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How To Be Less Critical & More Compassionate, From A Couples Therapist

Verbal criticism sounds like globalized language such as, “You alway” or “You never.” Verbal language is also pointing out your partner’s flaws in a frustrated, passive-aggressive, or joking way. Using “should” statements to correct your partner’s behavior can inspire feelings of shame and blame, which feel critical.

Nonverbal criticism comes in the form of eye rolls, heavy sighs, or frustrated body language which conveys a rejection or tone of dissatisfaction. However, what I tell the couples I work with is that, actually, criticism is best described as anything that feels critical to your partner. If you use your metrics for what is critical, you’re missing the opportunity to attune to your partner’s emotional world and become more sensitive to what they find critical.

Criticism often occurs when a complaint is expressed as a character flaw. For example, you might say, “You never put your shoes away when you come home. You’re such a moron,” instead of saying, “Babe, it’s so important to me to keep our entryway clear. Would you mind making an effort to put your shoes in the closet when you come home?”

People often use criticism as a defense against vulnerability, as it is more vulnerable to express one’s needs directly. I’ve heard partner’s say, “It’s the only way I can get through to him!” and while that is hardly ever the case, who cares if the shoes get put away if the consequence is that you’ve made your partner feel poorly?

When a person experiences ongoing criticism, just like any of Gottman’s four horsemen, these behaviors slowly decrease self-esteem and self-confidence in both of you, and you will both retreat to your opposite sides in order to gain the safety of distance. And, just like all of these relationship destroying behaviors this only escalates conflict. Every single time.

When we fear being criticized, we don’t feel safe— so we’re reluctant to show our whole selves to our partner. If you repeatedly tell your partner they’re worthless, useless, and ineffective…why would they try to be anything else when you already have a fixed idea of how you see them? 

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