How to Avoid Criticism in Relationships
Jonathan Swinton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist - February 14, 2012
What better way to say "Happy Valentine's Day" than by taking steps to improve your relationship? Criticism is a damaging communication pattern, and every relationship can benefit from removing it.
We live in a society where criticism has become the norm and respect a thing of the past. This is, in my professional opinion, one of the primary reasons families across the United States are deteriorating.
What does criticism look like? We are critical when we communicate our concerns in a way that can be interpreted as personally attacking or blaming. For example: “Why didn’t you call me when you were coming home late? Didn’t you realize that I was waiting for you? You always put work ahead of me and the kids. You never think about how your actions impact other people.” Clearly, there is a valid concern that may need to be expressed, but the way in which the concern was presented was very personally attacking and blaming.
Criticism is detrimental to relationships for several reasons. First, if you are critical with family members, they may feel belittled. No one likes to feel attacked, and as a result they will become defensive. It doesn’t motivate them to want to change; it only motivates them to defend themselves and save face.
Feeling belittled is especially difficult for children to deal with. When they are criticized, their character is threatened. They may begin to feel poorly about themselves. For example, many self-esteem struggles experienced by children are rooted in critical remarks directed toward them. The sting of criticism can be felt much longer than you may think.
Second, you may regret what you say later. At the time you make critical comments, you likely feel justified in saying the remark. However, it is your emotions that are talking when you are in the heat of the moment. If you are frustrated, irritated, or in some other emotionally charged state, you lose your ability to be rational and objective. Emotions can calm with time. As they do, your ability to be rational will return and you will see how the emotions got the better of you. I love the line in the popular film You’ve Got Mail. Tom Hanks’s character remarks: “When you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.” Even if you may think the other person deserves the zinger you give them, later on you will likely regret what was said.
Third, criticism leads to contempt and resentment. If you are critical with a loved one, they may be patient and forgiving initially. However, research has shown that feeling repeatedly criticized fuels resentment and contempt. Research also highlights that resentment and contempt are extremely toxic to any relationship. Hence, criticism is a catalyst to poisoning relationships.
If you are too critical of loved ones or if they are too critical with you, it is time for a change. Seeking the assistance of a professional may be necessary if the criticism is deeply rooted and habitual. However, you can move past it if you are willing to put forth the effort. So make that effort—the well-being of your family may depend on it.
Ways to Avoid Criticism
Complain without blame. Blaming is at the core of every criticism. If you express frustrations without pointing a finger at another, criticism can be avoided.
Express your frustrations about situations, actions, or behaviors. Human tendency is to focus on how people are bothering us or causing problems rather than the behavioral manifestations that frustrate us. For example, someone may make a critical remark such as “Why can’t you clean up after yourself?” A better way to say it would be, “I feel frustrated about how messy the house is.” The latter example focuses on the situation, rather than the person.
State positive needs. People tend to focus on what they don’t want others to do anymore. For example, a person may say to his or her spouse, “You need to stop playing on the computer all day.” The positive need is likely a desire to have more time and attention from the spouse. A positive need request would be, “I would appreciate more one-on-one time in our relationship.”
Jonathan Swinton is an LDS Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He accepts self and Bishop referrals, and is available to provide marriage and family therapy services and weekend couple retreats to anyone interested. He is also available to speak on marriage issues at Relief Society and Ward events. Contact him at Swinton Counseling: 801-647-9951, swintoncounseling.com.
© LDS Living, January/February 2012.