Moving from Criticism to Connection
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Criticizing your partner when you want something to be different is like cooking a delicious meal, realizing it could use a little more flavor, and then pouring an entire cup of salt in it.
There's good reasoning for John Gottman including criticism as one of The Four Horsemen of divorce (his evidenced based predictors for whether a relationship will end). In The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, Gottman distinguishes criticism from a complaint as “more global- it adds on some negative words about your [partner’s] character or personality.” While a complaint “only addresses the specific action” of your partner and its impact on you.
In The New Rules of Marriage, Terry Real discusses “getting drunk on indignation”. He illustrates the difference between saying “I’m really mad” and “I’m really mad because you’re such an idiot!” The difference? Criticism.
Now, after all that, you may think I’m really not a fan of criticism- and, yeah, I’m not. It really has the capacity to harm relationships because of how personal and blaming it is. Plus, it really hurts to be on the receiving end of it, of course. But even beyond that, there is very little connection that can come from it. Criticism almost always gets a response of defensiveness- which is probably not what you’re looking for. Then, the more defensive your partner may get, the more likely you are to come down even harder with the criticism, and then they may respond with even more defensiveness, and well- you get it. It could go on like that for a while.
But before I go on about criticism for all of its disaffection, I want to tell you- the motivator for criticism is actually, quite typically, the exact opposite of disaffection.
A lot of criticism in relationships comes from an earnest desire for better intimacy- minus the willingness to be vulnerable and share what it is you’re longing for. People who criticize are typically, at their core, not trying to push their partner away, they are actually trying to bring them in.
I mean, really. Let’s think about the reasons why someone resorts to criticism. I’ll throw a few out there and you can see what sticks:
-to be heard
-to be understood
-to be closer
-to have more of what you want in your relationship
-for your partner to know how they hurt you
-for your partner to know how they can avoid hurting you in the future
-to tell your partner what you’re needing
While we know the actual impact of criticism (not great), we also know that no one who would take the time and energy to criticize their partner is content with how things are in their relationship. The very motivator for criticism is that they usually want things to be better.
Once you understand that your criticism is coming from a desire for better intimacy, you can criticize less and start actually going after what it is you’re wanting, and in a way that won’t keep you stuck.
Here’s the kicker: by using criticism as a way to express your motivator, you’re actually avoiding intimacy yourself. So if you are using criticism because you want better intimacy, I have to be honest with you here, you aren’t being intimate or vulnerable either. Using criticism to get better intimacy is like using a shovel to try to climb your way out of a hole- there's probably a better way.
With criticism, you can place blame someone else for not giving you what you want, without ever having to share what it is you’re longing for- which is vulnerable to do. I can just imagine the reasons why someone might be hesitant to lead with vulnerability:
-what if they let me down again
-what if I’m misunderstood
-what if they think my need is unrealistic or unreasonable
And the deeper reasons could be something like:
-this pain is too familiar to uncover
-there is a well of pain there already, I don’t want to open it up
-protecting myself from that feeling is way better than subjecting myself to being hurt more
Once you know where your criticism is coming from and what your barriers are to giving it up, you are much more likely to be able to approach your partner relationally. You then know that a relational approach is not only in the best interest of your partner, but it is in your own best interest too.
Leading with vulnerability and intimacy might sound more like:
“Hey, I’m noticing I really would have loved ______ on our anniversary last year and I was disappointed when you ________. Would you be willing to get them for me this year? It would mean a lot to me.”
Instead of criticism which would sound something like:
“How could you not buy me my favorite _________ on our anniversary?! You’re so aloof and selfish. I shouldn’t have to ask.”
See the difference?
Here are some self-reflective journal prompts for those who are tempted by criticism but who want more connection:
What feels scary, if anything, about sharing what it is you’re longing for?
Have you identified, within yourself, what it is you’re wanting?
What were your past experiences of expressing a longing and not getting it?
What would you have to grieve to be able to share what you want/need without criticism?
What are your past experiences with criticism?
What are the places or relationships where criticism was normalized?