ERP 329: Specific Ways Of How To Deal With Criticism In Relationship

By Posted in - Podcast July 19th, 2022 0 Comments

If you’ve been listening to the Empowered Relationship Podcast, you’ve probably heard Dr. Jessica Higgins talk about criticism and how it affects relationships. The goal here is to collaborate with your partner to co-create a fulfilling and passionate relationship. However, leading with criticism can make you or your partner feel defensive or attacked, diverting the entire communication to this criticism defensive loop.

In this episode, Dr. Higgins answers some listener and reader questions about criticism, along with some illustrations to help explain it further. As with many of these podcasts, these are not comprehensive responses, but they do provide some food for thought.

Listeners’ questions

8:44 “I’d be interested if you have any thoughts or perhaps a podcast around how we listen with or for criticism. I think we sometimes hear what we are feeling in ourselves. Just a thought.”

15:21 “I appreciate this content—it is helpful. However, I am confused about whether you should not help your partner become a better person. Please address this.”

25:28 “I am critical of a part of my girlfriend’s body that cannot be changed and don’t want to end the relationship, but it causes me great anxiety. [I] don’t want to leave the relationship, but it is something that may never go away for me internally and it’s making me very unhappy. I really like her in so many other ways and [I] hate this. Do I stay or do I go?”

28:24 “Dr. Higgins. My wife is constantly criticizing me. She never has anything nice to say to me or any praise for anything I do to try and make her happy. Never says thank you or shows any sign of affection to me. It is to a point where I wish I could stop treating her with love and dish out the same stuff she gives me, but I just can’t be like that. I have tried to tell her I would like it ever so often if she could reciprocate the kindness and love I show her, but it is like she doesn’t care about my feelings. We are both in our sixties, and I just don’t think I have the energy to leave this marriage and find someone I can build a new, better relationship with. Plus, I really love her and leaving would be a hard blow to our family. How far do I go?”

35:05 “I have read a lot of articles over the years about this particular issue – criticism, as there is a lot of conflict over this issue in my marriage of 30 years. I feel that I have had to try to exist in a bit of a dysfunctional vacuum, where the fact that her father was an alcoholic, was not allowed to be discussed or acted upon in a way that was healthy for our own family which we were establishing together. If I raised the issue of her father’s behavior (who is a very charming but also a very manipulative man), or how that might have affected the way she and I relate and communicate, my efforts were labelled as “critical”.

I tried over the years, many different approaches to these communications, but they generally ended in the same way, namely in an argument, resulting in her withdrawing herself from me, for a few days, then her cooling off and eventually her acknowledging the problem and apologising, but only so that the conflict could end. Unfortunately, this apology was forgotten a week later, and we often found ourselves in the same place a month or two later. I called it Groundhog Day, because of the familiar cycle.

My wife appeared to be prepared to do anything to avoid the accountability of acknowledging, communicating about and addressing the dysfunctional behaviour within her own family, and with it, avoiding accountability for her own denial of her own behaviour. This repetitive cycle eventually became a power struggle, in which her final weapon was to doubt our marriage, and my character, and whether she could remain in the marriage. It was an ultimatum that if I chose to raise these ‘uncomfortable” issues, I would have to face that I was not important enough to her, for her to authentically discuss or address these issues. Part of the behaviour I have consistently observed is her extreme avoidance of conflict (which was the same way her father avoided any scrutiny for his own behaviour).

My question is, when there is a problematic (dysfunctional) behaviour, that needs to be addressed between a couple, and despite every effort to raise the issue constructively, empathetically, gently, using I words etc etc the communication seems to deteriorate, because the real motivation is to avoid the issue altogether and hope it disappears into “fantasy land”. The excuse is that the avoidance is justified because the communication is critical in nature, and while I know that some people view all criticism as problematic, surely there is necessary constructive criticism that is not directed as a “character flaw” of another person?”

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Allow yourself to be influenced by your partner. This encourages the notion that your partner has your back.
  • Take good care of yourself.
  • Find a way to gently alert your partner if you begin to sense criticism or unkindness from them.
  • Spend a little time away—not to get away from your partner, but simply to refuel—to experience that sense of happiness and fulfilment.
  • Start acknowledging and appreciating yourself.
  • Speak up about some of the things you want to acknowledge.
  • Do not hesitate to reach out to someone if you need more support.

Mentioned

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication (free guide)

Shifting Criticism – Empowered Relationship (course)

How to Know If You Are Too Critical in Relationship & Why (article)

https://drjessicahiggins.com/criticism-reconnect/ (podcast, articles on the topic of criticism)

https://drjessicahiggins.com/erp-177-how-to-offer-comfort-to-your-significant-other/ (podcast)

https://drjessicahiggins.com/erp-178-how-to-offer-comfort-to-your-significant-other-part-two/ (podcast)

The Gottman Institute

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

If you’ve listened to the Empowered Relationship Podcast for any length of time, I am certain you have heard me speak to criticism before. And really, this all got started many years ago. I started podcasting in 2015, the beginning, and I was at the time writing articles as well. It turns out that was difficult to sustain to both release a weekly podcast and a weekly article so I gravitated more towards the podcast. 

However, I had written a few articles about criticism, what’s happening, how to negotiate that and it ended up getting a lot of interest and comments. And so, thus, I then later created a couple of different versions of a course to support people in how to shift out of that critical tendency. 

The current version, Shifting Criticism Into Connected Communication, is utilizing research as well as evidence-based practices and a lot of tools and resources that specifically help people in understanding what’s at play and how to get out of these tendencies and habits, and really setting up communication so that your partner will respond to you. 

I’ve also mentioned a free guide, which I’ll also put on today’s show notes. I’ll also put a link to that course on today’s show notes as well. 

The guide is a side-by-side comparison giving you specific situations for you to look at what a critical tendency or statement might sound like and what a more connected or revealing communication would look like to your significant other so that they will respond to you. Right? Really the goal here is this responsiveness. 

When we lead with criticism, typically our partner will feel some level of defensiveness because they’re trying to defend what they feel as some level of characterization or attack. And so, they’re wanting to feel typically fairly understood or fairly characterized. 

And so, that then diverts the whole communication to this criticism defensiveness loop, when really, oftentimes the person that is reaching to their partner has some need, fear, concern, or longing that they’re addressing. And yet, that gets missed and distracted by the communication defensiveness loop. 

As I mentioned, you can find the guide, the free guide on today’s episode, in the show notes page. You can also find the link to the course that I’m mentioning, also on today’s show notes page. 

Today, I’m going to be answering some listener and readers’ questions regarding criticism as they have read the articles or perhaps listened to other podcasts. And to make it easy, I’ll put the link for those two articles, as well as a couple of episodes that I’ve done on criticism. If you notice this exists in your relationship, whether or not you’re the person that feels criticized, or whether or not you’re the person that tends to lead with some complaint, blame, or criticism. 

I’m going to address a couple of general questions and then I’m going to move more into specific questions where people are sharing a little bit more about their situation. And I’m going to offer some feedback. 

Now, again, as many of these podcasts go, it’s not a comprehensive response. It’s giving you some things to work with. And again, if you’re needing more support, I want to encourage you to reach out to someone in your area. Perhaps if you want to reach out to me specifically, my assistant Kavita and/or I will respond to you. And again, you can find how to reach us on the contact page at DrJessicaHiggins.com.

The first question is, again, more general. I’ll read it and I’m going to keep everyone’s name anonymous as people post or comment on the article page. Some people in the past have posted and then they later said, “Oh, I didn’t realize everything was going to be displayed.” I think people are a little bit more aware of that now. But as I said, I started this over seven years ago. 

Listening with criticism

So, the first question says, “I’d be interested if you have any thoughts or perhaps a podcast around how to listen with or for criticism. I think we sometimes hear what we are feeling in ourselves. Just a thought.” 

Thank you so much for making this comment. I absolutely agree that this happens. I can say for myself that if I’m having a difficult time, perhaps I am stressed or more irritable, I will likely be more annoyed, judgmental, and critical of those around me. 

This will also happen for me when I feel overwhelmed or emotional and perhaps, I haven’t given myself time to process, where I haven’t really given myself the space to experience what’s happening. So, it’s almost as if I’m tightly holding difficulty or painful emotions inside of me that I haven’t given space for that then it’s almost like my cup is already full that then trickles over into my interactions with others. 

Also, listening with criticism can happen when we have been used to a lot of criticisms in our life perhaps growing up in that environment if we haven’t felt a sense of acceptance or that unconditional regard, which I get is difficult to fully experience. 

And yet, if we grow up with that sense of judgement, evaluation, criticism, or that if we don’t meet certain standards, that there’s a great cost to that, the threat of that, or perhaps something bad will happen. I might get yelled at. I might get sent to my room. I might feel rejected. These types of things. 

Free Young multiethnic friends in casual outfit with backpack gossiping behind back of African American guy sitting on bench in headphones and taking notes in notebook in city street in daylight Stock Photo

“We learn to protect ourselves through controlling our outward environment. That can look like criticizing ourselves and criticizing others as we are attempting to reach this level of perfectionism, which often is unattainable. This is a coping strategy.”

So, then we learn to protect ourselves through controlling our outward environment. And also, that can look like criticizing ourselves and criticizing others so that we are attempting to reach this level of sometimes perfectionism, which often, as we know, is unattainable. Again, this is a coping strategy. 

And so, we can feel anxious or even prone to this perfectionism when we are in that critical mindset. Because again, we’re needing to keep things on point to prevent the bad thing from happening. Recently, I would say about a month ago, I was working with a client who is more perfectionistic in her tendencies and did grow up in an environment where her mother was very harsh with her, would yell at her, have angry outbursts. 

One of her ways of coping with that was to try to help, try to do and say the right thing. This was both reactive and also preventative so that she was always attending to what’s the right thing to do, what’s the right thing to say, and that that was something that really helped shape her. 

Now, this can be tricky because so often, particularly in modern Western culture here in the US, that achieving, excelling is highly rewarded. And she has accomplished a lot both in her academics, her career, and in many arenas, and in her business that she developed and is continuing to cultivate and lead others. 

So, there’s many ways in which she is performing at such a high level. And at the same time, she talks about how this perfectionistic tendency and criticism of others and of herself takes a toll. How it impacts her relationships and her sense of self and her self-esteem, if you will. 

She was remarking on her interaction with her sister. And she was saying, it is so interesting, “I don’t even have to be the one that’s making the mistake. It can have very little bearing on me. It’s not me that’s making the mistake. And yet, I will still get annoyed, and I will still be frustrated.” 

And so, as we looked at the example that she brought up, she talked about driving with her sister where she’s the one driving, and her sister is navigating giving her the directions. She talked about her sister giving her incorrect directions, and that she noticed herself feeling annoyed and frustrated. 

As we unpacked that and explore that a little bit more became apparent that her frustration landed from that even though it was her sister that made the error, that it still felt as though it was reflecting poorly on her. That it essentially took her down a couple notches in her performance and that that is such a heightened degree of hyper vigilance to this level of excellence that she can’t even have someone else make a mistake that impacts her without that leading to some physiological, or even emotional arousal, feeling frustrated, or annoyed. 

Even though this is a small example, it’s extremely telling in how hard she is on herself and how this impacts her relationships with others in both how she feels about herself internally and also how she might view others that this is such a mode of operating. 

I bring this up to share just in response to this listener and this reader’s comment that absolutely that this inner critic can absolutely influence how we perceive others and essentially skew our attention to track for the negative. And then, I talk about that in the course and how we have a negative bias. We all do this as an evolutionarily protective mechanism inside us as human beings that we are wired up to survive, which means we want to mitigate any threats, risks, or harm. And this could then be even further exasperated by our environment growing up. 

Again, I talk a lot more about this and go into greater depth in the course and also give many examples and exercises to work with to help shift out of this. 

The next listener/reader’s comment is, “I appreciate this content. It is helpful. However, I’m confused about whether you should not help your partner become a better person. Please address this.” 

I was actually so grateful to get this comment because this is such a slippery slope. I know this so well. It’s entirely true that in partnership, we are witnessed to the development of our significant other. We have a front seat to what they share about what matters to them, what their goals are, what they would love. And, again, it’s so much easier to see things on the outside than it is to be experiencing them. So, not only do we have our front seat to their process, but we also have greater insight knowledge to what they are wanting to develop and cultivate in our lives. We can probably see it so much clearer. 

When we talk about the difference maker here, it’s solicited or unsolicited. This can be so baffling when we are in partnership because it’s almost as if that’s part of our role, that we would offer that level of feedback and that our partner would be responsive to that. 

Now in the Gottman’s work, The Gottman Institute, John Gottman, Julie Gottman, and their colleagues, they talk about allowing yourself to be influenced by your partner to be even persuaded, if you will. Not in a manipulative way to be manipulated, but that you are allowing yourself to be influenced because they do have this vantage point with you. And it really fosters this sense of goodwill that our partner has our back and we have their back and this sense of alliance. So, there’s so much good that can come from that. 

And yet, when we are in a pattern in relationship, perhaps where criticism is running romped or even perhaps that it’s gone to stonewalling or contempt because again, the Gottman talks about the four deadly horse men and that is the criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. 

In a climate, relationally, like the environment in the couple bond, if those are running romped, it can be difficult to feel as though our partner is coming from a place of good intent, goodwill, and that is a safe space. So often, when we feel defensive, we do not feel safe.

Again, addressing this person’s comment around helping your partner be a better person. Now, if they’ve asked you to be that person, that’s a whole different thing. I imagine that there would be some way in which that happens that would work. 

If I have asked my husband, “Hey, I’m struggling with this thing. I really want to work towards overcoming it.” It’s almost like an accountability partner. Then, I would ask him to check in with me or if I’m having a difficult time getting to the goal and what might be getting in the way, I could brainstorm with him. That absolutely happens in relationship. And again, I think that happens best and works well when it’s solicited. 

Now when it’s unsolicited, largely in relationship, we’re not looking to be evaluated. We are evaluated at work. We’re evaluated in our educational programs. We’re evaluated in so many other arenas. Largely, in relationship, we want to feel known. We want to feel seen. We want to feel understood. We want to feel safe, and we want to feel loved. It’s not about having to earn any type of approval, which it can run that risk when it feels like criticism can be strong. And again, I think there’s a way in which this can be done that works really well. And again, that unsolicited versus solicited is a key factor. 

Free Glad male hiker with unrecognizable ethnic female beloved showing thumbs up and giving high five while looking at each other in campsite Stock Photo

“In relationship, we’re not looking to be evaluated. We’re evaluated in so many other arenas. Largely, in relationship, we want to feel known. We want to feel seen. We want to feel understood. We want to feel safe, and we want to feel loved. It’s not about having to earn any type of approval, which it can run that risk when it feels like criticism can be strong.”

And again, as I mentioned just a moment ago, the safety and the stability of the relationship is a huge factor as well. I think relationships where there’s a deep trust and there’s a deep sense of safety that one another have each other’s back. I think the relationship can tolerate feedback that seems critical. 

And even in constructive criticism. I know I’m using the word critical as a universal term, but even constructed, well laid out diplomatic criticism is still a criticism. I have run into this so many times with my partner, and I’ll tell you about that in just one moment. But I just want to say, as I mentioned, that if we’re feeling a lot of stress, and maybe it’s not even within the relationship, if there’s contextual stress, situational stress, that that can reduce one’s tolerance, resilience to be open to that. We’re more vulnerable. 

It just reminds me. When my husband and I were dating, this was I think in 2005, we were in this graduate program. The first year is a lot of process and doing one’s inner work. They had some celebratory event and there was a talent show. Back in the days, in my 20s all through adolescence, I loved to dance and I loved hip-hop dance, particularly. And at the time, I hadn’t really done it in a while. But I was like, “I’ll do this.” And so, I choreographed this whole dance, and performed it. 

I hadn’t felt that well the day of. Performing isn’t my first love by any means so it was a little bit of a risk for me to do that. I remember after it was done, I got all the applause. It was a super supportive environment. I do get a lot of people coming up to me and asking me if I taught, where did I teach, and these type of things. It was super complimentary. 

Anyway, I was most interested in what my now husband thought. At the time, I solicited his feedback but it was entirely too early. I didn’t realize that. So, I felt a little vulnerable. I turned to him. I think I asked him like, “Do you have any feedback for me?” 

He had said, “Oh, how great.” Everybody was greeting me but I was actually soliciting the constructive feedback. He said, “Yes, I think you could have looked up more.” because I looked down more than I was looking at people. He started to give me feedback. I was like, “Okay, wait. Just a second.” I was like, “I’m going to ask you this tomorrow. I don’t know that I’m even ready. It’s too soon.” So, all that to say that when we’re vulnerable, it can be more difficult. Even if we feel comfortable, and we feel prepared and even confident to get that, it can be a little bit more difficult to receive. 

Going back to how this has been a learning curve for me, I definitely have the value of developing, growing, and proving oneself. If you’ve listened for any length of time, I’m sure you have gotten that from me. That translates to my personal life. It’s very much a part of who I am. And thus, it shows up in my relationship. 

There have been so many occasions and I’ve learned this. I even created a podcast very early on. I’ll make sure to put a link to today’s show notes. I believe it is about the ways in which we support our significant other. And by and large, most people just want to feel heard, and just want to feel listened to. 

My natural tendency is to get excited, or to get curious, and probe, and want to know more. And then I get into offering ideas and suggestions, what sounds like brainstorming, or might even sound like feedback, or at times critical because I’m looking at it through that lens of what could be better. So even that could feel like criticism. 

I’ve just learned over and over and over again that my husband does want my input. He does want my feedback and timing is so relevant. If he’s feeling the ouch or the pain or the difficulty, he wants to feel my support. He wants to feel that safe place to land, and to feel really understood and known. 

And then, if he’s interested or wants my feedback, I will say even to this day, I ask because I’m eager. I will say, “I have some thoughts or have some input or feedback. Would you like it?” So that’s another thing that can be done is we can ask for permission. And it is up to the person to say too soon, or I’d like to know but maybe later. 

However, many of us will say, “Yes, I’m open to it when really we’re saying no.” And that is something to just, again, put on the learning curve because it’s not going to feel so good. So, then we have to learn to say, “No, not now.” “No. Thank you.” Or “I’d really just love for you to listen if you’re willing.” 

And so, that’s something to always be negotiating. I don’t think it’s an exact rule of thumb. I think my husband and I still try to calibrate this because there are times where we do want each other’s feedback and there are other times that we just really want to feel supported. 

And again, if you have more questions or thoughts about this, please feel free to reach out. 

Now, I’m going to go into a few more specifics. This reader writes, “I’m critical of my partner’s/girlfriend’s body that cannot be changed and don’t want to end the relationship but it causes me great anxiety. I don’t want to leave the relationship, but it’s something that may never go away for me internally. It’s making me very unhappy. I really like her in so many other ways and hate this. Do I stay or do I go?” 

I happen to know that this person that commented emailed me, and that this was someone he was engaging with distance, like through an online dating site, or they were chatting, and they had developed an emotional bond. But then I think when they actually physically got together, this is what started to emerge for him. 

So, I would just suggest that before we deeply connect to someone, that we have some time with them, so that we can know them in many seasons, how they deal with upside, how they deal with anger, how they deal with jealousy, how they deal with being threatened or a conflict. And also, so we can let our projections settle a little. 

Free Joyful young diverse girlfriends laughing with closed eyes while chilling on couch at home Stock Photo

“When we meet someone in the beginning, it’s so easy to fantasize, fill in the blank, imagine who they are that’s exactly who we want them to be, which is understandable. We want to let that settle a little so we can build a foundation that’s solid, and that we can almost reality check.”

When we meet someone in the beginning, it’s so easy to fantasize, fill in the blank, imagine who they are that’s exactly who we want them to be, which is understandable. And we want to let that settle a little so we can build a foundation that’s solid, and that we can almost reality check. “This person is who I think they are.” 

And also, that we look at how do we feel with them? What is our experience with them? And to give it a little time. Yes, for sure, there might be certain physical attributes or characteristics that are really appealing, and there might be others that aren’t so appealing. And if we get to know someone, establish that rapport, some of those things can be not as important or they continue to be important and end up being perhaps deal breakers. 

So, I would really suggest taking this time, establishing more of a connection and a bond, and then determining “Should I stay or should I go?” And for this particular person with this comment, I would even invite you to consider understanding and unpacking what this particular body part means to you. What does it bring up for you? What’s the anxiety there? 

Also, if you did have the body part that you desired or the more ideal, what would that allow you to feel? And these can be revealing answers as you turn inwards that can help you understand what that represents and what the meaning there is for you that can help you be more intentional as you move forward in cultivating relationship. 

The next comment. “Dr. Higgins, my wife is constantly criticizing me. She never has anything nice to say to me or any praise for anything I do to try and make her happy. Never says thank you or shows any sign of affection to me. It’s to a point where I wish I could stop treating her with love and dish out some of the same stuff she gives me but I just can’t be like that. I have tried to tell her. I would like it ever so often, if she would reciprocate the kindness and love I show her but it is like she doesn’t care about my feelings. We are both in our 60s and I just don’t think I have the energy to leave this marriage and find someone who I can build a new better relationship with. Plus, I really love her and leaving would be a hard blow to our family. How far do I go?” 

For this person commenting and posing a question, I’m so sorry to hear about this situation. It sounds like you’ve tried various ways to communicate with her and share your experience and request to have more of this affection, appreciation, and kindness. 

I would suggest a few things. I would say there could be some boundaries in which you set for yourself. So, not trying to impose them on her or not trying to control or get a different response from her, but really taking impeccable care of yourself. If it starts to feel as though she is being critical, or unkind, or hurtful, then to perhaps find a way to gently alert her to say, “I’m having a hard time. Let’s circle back.” or “I’m going to take a break.” 

I remember my husband once said, “I’m not enjoying the way you’re treating me. This doesn’t feel good to me or something.” It stopped me in my tracks because I was like, it wasn’t a you message, it was just him saying, I’m having a hard time or I’m not enjoying this. 

I was like, “Okay.” This was many, many years ago, but it really was helpful for me to hear that he was having a hard time. And so, it’s essentially to communicate, I’m not willing to participate in this dance right now, and continually repeating that. I think that can speak volumes to what you’re willing to engage with that then hopefully, will start to shift the dynamic. 

The other thing that I have found to be helpful, I’ve used this quite a bit actually, is when I have heard someone complaining, or blaming, or criticizing, if I’m really trying to understand what it is that they’re needing, or what it is that they’re wanting, I might actually explicitly say, “Okay, this helps me. So, I’m hearing you say this, and this is what you don’t want. Can you help me? What are you wanting? What would feel good?” 

And helping, perhaps, turn a corner to use more positive language. “I would love for a home cooked meal.” or “I would love for you to take out the garbage.” or whatever it is. Like, that is an entirely different tone and different sentiment, and it can be more vulnerable to put that request. This is where that guide is especially helpful. It really helps turn this around. That might help you just kind of get your mind around what I’m referring here too. 

Another thing. I don’t know if she would be open to it but there can be a way to gamify appreciations and gratitude. One simple way of doing that is saying, “Would you be willing? Let’s do three appreciations for each other.” I really love the style of doing three for the other and three for self. So, you both would do six. Three for the other and three for self. And so, in total, there would be 12. 

It sounds like a lot but it’s so wonderful to hear what your significant other appreciates about themselves. It might even be really interesting that I would surmise that your wife might have a hard time coming up with what she appreciates about herself, which would indicate that this inner critic is really strong, right, that she might be hard on herself equally as she is hard on you. 

Or perhaps has that negative mindset. And perhaps spending a little time away, and maybe cultivating some activities that you enjoy that bring you a sense of fulfilment, and not to move away from her, but just to fill your cup for you to feel that sense of joy and satisfaction, and perhaps that that could bring some of that to the relationship. 

Another two things I want to say is, to maybe even with her, start to appreciate and acknowledge yourself. If you notice that longing to be affirmed or acknowledged for something you’ve done or something you’ve said, and not in a snarky way, but more of like, “Oh, I feel so good.” 

Sometimes my husband and I will say, “What’s our win for the day?” or “What’s something you feel proud of?” or “What’s something you feel good about?” And that you can vocalize some of the things that you want to acknowledge and not, again, to fish from her but just to hold the space for you that sometimes some things might take more effort and aren’t as visible to her. Right? That it’s not convenient or it’s not easy, but yet, you’re still showing up. And that you might want to acknowledge that. 

The other thing is, I don’t know but if she’s open to couples coaching or couples therapy, I would very much encourage to get some support around this because it’s likely she’s so perhaps, in her groove and her mode of operating. She might not even be aware, and to be able to look at what’s happening. Or perhaps she’s got some feelings that haven’t been addressed. Resentment, irritation, frustration, and perhaps that hasn’t been really visible. So, that could be really healing for the two of you to explore in a safe space. 

And again, you can find more resources on my website. I also would be happy to send you a link to find some good practitioners that might be in your area as well. 

Okay, the last question here. Again, another specific example. I’m going to comment throughout because it’s a bit of a long statement here.

So, this reader/listener writes, “I have read a lot of articles over the years about this particular issue, criticism, as there is a lot of conflict over this issue in my marriage of 30 years. I feel that I’ve had to try to exist in a bit of a dysfunctional vacuum, where the fact that her father was an alcoholic was not allowed to be discussed or acted upon in a way that was healthy for our own family, which we were establishing together. If I raised the issue of her father’s behavior, who is a very charming but also a very manipulative man, or how that might have affected the way she and I relate and communicate, my efforts were labelled as critical.” 

First of all, I want to empathize with how challenging this would be. Many of us are confronted with where we enter into a family system, the in-law and our partner’s family that has its own way of operating that could be dysfunctional. As we’re trying to establish our own family and as a couple, that that can be extremely difficult to negotiate. 

I know I’ve had a few requests to do an episode about dealing with in-laws, which I will be offering soon. So, stay tuned for that. 

It occurs to me that it would make a lot of sense if this listener was feeling protective, wanting to create health in the family system that they were creating together, felt protective, and wanted to offer support similar to the recent comment about helping improve, or helping the person be better, right. And as partners, we are visible to this. So again, I just want to make that crystal clear that that makes perfect sense. 

As we approach the topic with our significant other, it can be helpful to be transparent, right? “I do have an agenda. This matters to me. I feel protective of our family. I am wanting to cultivate health in our system.” 

As I’m speaking to this, I’m aware that there might be other things that perhaps this person is wanting. So, the question would be to work with, “What is it that I’m wanting?” As I bring this topic up with my significant other, what is my hope? What is it that I’m wanting to get out of this conversation? What am I wanting to see happen? 

And then, if we can be transparent about that, that can be helpful. Because if our partner knows where we’re coming from, then we have a reason for bringing it up. We have a difficult experience. We have a worry. We have pain. So, it’s really us wanting to get that addressed rather than, “I think I’m better.” or “I think I know what’s right.” I’m not saying that this person is feeling that way but it can sound like that to the receiver when we offer unsolicited feedback, that it can feel like, oh, you’re coming in, and you’re trying to tell me what to do. 

Because the other thing that occurs to me if your significant other was brought up in this alcoholic, dysfunctional system, she’s likely utilizing what has been her best moves, which is to maybe avoid and carry on. And that while you are confronting it from a good place and wanting to uplevel and bring health to the system, it might bring up a terrifying feeling in her that she’s caught in a bind. 

There’s a no-win situation here. Right? Because if we look at her life, she’s needed to be in relationship with her parent, her father. She needed that love. She needed that relationship, and yet it’s fraught. It’s perhaps traumatic. It’s possibly painful. For sure. And that the best way to negotiate that is to have certain moves of coping.

And so, it’s likely this is not the first time that she’s felt this bind of, “I love my father, yet the dynamics are so painful.” And so, I just want to acknowledge some of those things here as we get started. And also, just to say that when we broach something, I think one way to back off a tinge is to ask questions around, “I’m curious. This is what I’m seeing. I’m not sure if that resonates for you or can you tell me what it’s like for you?” 

Because then it allows for a little more space for us to get to know. It’s almost like you’re playing catch. You’re feeling the ball. You’re introducing the topic and you’re getting a sense of where they are. That gives you more information. It’s a little more relational. 

And again, I’m not saying you haven’t done this, but just to offer again, more encouragement around this to really give a lot more space to these tender, very sensitive, vulnerable topics because there’s likely a lot there. 

Okay, moving on. He writes, “I’ve tried over the years many different approaches to these communications, but they generally ended up in the same way. Namely, an argument resulting in her withdrawing herself from me for a few days, then her cooling off and eventually her acknowledging the problem and apologizing, but only so that the conflict would end. Unfortunately, this apology was forgotten a week later and we’d often find ourselves in the same place a month or two later. I called it Groundhog Day because of the familiar cycle.” 

To underscore and reiterate, it’s likely you’re seeing her coping strategy at play. This has been her best move for a long time, and she might have no sense of how to get out of it. And so, again, you’re not just dealing with her father, you’re dealing with the whole system, and many, many, many years of shaping. 

The listener goes on to talk about how difficult just this continual pattern. I’m not going to go, just for the sake of time, much more into this. He closes out with, “My question is, when there is a problematic dysfunctional behavior that needs to be addressed between a couple, and despite every effort to raise the issue constructively, empathetically, gently using eye, words, etc., etc., the communication seems to deteriorate because the real motivation is to avoid the issue altogether and hope it disappears into fantasy land. The excuse is that the avoidance is justified because the communication is critical in nature, and while I know that some people view all criticism as problematic, surely there is necessary constructive criticism that is not directed as a character flaw of another person.”

Free Selective Focus Photography of Man Beside Smiling Woman Stock Photo

“While I know some people view all criticism as problematic, surely, there is necessary constructive criticism that is not directed as a character flaw of another person.”

I just want to reiterate what I’ve already spoken to about the dynamics and how powerful they are. And in this case, I would especially invite couples coaching, couples therapy to address these dynamics. And again, you can reach out to get a link or see if there’s availability. You can also access a free strategy session on my website, and it’s under the tab, Work with Me. 

I’m often hovering on a waitlist or full, but I would do my best to be of support. And again, these dynamics are extremely strong. We do want to create softening and safety so that people can engage and then we can start really doing the work to access the things you’ve been really trying to access. 

I appreciate how much effort, how much intention, and the real goals that you’ve been working towards and towards health, towards healing, towards just the family system and your family system and really protecting that and nurturing that, and helping that thrive. 

Signing Off

If you have a topic you would like me to discuss, please contact me by clicking on the “Ask Dr. Jessica Higgins” button here. 

Thank you so much for your interest in improving your relationship. 

Also, I would so appreciate your honest rating and review. Please leave a review by clicking here

Thank you!  

*With Amazon Affiliate Links, I may earn a few cents from Amazon, if you purchase the book from this link.

Please leave a Comment

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication.

Stop the criticism loop, learn new ways to communicate
and strengthen the connection with your partner.

SEND ME THE FREE GUIDE

Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching