Martha: You are so irresponsible! I’m tired of your leaving things around the house. You expect me to clean up after you. I’m not your maid. Why don’t you grow up?
Jason: You’re always criticizing me! Why can’t you cut me some slack? You don’t appreciate all I do for you.
Al: Something has been bothering me. Is this a good time for you to talk? (If the answer is “yes”): I get upset and frustrated with you when you leave your clothes and other things around the house. I would appreciate it if you would pay more attention to putting these things where they belong.
Alice: I feel a bit defensive, but I appreciate that you told me this constructively. I think you have a reasonable point. I will try to remember to put my things away so you don’t have to pick up after me.
Clearly, the couples in these two situations are communicating very differently with one another. The partners in Situation #1 are using a communication style which could be characterized (described) as nonconstructive, dysfunctional (failing to serve a useful purpose), and emotionally reactive (automatically reacting in an emotional way without thinking through the consequences). These consequences may include how their partner might react to what they said — and how this, in turn could affect the nature and quality of their subsequent (later) relationship.
In contrast, the partners in Situation #2 appear to be relating more constructively and functionally (working effectively and well), and more in control of their negative emotions. Put simply, the partners in Situation #2 are using a style of communication that is more effective and constructive than the one used by partners in Situation # 1. Some implications (or consequences) of this are that the partners in Situation #1 will be much less likely to be and feel satisfied, safe, and content, together — or even remain in their relationship — than the partners in Situation #2.
A Wider Perspective
Some authors and therapists recommend that partners in committed relationships avoid criticizing one another. Their rationale (explanation or underlying reason) is that criticizing one’s partner undermines and erodes the quality of their relationship. I think this can sometimes be the case, but often not. From my point of view, it is vital to distinguish (differentiate) between constructive and nonconstructive criticism. Without this distinction being made, something very important will be lost in the quality and potentials of these relationships.
Here’s an analogy (similarity) to help communicate my point: When many people think of eating foods high in “cholesterol” they think of cholesterol as being all bad. However, nutritional science and physicians makes a distinction between “good” cholesterol (HDL) and “bad” cholesterol (LDL). To eliminate all cholesterol from one’s diet would not be a wise or healthy thing to do. We want to stay away from the “bad” cholesterol but eat more foods containing the “good,” health-promoting cholesterol.
This kind of distinction can be made with criticism as well. It is my strong belief that there is relationship-building and enhancing (increasing, strengthening) criticism, and relationship eroding and destroying criticism. Put another way, there is good and bad, and mentally healthy and unhealthy criticism. In evaluating the use of day-to-day criticism in intimate relationships, this distinction — between the two varieties of criticism — is crucial.
An important key for building and maintaining the quality of intimate (including romantic) relationships is the emphasis on sharing many more positive than negative interactions. Examples of positive exchanges include such things as expressing appreciation, love, caring, gratitude, admiration, respect, valuing, interest, and desire. So-called “negative” exchanges include such things as expressing anger, criticism, disappointment, frustration, resentment, envy, jealousy, and disillusionment. The expression of both positive and negative feelings, thoughts, evaluations, motives, inclinations, impressions, and reactions have their legitimate place in close and growing relationships.
From my point of view, what is most important is that these positives and negatives are, and remain, in balance with one another. Therefore, from this perspective, two opposite forms of imbalance can occur: Relationships can be imbalanced on the side of an excess of negative interchanges, and, on the side, of an excess of positive interchanges.
For many people, it is much easier to understand how an excessive use of negative interchanges can damage relationships. When one treats one’s partner poorly, or especially abusively, it is easy to see how the mistreated partner’s self-esteem and self-worth can be reduced as a result. In addition, the mistreated partner tends to build up (often not expressed directly) many negative feelings and attitudes towards his/her partner. It is also easy to understand how being treated well, respectfully, considerately, etc. can help that partner feel good about himself/herself. So, it follows that people who have high self-worth and self-esteem will be less defensive and more constructive and positive in their interactions with others.
What is sometimes more difficult to understand (grasp, comprehend) is how problems in relationships can come about when, for whatever the reasons, one or both of the partners feel they must hold back from saying (or even thinking) how they really feel towards the partner. Some partners who get locked into daily verbal and emotional combat with one another, have many resentments built up towards one another — both consciously and unconsciously (out of awareness). Under these circumstances, they withhold verbalizing their positive feelings towards one another. They sometimes do this because they don’t want the resented partner to get the satisfaction of knowing that they are needed, desired, and depended upon.
In addition, sometimes they withhold verbalizing or sharing their positive feelings towards one another because they feel vulnerable and weak just having these needs! To further complicate matters, research shows that when people are in tense, conflicted, and unhappy relationships they actually misperceive (or even dont notice) half of all the positive expressions that their partner is actually making. In other words, due to “negative bias” — picking up (selectively) on negatives from others much more than picking up on positive communications — they end up with a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” That is — whatever they fear experiencing with their partner, they are more likely to actually experience due to their mindset – their pre-existing expectations and anticipations. This is a biased “template” or script developed in early childhood. So, if you expect something bad to happen to you, you will be more on the lookout for the “bad.” But, if you have a general tendency to see the good in others and situations, you will more likely find the “good.” Note that much of this process happens unconsciously (out of awareness); there is a lack of conscious choice going on here.
It is important for partners in close relationships to be authentic and genuine with one another. For relationships to be truly intimate (not restricted to surface communications), it is necessary to allow oneself to be vulnerable by sharing on deeper levels. There is some risk taking involved with opening up about oneself — particularly in relationship with your partner. You hope that your partner will reciprocate (return in kind or degree), but there are no guarantees that this will happen.
You may need to be an initiator of intimacy and blaze new emotional trails. This kind of opening up may be unfamiliar or even scary for your partner. The rewards can be great, though, if you can both (respectfully and sensitively) talk about things that are bothering you about the other, and your relationship together. Sometimes your partner may respond to your disclosure by saying something like: “I never knew you felt that way. I’d be glad to make the change you are suggesting. I want you to be happier with our relationship.” This is one of the joyous rewards of an intimate, respectful, and caring, ongoing dialog and relationship.
In an opposite situation, there are so-called “pseudo-mutual” (falsely mutual, just apparently close) couples who avoid conflict at all costs. They need to maintain the illusion that they have an ideal or perfect marriage/relationship. They cannot tolerate differences of opinion, or different points of view, preferences, or beliefs. They unconsciously are seeking a fused or merged relationship. They have great difficulty distinguishing between self from other. They share a strong philosophy and inclination to not rock the boat or make waves in their relationship. They avoid risking a change in the status quo. They have an almost phobic-like fear of disagreeing and arguing with one another, and experiencing themselves as separate individuals.
One or both of these “pseudo-mutual” (or falsely close) partners may predominantly (or mostly) have a “false self” — an outward appearance or psychological “mask,” originating in childhood as a survival mechanism — that is designed to adjust smoothly and non-conflictually with the important people in their environment. Hidden beneath this surface, “people pleasing,” veneer, is a “true” (more real and authentic) self, waiting to be found, liberated, and developed.
Since these conflict avoidant partners are threatened by differences, and by simultaneously being both part of a couple and being separate individuals, they will suppress, repress, block out, deny, or avoid all (or nearly all) criticism of their partner – even constructive and helpful criticism. What results from this form of adjustment is a superficial shell of a seemingly intimate, but actually non-intimate, distanced relationship. They hardly know one another because they find comfort, familiarity, and value in maintaining rigid, unchanging (and therefore non-growth producing) idealized or restricted beliefs about one another.
They may stay with one another for long periods of time — even a lifetime — but at the cost of cutting off the possibilities of experiencing a more enriching personal development and having a more gratifying and satisfying life together. For these types of couples, learning how to be constructively critical of one another would open many doors to a more energized, vital, fulfilling, and goal oriented, shared life.
An important question to ask is: What happens to one’s negative feelings when they are never expressed (directly and overtly) towards one’s partner? I believe that the individual who keeps so much inside (unverbalized, and not even thought about) ends up with a variety of unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms usually are not mentally linked or connected to the unresolved issues in their primary relationship. (Such symptoms include bodily, physical and medical problems — as with psychosomatic problems [as relating to sleeping, eating, digestion, sexuality, etc.] which do not yield or respond to medical treatments); mood and mental disturbances and disorders — as with anxiety and depression, alcohol and other drug problems; accidents; and a large variety of other problems and difficulties.)
With regard to partners’ use of criticism in close relationships, there can be relationship-based problems on two ends of the spectrum (continuum). There can be too much criticism, and too little criticism. There can be too much negativity, and too little positivity. There can be a lack of clarity (clearness, differentiation) of the distinctions between constructive and nonconstructive criticism. One needs to consider the advantages and disadvantages of both expressing and deciding not to verbalize (or even being aware of) one’s criticisms of one’s partner. Every relationship and (almost) every interaction within a relationship is different. What works for one couple may not work for another couple. What works in one circumstance (including their stage of life) may not work well in another.
General communication related principles that could be helpful to you with regard to the issues talked about in this article are as follows:
- Reflect carefully on what you say before you say it. Consider the potential consequences on your relationship if you decide to say something, or not say something.
- Even if you feel you are in the right in saying something to your partner, and you say it in the most constructive way you know how, your partner still might react defensively and either ignore what you have said, be unduly threatened by this (as due to a pre-existing sensitivity), or retaliate against you.
- Seriously consider backing off if you see that your good intentions and motives are not having a good effect. Consider bringing the issue back up at another time when you think the circumstances may be more to your mutual advantage.
- Be prepared to stop pushing your partner to change when you see from repeated attempts that your efforts to accomplish this are producing more negative results or consequences (to the entire relationship) than they are worth.
- Ask your partner if s/he would be willing to read this article.
- If you get stuck and find you can’t get past this problem together, consider seeing a professional couple therapist to help you and your partner get past your blockages and stuck points.