Even if you consider your relationship rock-solid, chances are there's something your partner does that ticks you off. Maybe they're always late to meet up with you, even on important dates. Perhaps they don't bother helping you schedule the dog walker. The way they sigh when you ask them to do you a favor might be the thing that sets you off. These grievances are normal in a relationship, and they can even be healthy — if you talk about them the right way.
In a lecture about love in the modern age, author Alain de Botton explains why it's helpful to critique our romantic partners. "Mothers and friends don't care enough, and don't have to deal with you all the time," he says. "They don't give you the vital feedback that only a lover deep in a relationship or marriage would tell you." Even though we should be communicating when we want our partner to do something differently, we often just do a lousy job of delivering the criticism. "We don't know how to educate, because we think education is a breach of love, rather than the beginning," he says.
There are a few reasons why people tend to be critical, says Jessica Higgins, PhD, LPC, a relationship coach and host of the podcast, Empowered Relationship. You might have parents who nit-picked your behavior, or were raised in a very critical environment, for example. Maybe you're hard on yourself, too. "People tend to feel some level of angst or anxiety, and they don't know how to manage it, so their strategy is to control their external environment," she says. For these perfectionist types, their logic in a relationship is, If I could get you to be different, I would feel better, she says.
The problem with that is we're often missing the point. "A lot of people express criticism because they feel a vague sense of discomfort or displeasure, but the thing they complain about is rarely what’s really causing the dissatisfaction," says David Ludden, PhD, a psychology professor who focuses on the psychology of language. Even though you might pick a fight about the way your partner put away the laundry, for example, it's not really about the laundry. "That’s what they’re focusing their attention on, because even they don’t know for sure what’s bothering them," Dr. Ludden says.
So, the first step in delivering criticism that'll stick is making sure you're talking about the real issue and not getting mired in distracting details. (Maybe it's not the socks on the floor, that really bothers you, but an overall lack of respect for your shared space, for example.)
There's also a big difference between constructive feedback and criticism, Dr. Ludden says. Constructive feedback is something you give your partner because you care about them and want them to grow as a person, but criticism is just an expression of something you don’t like about your partner that you want them to change, he says. "In other words, constructive feedback is given for their sake, while criticism is given for your sake," he says.
We don't know how to educate [our partners], because we think education is a breach of love, rather than the beginning.
Alain de Botton
In relationships, there are going to be moments when your partner does something that doesn't make you happy, "but criticism is rarely an effective technique for behavior modification," Dr. Ludden says. We have a tendency to want our partners to feel all of our longing, discontent, and pain — and then fix it, Dr. Higgins says. That may be expecting a bit too much.
You might want to start by literally asking your partner for permission to give your input. For example, you could say, "I've noticed some things," or "I have some observations, would it be helpful to talk about this?" "Respect that someone is making their own choices," Dr. Higgins says. "That's a different angle than, Hey, I'm the authority, I see what's going on wrong with you." Instead of pointing out what you don't like, you might tell your partner what you do like in a calm, lighthearted way, Dr. Ludden suggests. "If your partner is highly defensive, the direct approach may not work. Humor can sometimes get a person to let down their defenses."
It can sometimes be helpful to tell your partner how their behavior impacts your feelings. You could say something like, "It makes me feel like I can't count on you when you forget to take out the trash," This way, the goal isn't to call your partner out, but have them see your pain and understand how to help, Dr. Higgins says.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of the criticism, it helps just to listen. "Listening to criticism doesn’t mean that you accept it as valid, but you do validate your partner’s feelings when you hear them out," Dr. Ludden says. "And maybe once they start talking, they’ll discover for themselves what’s really upsetting them." If it sounds like your partner is really emotional about the topic, it can be helpful to respond to their feelings, Dr. Higgins says. "See it as them raising the flag that something's not working, and then see if it's really about them more than it is about you," she says.
Ultimately, you have to pick your battles and know when your input is really necessary. "If you're constantly riding someone, it's difficult for your partner to know what's important and what's not, because it all kind of blends together," Dr. Higgins says. But if you do get good at having these difficult conversations with your partner, then the bigger issues might seem easier to manage. And remember that you're not always going to be able to change your partner — or where their clothes land — but you can change how you react to them.