It's not me, it's YOU.
It is easy to point the finger at our partner, and hard to point the finger to ourselves. When we are having trouble in our relationship, how often do we think or talk about what our partner is doing wrong? Whilst some of us may acknowledge that we have our own flaws, many of us will put the blame on our partner.
“He leaves his laundry all over the floor”
“She expects me to do everything at home”
“They don’t help with the kids enough”
“He is always late”
“She never wants to spend time with my family”
“They are rude”
When it comes to our relationship with our partner, we could probably come up with a list of ways that they don’t meet our expectations. When we are speaking to our partner in a harsh way, it can be interpreted as criticism. Gottman therapist, Kimberly Panganiban described the different ways we criticise our partners. Many of us are probably doing these behaviours without realising that it comes across as a criticism.
The problem with saying, "Always" or "Never"
When making statements that start with, “You always” or “You never”, it sets the tone of the conversation. When we feel frustrated, we tend to exaggerate to make a point. But by starting it off in this way it may lead your partner to feeling criticised, particularly as there is rarely any truth to it. When we say, “You’re always late”, we know that’s not the actual truth. While they may be often late, it doesn’t mean it always.
Avoid the "Why"
Another form a criticism can be asking “Why” questions, but in a tone that can be interpreted as criticism. Whilst there are times you may be genuinely interested to know something, there are other times that you might say it in a way that can convey criticism. For example, the question, “Why didn’t you put the rubbish out?” can be interpreted as a criticism depending on the tone or the context. If you’re asking after you’ve had a nice night together and you’re both feeling great about the relationship, it can be heard as a question. But ask this same question after a stressful day or an argument, we can bet that it’ll be taken as a criticism.
Jokes can be hurtful
There are some relationships that can handle certain types of humour, particularly when it comes to making jokes about each other’s flaws. But for most of us, it’s hard to hear about our flaws even if it’s disguised as a joke. Although making “playful digs” might seem innocent, it can come across as a criticism. Even if we think it’s a joke, it’s highly likely there is a sliver of truth to what is being said. This could leave our partner feeling criticised, embarrassed, or even humiliated.
Let the "wrong" things go
Another action we might not realise that comes across as critical, is to fix things our partner has done because we think they have done it wrong. For instance, your partner does the laundry and folds the t-shirts in a certain way. You don’t like the way it looks so you refold them. While this may seem harmless, it sends the message to our partner that their way is “wrong” and your way is “right”. This can feel like a criticism because they might think that by doing things the “wrong” way, they aren’t good enough.
Try not to be defensive
What follows criticism, often comes defensiveness. Gottman therapist, Zach Brittle describes it as any attempt to defend oneself from perceived attack. When we think we are being criticised, we try to defend ourselves about what is being said. However, this ties in with the idea that it’s our partner that is flawed, they’re the one with the problem. But it’s important to accept responsibility for something that’s being said, even if it’s just a tiny bit. Does this mean you have to take responsibility for criticism that is damaging, such as name calling or any other form of contempt? Absolutely not. We are talking about the type of criticism that is more subtle such as the “You always/never” statements, the "why" questions and criticism disguised as a joke. If your partner says, “You always forget to pick up milk!” Rather than getting straight to defensiveness, pause – think about what’s being said and own your part in the discussion.
Reflect on our expectations
Relationship therapist Esther Perel describes in her book the State of Affairs, how relationships have evolved over time. Once upon a time we got married for practical reasons, to have an heir for our property and assets. Since then relationships have transformed, women have stepped out of the traditional role of serving her husband and family, and relationship ideals are constantly changing. Perel writes, “We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability… and we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We should be best friends and passionate lovers to boot”. With all these expectations it’s no wonder we get frustrated when our needs aren’t being met. Our expectations of what our partner should do for us, has changed over time. Having awareness about this, might help us to give our partner a break. For many of us we don’t discuss these expectations at the beginning of the relationship. It’s only when it becomes a problem, that we highlight these to our partner. When it comes down to it, most of us are doing our best. And although our best could be better, it’s time we recognise that we are all human, things aren’t going to be perfect and if we want to make improvements, it starts with ourselves.
Perel, E. (2019) The state of affairs: Rethinking infidelity. London: Yellow Kite.