all need someone who genuinely understands, supports and accepts us for who we are. However, relationships are not always smooth sailing, and we often face criticism from our partners and loved ones. Criticism can hurt our well-being, leading to feelings of hurt, inadequacy, and destruction of trust. This blog will highlight examples of navigating criticism in your relationships and help you better understand how to communicate effectively with your partner to prevent criticism from becoming a source of conflict and destruction.
Criticism: Constructive vs Destructive Criticism
Criticism is essential to any relationship and can be helpful if done constructively. Criticism is valid when it provides guidance, feedback, and direction to facilitate change. At the same time, criticism can be harmful when used to hurt, manipulate, or control the other person on the receiving end. Therefore, it is essential to differentiate between constructive and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism is feedback offered with good intentions, with specific and actionable advice to help with improvement. Destructive criticism is negative, unsolicited feedback meant to hurt, demean, harm, or destroy someone's self-esteem, work, or reputation. Below are scenarios to help differentiate between what is constructive and deconstructive criticism in relationships:
"I noticed lately that you have been short with me after you come home from work. This makes me feel as if I'm bothering you. I feel it would be helpful to our relationship if you would change your approach toward me when you get home."
"Thank you for taking the time to plan our dates, but when we are to meet up for dinner, you are often late. Would you be willing to make more effort to be on time?"
"You never clean up after yourself and keep dirtying the house. You're a slob!"
"I cannot believe you went out last night and got drunk without telling me! I didn't know where you were at all. It's like I don't even know you anymore!"
Criticism is anything directed at the partner, not always directed at the undesired action. It can become habit-forming as the person criticizing feels like they are not being heard, so they repeat the behavior of verbally attacking the other. The person receiving the criticism may eventually learn to tune the other person out as a defense mechanism and protect their self-esteem. Ultimately, this can create contempt, resentment, and feelings of not being good enough for the criticized one. If the one giving the critique does not learn healthier ways of addressing concerns with their loved ones, they will be construed as a "nag" or as someone who is "never satisfied." Continuing this pattern can cause a breakdown in the relationship with trust issues such as "I'm afraid to tell him or her what is happening because they're just going to get upset and complain about what I did or said." The one criticized will ultimately find ways of blocking out the criticizer, and this will cause the criticizer to feel "unheard," "ignored," or "unappreciated." Often, seeking couples therapy can allow a third party to see how the communication unfolds and to help identify ways of approaching communication more healthily in the relationship.
Scenario: Amy is constantly texting on her phone when her husband, John, wants to talk openly with her about their plans for their upcoming vacation. Amy has been on her phone more whenever John wants to have conversations and feels she is not paying attention to him or participating in the conversation. Amy has been on her phone more due to work demands. John says, "Amy, you never pay attention to me! It's like you're married to your phone instead of me!" This causes Amy to retaliate verbally, "I'm just trying to finish some work. You always come to talk when I am busy. I can't tell my boss, "No, sorry, my husband wants to chat about our vacation." This causes the conversation to spiral into an argument, leaving both unheard and unsatisfied.
The best way for both to approach one another could have gone like this instead:
John: "Amy, I feel lonely when we cannot talk about our vacation plans or even how our day went when we both come home from work. I understand you have been given higher demands from work, and I would appreciate it if we could find the time to hang out without interruptions."
Amy: "John, thank you for bringing this to my attention and acknowledging my preoccupations with work. Let's talk about our day and vacation plans as soon as I finish submitting this report."
Now, both partners have addressed the other with constructive criticism and can move forward without causing damage to their relationship.
Resolving Criticism in Your Relationship
When criticizing your partner, you blame them for what you think is wrong, and the natural solution would be to change them and resolve their problem. Such perspectives may sound like these:
If only they would stop criticizing me and start appreciating all the things I do to help out with the family, things would get better.
If only they would give more attention to the house and kids, I wouldn't have to nag them to get stuff done.
Although it is hurtful to receive criticism, it can feel even worse to think that you are nagging your partner because your requests are being ignored. Criticism is also often used as a form of self-protection. It is easier to poke at your partner by telling them they are the problem rather than to look inward. The first part of resolving criticism in a relationship is knowing the difference between a complaint and criticizing your partner. A complaint is about something specific that occurred and what you thought was supposed to happen.
Meanwhile, criticizing your partner is attacking and being caught in the trap of self-defense, making it almost impossible to hear your needs. As in many areas of life, there are healthy ways to address or resolve things. If there is something that you need to talk to your partner about, there is a way to do it so that it is effective and healthy. Below are four parts to a healthy complaint:
Taking Some Responsibility
Do not point fingers at just your partner. Take ownership of your actions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This can help prevent the conflict from escalating, demeaning one another, and destroying the relationship.
State How You Feel
Say "I am frustrated" or "I am hurt." to express your emotions and attitude toward the problem, not toward your partner. This avoids any feeling of being attacked or building resentment.
State The Specific Event That Made You Feel That Way
Be as straightforward as possible when you express your complaint. This will help your partner understand what precisely you are upset about and why you are upset.
State What You Need
This must be a positive, clear, and specific need. To transform a negative need into a positive, look for the longing of your negative emotions. It might be helpful to ask yourself, "What is the meaning behind this feeling?" or "How could I help my partner so they can better understand my feelings and succeed?".
By tying together these four parts, an effective and healthy form of communicating a complaint will look like this: "I realized I didn't tell you I was frustrated when I came home, and the laundry was still on the bed. Could you communicate with me so I do not come home expecting something to be done, and it is not?" Here are additional examples of complaints vs criticisms and how to resolve each:
"I was scared when you were late and didn't call me. I thought we had an agreement that we would call each other."
"I would feel more secure in our relationship if we incorporated daily phone calls."
"We haven't gone on vacation together in so long! I'm tired of talking about our financial struggles."
"I noticed we are in a financial bind. Let's work together to budget our finances so we can set money aside to go on a vacation."
"You never think about how your behavior affects other people. I don't believe you are forgetful; I think you are selfish!"
"I noticed your behavior hurts others. Let's discuss ways to impact those around us positively."
"You never spend money on us. It's your fault we can't buy nice things for each other because you waste our money on frivolous things!"
"Our money lately has been used to purchase other necessities. How about we make a plan to separate our wants from our essentials so we can save money together?"
We must understand how to communicate our complaints effectively with our partners to navigate relationship criticism. Relationships are bound to have areas of conflict and disappointment, which is healthy, but how we communicate those concerns can build or destroy the relationship and partners. Therefore, having open and honest communication is the key to successful relationships. Listening actively, respecting the other person's perspective, and being supportive is essential. We must be mindful of how we communicate criticism or complaints; how we deliver it can significantly impact its effectiveness.
8-Steps to Navigate and Resolve Criticism in Your Relationship
Now that we have reviewed the types of criticisms and communicating complaints, here are steps to effectively approach your partner when delivering criticism in your relationship that practices open and honest communication, respect, active listening, and providing support to one another.
1. Understand the Difference Between Feedback and Criticism
Feedback is an essential part of learning and growth in any relationship. Feedback is constructive and is intended to help the other person learn and develop. It is necessary to distinguish between feedback and criticism. Feedback is offered with good intentions, whereas criticism is meant to harm or demean the other person. Feedback is intended to help the other person grow, whereas criticism is designed to control or manipulate the other person. Feedback focuses on building strengths, and criticism focuses on weaknesses. An example of this could look like:
Criticism: "You completely overspent on this month's wages. Now we can't afford to pay our rent!"
Feedback: "Next month, we must ensure we've thoroughly checked our budget and spending to pay our bills."
2. Practice Active Listening
Active listening is an essential part of effective communication in any relationship. We must listen to our partners' perspectives, understand their feelings, and respect their opinions. Active listening involves paying attention to what the other person is saying, asking questions, and summarizing what has been said. Active listening helps to prevent misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Be mindful of body language, appear open and relaxed to show you're listening attentively and not in a defensive position, hold eye contact, lean forward, and engage in reassuring facial expressions.
Paraphrase what your partner tells you to ensure they feel heard and understood.
Do not interrupt or express judgment, and respond appropriately
3. Avoid Blaming and Accusations
Blaming and accusing the other person can be harmful and lead to conflict in any relationship. It is important to avoid blaming others for problems or issues, as it can create tension and resentment. Instead, focus on solutions that will help you move forward together.
Rather than saying, "I think this house is a mess! You're so unorganized and filthy." Try, "The house has been unkept. Let's divide our chores to make it neat again."
4. Avoid Using Negative Language
Negative language can be harmful in any relationship. It is essential to avoid using negative language, such as "you always do this" or "you never do that." Negative language can create feelings of defensiveness, hurt, and anger. Instead, use positive language, such as
"I feel hurt when you don't answer my phone calls," or "I would like it if you could call me on your lunch break."
"I feel alone when you stay out late at night and come home in the morning." Or "I would like it if you could share your location so I know you are safe when being out late."
5. Be Clear and Specific
When offering feedback or criticism, it is essential to be clear and specific. It helps to avoid generalizations and be specific about the behavior or actions that need to be addressed. Detailed feedback helps to prevent misunderstandings and miscommunications.
"I can see how you've taken the extra time to get up earlier to get the kids dressed and ready before school. I love that we can share the responsibility and help each other care for our kids each morning."
"Your willingness to seek help regarding your mental health demonstrates a strong commitment to bettering our relationship and working toward our future together."
6. Protect Your Boundaries
It is essential to protect your boundaries in any relationship. Boundaries help to define what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Boundaries are necessary in any relationship, as they help to prevent problems and issues from arising. Being clear about your boundaries and communicating them to your partner is essential.
When in an argument, saying, "I am not willing to discuss this topic any further right now until I have a clear mindset."
"I respect your opinion and that we see things differently. Please do not force your opinion on me."
"I am okay with public affection, but please respect my decision to say no otherwise."
7. Take a step back.
It can be hard to see what you are doing in the relationship, causing the criticism. Look inward and reflect on what your partner is saying. It can be hard to separate emotions from logic when you feel attacked. At times, your partner is speaking out due to feeling unsupported, and they are crying out for help.
If your partner shares concerns about lack of quality time, take a moment to think about where you have been spending most of your time and attention, and talk with your partner to map out a plan to spend shared activities together.
If your partner shares concerns about not feeling loved, look at how you've expressed love in the past and how you can work towards displaying affection in a reassuring and genuine way to your partner. Asking for what they like as an act of love can also assist in this!
8. Seek Professional Help
In some cases, seeking professional help can be beneficial in navigating criticism in relationships. A professional counselor can serve as a third party and provide guidance and support in developing practical communication skills and resolving conflicts within a relationship. The therapist will incorporate techniques and exercises about your conflicts and focused goals to establish healthy communication and increase intimacy and well-being within the relationship. The benefits of seeking guidance from a therapist or relationship counselor allow you and your partner to express feelings, fears, hopes, goals, values, beliefs, and priorities to improve your relationship.
Navigating criticism in relationships can be challenging. However, with effective communication skills and a willingness to listen and understand each other's perspectives, it is possible to navigate criticism constructively and productively. By practicing active listening, avoiding blaming and accusations, using positive language, and protecting your boundaries, you can prevent criticism from becoming a source of conflict and build a more robust and healthier relationship. Remember that no relationship is perfect, and it is okay to seek professional help if you need it. Professional counseling can provide guidance and support in developing practical communication skills and resolving conflicts. It is much better to seek assistance and support than to allow criticism to become a significant source of conflict in your relationship. Always communicate with each other, be respectful and supportive, and focus on finding solutions to help you move together toward a healthier future.