The Way We Speak to Each Other

From my years of counseling couples, it has become so obvious that the way a couple speaks to each other when there is a complaint, disagreement, or disappointment, can make a huge difference in whether or not reconciliation or acknowledgment or understanding can ever be achieved. Consequently, resentment and emotional distancing will increase over time.

When we’re angry about not being heard, or feeling used or unsupported, we may automatically resort to any number of below-the-belt tactics.  We leap from the facts (“You said you’d clean up the kitchen and honey I need you to do it”) to a damning generalization: (“When you say you’ll do something, I can never count on you to follow through!!”).  Perhaps we throw in a label (“I can’t believe how insensitive you are”) along with a diagnosis (“You have a narcissistic personality”) and bring in another party or two to bolster our case (“My therapist thinks that you’re passive-aggressive, and my sister agrees.”) While we’re at it, we may slip in an interpretation along the way (“You may think I’m your mother, but I’m not here to serve you like she did”) and remind him that he needs therapy.  And we serve all of this up in a condescending, mocking, preaching, and blaming tone.

Wonder of wonders that our partners don’t seem to appreciate our feedback.

Constructive criticism, by contrast, asks for a specific behavioral adjustment that honors your partner’s capacity to change.  It focuses on actions, not character judgments.  The “lightly served” part is especially important if your partner responds poorly to anger or intensity in your voice.  People can say very difficult things if they calmly present the facts with no edge in their voice.  Silliness helps enormously as when one of my friends’ wife threatened to charge him rent if he keeps putting his clothes on her desk.

A constructive complaint looks like this:  You calmly ask him not to leave his things flung around the house, not because he’s a  big slob (although that may be so) but because neatness is important to you.  You “own” the problem (“I’m just not comfortable when you leave your briefcase and coat on the living room couch’) and appreciate that there are other women in the world who would be happy living with someone who didn’t pick up after himself.  You mention the attacks you made earlier, at a time of frustration, and you apologize for them.

At a relaxed time, you invite a conversation ( “Can we make a rule about where briefcases and coats are kept?) and figure out how to compromise on your different styles.  You appreciate that change occurs slowly, in fits and starts, so you praise him for moving in the right direction.  After all, you couldn’t transform yourself into a person comfortable with clutter overnight.  You might even conclude that it would be simpler to sweep through the house twice a day and dump all his belonging on his big armchair until he decides what to do with them if anything.

After studying thousands of married couples, marriage expert John Gottman concluded that criticism (the nonconstructive “harsh” kind) is one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” which can clip-clop into the heart of a marriage and can destroy it.  For anyone who has that intention, Gottman suggests adding the gibe “What’s wrong with you?”

When you have a specific complaint, aim for accuracy.  Anyone who is criticized inaccurately may hear only the exaggerations and inaccuracies and become unable to consider the valid point being made.

Also don’t overstate your point.  Avoid globalizing words like “always” and “never.”  If your husband came home late from work six times last month, don’t exaggerate the number.  People on the receiving end of criticism shut down on the spot if they catch an error or believe that they are being held responsible for more than their fair share of the problem.  I recall any number of stupid fights with my wife when I flatly refused to apologize because she was blaming me for 75 percent of the problem and I was convinced I was only, um, maybe 52 percent to blame.

Bottom line: we all have the right to express our hurt and disappointments to each other.  Express your disappointment coming FROM SELF–your legitimate needs–rather than AT your partner.

Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.
Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.