You can, probably, close your eyes, and find a flaw with your partner. Several? Something he or she said or did. You can talk about it to a tee. You could, if you were nudged a little, bring out the mental record book you secretly keep.
In a struggling relationship, you may refer to that book often. Complaints are your way of helping your partner get it together.
But it’s not your complaints. Everyone has complaints about his or her partner. It’s the attacking tone. It’s the harsh way you address them. It’s the verbal aggression directed at their character.
And, left unchecked, it’s tough for marriages to survive it. Hearing criticisms feels like a verbal punch to the gut. They leave partners, and the relationship, breathless – gasping for air.
I get it. You’re trying to reestablish connection. You need him or her to get that something is off in the relationship, and it needs to be talked about. You’re trying to make sense of it.
The Problem with Criticism
Criticism is destructive. Relationships suffer from the impact of it. The problem with criticism is that it sabotages you being heard. The core of your message gets lost in the delivery. Attacking your partner’s character jeopardizes what you’re trying to accomplish. It also implies your partner is the problem.
“Why are you so selfish”
“I can never depend on you. You’re just lazy.”
“You can’t be that dumb to think I would agree to that.”
“What’s wrong with you? Why would you expect that?”
The other problem with criticizing your partner is that it creates an ongoing cycle. Hearing criticism, your partner starts getting angry. He or she starts thinking “You’re just as selfish as I am!”
When you throw insults at your partner — he or she will sometimes throw insults back! Their doing what comes naturally — defending themselves. Some defend with criticisms. Some defend by walking away. Either way, both of you are left assuming the worst about each other.
Criticism takes you down a dead-end road. Eventually, the what won’t matter. The negative interaction will only end up creating distance. It’s going to be difficult for your partner to hear you, if he or she is only hearing your negative opinion of them.
But What If…
What if instead of lashing out at your partner’s character, you speak directly to the thing or situation that you’re upset about? Turn the criticism into a specific complaint.
And, what if you then, after the complaint, make a positive request. This opens space for you to be heard. You also interrupt that vicious cycle of criticism → counter-criticism → criticism.
You take out two birds with one stone. I know, cliché, but true.
Something like: “You don’t care about me” can be turned into “You know, the last 3 days I’ve walked into the house and you didn’t say anything. I would really appreciate it if you would say hello when I walk in. It would help me feel more loved. It would also help me feel that I am important to you.”
There may be elements of truth in your criticism. Your partner may be acting selfishly, and inconsiderate. He or she needs to know this is unacceptable. However, when your frustration comes out this way, your partner may only see you as cruel. He or she will have no interest in hearing what you have to say.
Airing grievances (with criticism) leaves your partner cautious, constantly on guard, and ready to defend him or herself.
A specific complaint, and positive request, hits differently. The impact is softer. It’s less reactive, and more reflective. This may require taking a break. And it may require putting more thought into what you say. But when you complain differently, you’re more likely to accomplish your goal — being heard.