(Editor’s note: This is Amy Newshore’s first column that will focus on relationships and communication.)
Have you ever caught yourself criticizing your partner/spouse? You most likely have. We live in a culture where criticism and judgment often come out with ease and abundance – in our partnerships, our homes, our workplaces, our social situations, and even in our relationship with ourselves.
We can “hear” criticism in the look on someone’s face, the tone of their voice and, of course, in the words they speak. When our loved one acts in a way or says something that we don’t like (and perhaps don’t understand), a multitude of critical thoughts often pop up in our head. We might judge our partner as being “indifferent”, “selfish”, “wrong”, etc.
Criticism often focuses on someone’s character rather than the particular behavior we dislike. Not liking that our partner didn’t take out the trash on trash day is one thing. To think or call them lazy is a criticism. Likewise, if someone’s decision to leave a job isn’t one we would make ourselves, it’s one thing to think we see things differently. Critics regard them as stupid or wrong.
Let’s face it. Criticism hurts! Dr. John Gottman, a well-known psychologist who has done 30 years of extensive relationship research, discusses the impact of criticism. The results indicate that criticism is a destructive communication style that is correlated with high predictability of breakups and divorces. Criticism creates a downward spiral that erodes positive feelings and can destroy trust and connection.
When we are criticized, we can feel blamed, rejected and looked down upon. This dynamic inevitably frays the crucial bond within a relationship – the bond that should ideally provide a safe and secure haven between partners.
Interestingly, the person handing out the review is hurt as well. Critics are often met with defensiveness, apologies and/or escalation and even thrown our way. Having criticism back and forth results in two hurt and exasperated people, each feeling powerless to change this painful dynamic. They are stuck in an endless cycle of unhappiness with no clear way out.
Here’s the golden nugget of wisdom inside criticism: When we feel criticized, it’s a sign that we have valuable, unmet needs calling for our attention. Before the critical words usually come out of our mouths, we can – just then – breathe, bite our tongues, and turn our attention inward. We can then ask ourselves, “What do I need right now? Taking this important break sends us on a trajectory away from criticism and judgment, as our focus now is on taking responsibility for ourselves.
Here’s an example: Your partner has a demanding job that requires him to come home late every night. You are not happy with the way you barely see yourself. Instead of blurting out “You always come home so late!” You really don’t care about me, do you? the best option is to take that aforementioned pause and tune in to the unmet needs that are creating your distress. In this example, it could very well be the need for closeness and quality time together.
We live in a culture that could be considered ‘needs illiterate’, since the existence and importance of needs is generally not valued. We weren’t taught to understand and connect to what we might need at any given time. Finding ourselves ill-equipped to discuss our needs in our relationships, we are limited in our healthy expression of them. Criticism is an unknowingly pervasive, indirect, and generally ineffective way of communicating our unmet needs.
The good news is that, as members of the human family, we generally share many universal needs regarding our close relationships. Emotional and physical safety and being treated with understanding, respect and kindness are some examples.
When partners normalize having needs and the importance of communicating them to each other instead of criticizing each other, this opens up the possibility of deepening mutual understanding. The chances of being heard and responded positively are so much greater. Instead of our relationships being painful, distant, tension-filled and stale, they become imbued with closeness and vitality.
A good resource for a better understanding of universal needs can be found at https://baynvc.org/list-of-needs.
Amy Newshore is a couples therapist/coach who earned her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch University in New England and has continued to train in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy as well as non-violent communication that serve as the foundation for his work as a relationship coach. . For more information, visit his website at www.coachingbyamy.com.