“It’s your fault!” Criticism in a relationship

There’s a difference between constructive criticism and making someone feel guilty

I’ve lost count of couples who state that the basic problem in their relationship is lack of communication. Few people seek the true cause of their communication breakdown. What were the factors that stopped them from daily contact, that cause them to fight over the same things over and over and talk about the same issues but still not understand one another?

The response to this question can’t be unilateral nor one-dimensional, however a common pattern is that a stalemate is caused through time that leaves both partners feeling angry, frustrated and disillusioned. A subconscious pattern is one where one partner begins to constantly criticize and blame the other while the other has to be on the defensive, continuously justifying their actions. In most couples, the role of prosecutor and defendent remains stable. This results in the critical partner feeling that the other doesn’t listen or respond to perceived needs whereas the one being criticized feels controlled and pressured.

The greatest problem is that this pattern creates a culture of contempt within the relationship. The unhappy companion who constantly criticizes feels a superiority complex whereas the other partner feels undervalued, unappreciated and a lack of respect. Such feelings hinder the createion of trust and security, elements necessary for constructive communication.

The problem with this dynamic is that it leaves little room for behavioral change and is doomed to failure. There may be a short-term gain but feelings of displeasure are created as well as grudges.

Why does criticism fail? The reasons are simple. Criticism fails because it has two basic characteristics that people detest:

1) Feelings of subservience to others desires (“Do as I say!”) that people by nature resist

2)  The message that somebody is undervalued (“You aren’t doing things well! I know better!”) also cause people to feel unappreciated

People who criticize are unaware of a basic human characteristic: When somebody feels valued they cooperate. When somebody feels undervalued, they react. The basic problem is that critical people often persuade themselves that what they are offering is not constant criticism but constructive viewpoints. Those who criticize should question the constructiveness of what they are saying by looking through the following checklist:

* Is the criticism focused on whether the partner is making a mistake? Constructive criticism is focused on improvement.

* Is the criticism focused on the other person’s character? Constructive criticism if focused on behavior.

* Is the criticism degrading, humbling and derogatory? Constructive criticism should be encouraging.

* Is the criticism aimed at making the other person feel guilty? Constructive criticism looks to the future and how things can be done differently.

* Finally, through constant criticism it appears as though we are trying to control the other person’s behavior. Constructive criticism is focused on respecting the other person’s independence.

If somebody really wants to see greater communication and a change in their partner, then the best they can do is stop being critical and start being cooperative. What is needed is to stand beside and show how much we value someone and listen with curiosity and interest at what they have to say.

Do you have a problem that concerns you? Our resident psychotherapist Zeta Stravopodi is willing to address any personal matters. E-mail her on z.stravopodi@gmail.com

Zoe Stravopodi-Gianno works as a psychotherapist and offers advice to individuals, couples and families. She also coordinates groups interested in achieving self-awareness and personal growth. In 2012, she established “Parents School” to give parents advice as to how to navigate the choppy waters of parenthood regarding the healthy emotional growth of their children.