I am an expert on using criticism as a defense mechanism. Let me share my painfully gained wisdom with you
Let’s just be totally clear: the type of criticism I am talking about here is NOT designed to build a stronger relationship. It doesn’t give your partner the opportunity to learn a new skill so they have a greater life!
This type of criticism – I think we call it ‘constructive criticism’, probably in the absence of a proper word for it?? – is generally a fruitful interaction between two people. One partner might have asked for feed-back or the other has discovered they could share their skills with their partner to help them out.
Criticism can be like pooh-droppings all over your relationship!
No, no. What I am talking about it the kind of critical remarks we tend to ‘drop’ along the way of communicating with our partner. They sound a bit like this: ‘Why don’t you ever put the cleaning stuff away when you finished cleaning?’. Or: ‘I think you could have talked to the teacher about this issue while you were there.’. Or: ‘Have YOU left the teacup in the living room? It looks so messy!’. Or: ‘I wish it would be more important for you to spend time with your family!’
Okay, enough, I think you get the gist. I admit with a hanging head, most of these examples come from my own mouth. I learned them directly from my mother and dare I say, she did not invent this way of talking either.
Criticism comes in many forms of disguise
What is the effect of these ‘critical droppings’ when we leave them all over our relationship? Firstly, if you have a closer look, I am NOT actually saying what exactly I want. I just let my partner know that I am unhappy about him and his actions in a very indirect way. This tells me (now, that I have gained so much wisdom!) that I feel afraid of the confrontation that might result from a more direct approach. I might be unhappy in my own life and need to put the other one down a little to feel better within myself. I could also be unhappy with the relationship at large and want more connection.
Criticism can undermine connection
This sounds paradox. Think about how children become nagging, naughty or outright angry. This is usually their way of ‘telling’ us they are feeling disconnected from us. They don’t care what measures they need to take to get our attention. Negative attention is better than none!
Naturally, whatever the motive is behind the action, the result is pretty much the opposite to what we are looking for. In my case, I am sure my husband has grown skin the thickness of a rhinoceros to my ‘critical droppings’ over the 25 years. Instead of hearing what I really want to say, he protects himself by shutting down and – bingo – we have more distance rather than more connection! It is a really toxic loop that we can get caught up in. This requires some honest soul-searching and risk-taking on behalf of the person who uses this strategy to make changes.
What can be done about criticism in your relationship?
Step one to undo this habit is awareness. Do you recognize your style in the examples I gave above? Mine are all pretty indirect and manipulative but you might be more overtly critical and tell your partner outright they are doing things wrong.
Secondly, what is your underlying motive of the criticism? Are you unhappy in your relationship and are focusing on your partner’s behaviors to express that? do you feel too unsafe to clearly state what is not okay? May be you are simply following your parent’s way of being in a relationship and have never stopped to consider how your partner might feel hearing all your negative ‘droppings’?
Take an honesty-check with yourself.
Depending on what the reason is for your approach, you might need more help than to just read this newsletter. Clearly, if you feel too unsafe to tell your partner you would like them to pick up their socks, some other things need addressing in your relationship!
If you are angry at large, feel disconnected and alone and try to get your partner’s attention, begin by telling them the truth! This is the most important first step. Tell them how you miss connection, how you would like the relationship to look, and – you guessed it: make a suggestion of what YOU could do to make it more fun and create some space and time to be together.
This will make you feel vulnerable so go slowly and test the waters but be honest! Secondly try to practice with the small things to express them in a more direct way: ‘ I love it when the living room is clean and tidy. I gives me a break from my busy brain where I can relax. Is it possible for you to take your teacup back into the kitchen when you finished with it. It means I don’t have to start cleaning up before I can sit down?’
Now, here is another really important thing: be prepared to repeat this many many times!! Your partner might live on a different planet when it comes to order in the house. They don’t necessarily understand your need let alone share it. So you go about it the same way you teach your kids:
RE-PE-TI-TION is the clue… friendly, directly, and again.
Guess what, it costs a lot less energy even though you are repeating yourself. It creates a gentle connection as your partner doesn’t shut down but instead goes: ‘Oh, yes. Sorry, I forgot again. I will remember next time.’
It even creates some humor as you say it the tenth time and can still laugh about it. You also signal to yourself that you are important enough to make this request and mature enough to do so with patience and consideration.