He’s Always Criticizing Me!
One of the most common things that can undermine a relationship is criticism. People slip into being critical, without even realizing they’re doing it. Starting a conversation with criticism is a good way to ensure that the conversation will deteriorate into unproductive fighting.
Here’s a scenario from a mock counseling session, in which two people begin to learn some more productive ways to communicate.
Jason and Cindy have been married almost five years, and they’re fighting more than ever. Cindy feels that Jason is always finding fault with her. Last night Jason blew up at the dinner table because he didn’t like the casserole Cindy had cooked. She reacted by spending the rest of the evening playing with their 2-year-old son, Daniel, in his room.
Ouch! It’s hard thing when your home becomes a verbal battlefield. Home is often described as a haven, but sometimes it can become a very uncomfortable place.
Cindy: Jason criticized me last night because he didn’t like what I cooked.
Jason: I did not criticize you!
Dr. Nancy: It’s common for couples to disagree about whether a statement was criticism or not. In a relationship, the person on the listening end gets to decide if it was criticism or not.
Jason: That doesn’t sound fair.
Dr. Nancy: It’s fair because the rule applies to both of you. It’s really a form of feedback. If I’m feeling criticized, I close myself off emotionally, in self-protection. I sense a threat, and I put up walls. If you are trying to communicate with me, you need to find a way that makes it easy for me to hear you. Let’s try this out. Jason, tell Cindy how you felt about the dinner last night.
Jason: Like always, you served it while it was still cold on the inside. You know I hate that!
Dr. Nancy: OK, Cindy, it’s your call—did you feel criticized?
Cindy: Yes, I feel criticized!
Jason: I wasn’t criticizing you! I was just making an observation!
Dr. Nancy: The key here is that Cindy feels criticized. Maybe not everyone would feel criticized, but Cindy does.
In this situation the three of us would spend the next few minutes talking about taking ways to communicate that won’t be heard as criticism. If this couple could put aside their criticism, they might find out some important things about each other. The key to success in this endeavor is genuine curiosity about your partner’s experience. Not sure if your comment will be heard as criticism? Just ask!
Let’s try this scenario again.
Jason: I was upset that dinner was cold last night. Cindy, did that sound like criticism to you?
Cindy: No, not really. I don’t understand why the temperature of the dinner matters so much to you.
Jason: Well, my mom used to serve great dinners, but when she started drinking too much, she often served dinner cold. I guess a cold dinner reminds me of the worst days of my childhood.
Cindy: Wow, I didn’t know that! I can try to serve a warmer dinner, but Jason, we both work full-time and you never help with anything!
Jason: OK, I get it. Cindy, I feel criticized by that statement.
Cindy: Let me try that again then. I don’t feel like putting dinner on the table should be only MY responsibility. I’d like more help from you.
Jason: I thought I was helping by keeping Daniel out of your hair.
Cindy: To me, that looks like you get to have fun while I work in the kitchen.
Jason: Maybe we can reorganize the evening duties so we have a better balance of work and play for the both of us.
Cindy: I love that idea. Thanks, honey.
What is the take-away here? Criticism kills a relationship. Before bringing up a problem, rehearse what you’ll say, listening carefully for anything your partner might hear as critical. Take a moment to consider the other person’s perspective, and verbalize your concern in a way that honors your partner’s point of view. If you go ahead with a critical statement, you’re probably not going to get what you’re after.
Thanks to John Gottman for the ideas in this scenario.
About the Author
Nancy Heath, Ph.D., is the Director, Human Development and Family Studies Programs at American Public University. Dr. Heath earned her Ph.D. from Purdue University in Child Development and Family Studies. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Her professional experience includes work in the mental health and healthcare arenas, as well as 10 years of online teaching experience.