For the Recorder
Published: 8/5/2022 5:54:02 PM
(Editor’s Note: This is the first column from Amy Newshore that will focus on relationships and communication.)
Ever catch yourself criticizing your partner/spouse? Most likely you have. We live in a culture where criticism and judgment often show up with ease and abundance — in our partnerships, homes, work settings, social situations and even in our relationship with ourselves.
We can “hear” criticism in a look on someone’s face, the tone of their voice and, of course, in the words they speak. When our significant other acts in ways or says something we do not like (and perhaps don’t understand), a slew of critical thoughts often pop into our head. We might judge our partner as being ‘uncaring’, ‘selfish’, ‘wrong’, and so on.
Criticism often focuses on someone’s character instead of on the particular behavior we do not like. Not liking that our partner did not put the trash out on trash day is one thing. Thinking or calling them lazy is criticism. Likewise, if someone’s decision about leaving a job is not one that we ourselves would make, it’s one thing to hold the view that we just see things differently. Criticism is considering them to be stupid or wrong.
Let’s face it. Criticism hurts! Dr. John Gottman, a well-known psychologist who has done 30 years of extensive research on relationships, addresses the impact of criticism. Results indicate that criticism is a destructive communication style that correlates with a high predictability for breakups and divorce. 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 disrespected. This dynamic inevitably frays the crucial bond within a relationship — the bond that should ideally be providing a secure and safe haven between partners.
Interestingly, the person dishing out the criticism also gets hurt. Criticism is frequently met with defensiveness, excuses, and/or escalation and even hurled back our way. Having criticism tossed back and forth ends up with two hurt, exasperated people, each feeling helpless to shift this painful dynamic. They are stuck in an endless cycle of unhappiness, without a clear way out.
Here’s the golden nugget of wisdom inside criticism: When we find ourselves feeling critical, this is a sign that we have valuable, unmet needs that are calling for our attention. Before critical words habitually spill out of our mouth, we can — right at that moment — take a breath, bite our tongue and turn our attention inwards. We can then ask ourselves, “What is it that I am needing right now?” Taking this important pause sends us on a trajectory away from criticism and judgment, as our focus is now on taking responsibility for ourselves.
Here is an example: Your spouse has a demanding job, resulting in coming home late every evening. You are not happy about how you hardly see each other. Instead of blurting out “You always come home so late! You really don’t care about me, do you?” the better option is to take that aforementioned pause and tune in to what unmet needs are creating your distress. In this example, it very well might be the need for closeness and quality time together.
We live in a culture that could be considered ‘needs-illiterate’, being that the existence and importance of needs is not generally valued. We have not been taught to understand and connect to what we may be needing at any given moment. Finding ourselves ill-equipped to discuss our needs in our relationships, we are limited in our healthy expression of them. Criticizing is, unknowingly, a pervasive, indirect and generally ineffective way we tend to communicate our unmet needs.
The good news is that, as part of the human family, we commonly share many universal needs regarding our close relationships. Emotional and physical safety, and to be 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, this opens up the opportunity to deepen mutual understanding. The chances of being heard and responded to 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 greater understanding of universal needs can be found at https://baynvc.org/list-of-needs.
Next column: How to stop criticizing and talk about your needs instead.
Amy Newshore is a couples therapist/coach who earned her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch New England University and went on to train in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy along with NonViolent Communication which serve as the foundation of her work as a Relationship Coach. For more information visit her website at www.coachingbyamy.com.