Yesterday, we talked about the nature of criticism and the threat it poses to the longevity of your relationship. Today, I want to talk about a way to reduce this in your daily interactions with your partner.
In general, critcism shows up for one of two reasons: 1) because someone has a complaint about the relationship but expresses it as a character judgment; 2) because someone is feeling attacked and becomes defensive. The second instance is really a form of another negative attitude — defensiveness. We’ll cover that topic next week. For now, we want to focus on the first instance, where criticism shows up because of a complaint.
A healthy relationship is one where both partners feel the freedom to express their complaints and displeasures when they need to. Indeed, very few relationships break apart because of too many complaints. Often, if partners don’t feel the freedom to express their dissatisfaction, they will simply grow distant from one another and eventually the intimacy is lost. So you want to be in a place with your partner where you can express complaints. The goal is to be able to raise these issues without criticism.
I’d like to tell you I’ve got five quick tips for eliminating criticism. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula here. The reality is that both partners must become aware of how damaging criticism is to the relationship and begin changing attitudes about each other. The best way I know to do this is by making a concerted effort to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. This is an exercise in non-judgment — the opposite of what our brains want to do all the time.
You see, people are going to do things you don’t like. That goes for your partner as well. If you can attribute positive intent to your partner’s behavior, or at least refrain from deciding that their behavior was intended to ruin your life, then it makes it much easier to address the problematic behavior without getting lost in personal attacks on one another. This isn’t easy, but it is possible.
When your partner does something that irritates you or bothers you (even if it’s for the millionth time), take a step back in that moment, recognize that it’s the behavior you’re upset about, and prepare to express your discontent in factual, non-judging terms: “You left all the laundry folding to me again last night, and that really frustrates me. We agreed to share in the laundry responsibilities, but I don’t feel like you’re holding up you’re end of the bargain.” Notice that the problem behavior has been addressed and a complaint has been registered, but there has been no attack regarding the offending partner’s intelligence, memory, motives, or general character.
You can also cultivate an attitude of positive intent and non-judging by practicing it in your other relationships and even in daily activities. For example, when you’re driving to work in the morning and someone cuts you off in traffic, instead of yelling at them for being an idiot, you can decide that they just misjudged how close you were, and they didn’t really intend to cut you off. When a coworker says something that upsets you in a meeting, instead of assuming they were trying to attack you, you can decide that they must be having a bad day themselves. Try this exercise for one day: Every time you feel yourself becoming angry, annoyed, or irritated at someone’s behavior, stop and tell a story about that person that paints their behavior in the best, most understanding light possible. You’ll find it’s way easier to come up with negative stories, but I think you’ll also find that there are often very plausible stories that explain why someone did something — stories that remove much of the reason for becoming angry or critical to begin with.
By exercising your brain to see positive intent and to refrain from judging, you will cultivate a less reactive attitude to what happens around you. This will translate to less criticism toward your partner, because you will take his or her behavior less personally.
In the end, reducing criticism is not necessarily a simple task, but it is an important one. Because, although criticism can exist in a successful relationship, it’s long-term presence will typically lead to increasing levels of contempt and defensiveness as well. And once you have all three of those things working together, your relationship is headed for very troubled waters. Minimizing criticism is one of the best ways to keep the other negative relationship attitudes at bay.