Nothing amplifies looming relationship problems quite like wedding planning. With the help of wedding stress, what was once an annoying behavior can turn into a bigger issue you didn’t even realize was there.
I recently came to the realization that I’m critical in my relationship. It all started when my fiancé and I renovated our kitchen pantry. He did most of the work with his father, while I helped with the cosmetics, buying materials, and making home-cooked meals while they worked. While I was happy with the outcome of the project, I couldn’t help but obsess over the fact that the new light fixture still wasn’t installed and the baseboards still weren’t painted weeks after the pantry was ready for use again. How I tend to focus on the 10 percent of a project that’s incomplete has shown me that I often glaze over the 90 percent that is completed. It’s not just with the pantry; it’s how I felt until I was given an engagement ring; it’s how I feel as I write this article that’s still lacking an ending; it’s how I’ll feel until I write the whole of that book I’m working on. My focus is usually on what’s not there, instead of what is.
When my brother and I were kids, my father would ask us to pick up all the sticks around our yard before he mowed the lawn. Once we were finished, he’d walk the length of the several-acre property reviewing our performance with us in tow. For every stick he found, he docked our allowance a nickel. We despised these moments with him—it seemed like we’d never be able to do enough. Now, while laying the groundwork for a marriage built on compassion and positive affirmation, I have to learn how to be OK when things aren't finished to my liking. (I like to call this not rewrapping someone else’s burrito.) To learn how to spot and unlearn critical behavior, I interviewed relationship coach and clinical psychologist Dr. Jessica Higgins. She shared the effects of criticism on a relationship and suggestions for breaking those patterns before they become foundational cracks.
“Critical people tend to move through the world with high expectations for themselves and others,” says Higgins, “They also put more attention on performance and results, rather than unconditional acceptance.” Higgins suggests that many people who grew up with judgment and criticism create these behaviors for themselves later in life, often as a defense mechanism. Their attention is focused on evaluating situations, others, and themselves in an attempt to discern who is to blame, as well as deflect and defend against perceived criticism. “They may feel resentful, perhaps because they feel they are doing more than their fair share or are unhappy with how their partner is showing up in some regard. Instead of sharing how they are feeling, they express frustration and resentment through criticism,” says Higgins. People who are highly critical in their relationships sometimes have difficulty asserting their needs, desires, and preferences, and have less than ideal communication techniques. “Again, criticism is more of a defensive posture, because the person does not feel that it is okay to make mistakes, let their guard down, and be accepted for who they are fully,” says Higgins.
To unlearn critical behavior, it’s best to figure out what’s underneath the critical statement you’re tempted to make. Higgins suggests asking yourself, what is the true feeling and message behind the critique? “Sometimes we’ll find that we’re actually feeling anxious, hurt, overwhelmed, or scared. Exploring these feelings will require a willingness to confront painful feelings like sadness, loss, grief, hurt, and fear,” she says. Once you have a sense of which feelings that could be at play, try practicing acceptance of imperfections. Look for ways to value the process instead of the results, and identify a few small ways you and your partner are making progress. Instead of seeking perfection, try to seek understanding, compassion, and regard for yourself and others.
Practice explicitly asking for what you want while acknowledging the positive qualities in others so you’re properly set up to experience appreciation and gratitude for what is rather than what’s not.
Unhealthy criticism is blaming and shaming, or communicating what is incorrect or what not to do. Constructive feedback (a suggestion) offers guidance for the future or identifying where there’s room for growth. “Unhealthy criticism tells someone how they are wrong, bad, and inadequate, whereas constructive criticism offers support, belief, and encouragement,” says Higgins. Unhealthy criticism is character-attacking and often repetitive, and the cumulative effect is overwhelming negativity. Calling someone lazy is an example of this. Constructive criticism focuses on specific behaviors, not the person. It offers a more balanced ratio of positive to negative feedback. For example, “I appreciate that you’ve had a long day and want to relax. I’m tired too. Would you be willing to help me with dinner cleanup so we can both relax together?”
“Foremost, state what is true for you. Instead of casting judgment and telling your partner they are ‘too emotional’ or ‘just overreacting,’ try: ‘I am surprised by your emotion and not sure what to say to make you feel better. Can you help me understand?’” says Higgins. Stay away from claims or evaluations of your partner. Replace “you are driving too fast” with “I am uncomfortable with how fast we’re going.” Once you get the hang of this shift in communication style, it can become even more natural than your former behaviors.
Some other behaviors to avoid include name-calling and character attacks. Higgins explained that while it’s more obvious that harsh words like jerk, crazy, or stupid should be avoided, there are more subtly aggressive words that should be avoided as well, such as childish, immature, irrational, or inconsiderate. Character attacks often involve using all-or-nothing statements (“you always” or “you never”). “In response to these phrases, your partner will likely be defensive and react to your blanket statement by providing evidence that contradicts what you’ve claimed,” says Higgins. “This turns into a back-and-forth about who is right, and it will escalate into an argument.” Instead, try using language that is more flexible, for example “in this type of scenario, I’ve noticed that you…” which is more likely to be received as feedback instead of critique. That way, your partner will be able to stay focused on what you’re saying rather than defending against a sweeping generalization.
The next time you’re tempted to critique, try pausing before commenting. Think hard about what you want to say and how you can deliver it in a compassionate way. “Let your partner be them, and let you be you,” says Higgins. You might handle a certain situation differently than your partner, but it’s crucial to respect your partner’s autonomy when making decisions. Similarly, next time you catch them doing something to benefit the two of you, tell them. To my fiancé: the pantry is beautiful, and it’s because of you. (And I forgive you for that time you rewrapped my burrito.)