“You never listen to what I say,” Kari said forcefully to her boyfriend, Derrick, during a recent counseling session.
“I can’t do anything right,” Derrick quickly lamented, following her critical comment. “Everything I do is wrong. I’m sick of it. If I’m not the man she wants, why doesn’t she just get rid of me?”
Kari, his girlfriend for the past year, rolled her eyes as Derrick complained of her treatment of him. After a moment, she decided to respond.
“First of all, Derrick, everything you do isn’t wrong, and I wish you’d stop saying that. But there are a lot of things I would like different in our relationship. How can I tell you without you slipping into this ‘poor me’ attitude.”
Derrick, of course bristled at her final comment, which only served to reinforce how critical she had been. Before I could comment, Derrick jumped back into the fray.
“Did you hear what you just said? How do you think it feels to be called ‘poor me’ and scolded the way you do? I don’t like it. I’m not sure how you can tell me what you need to say, but you’ve got to find a new way.”
“Hold it, folks,” I said. “Let’s slow things down and look closely at how you talk to each other. I’m sure we can figure out what you’re each doing that sets the sparks going. Are you game?”
A quick review of Kari and Derrick’s interaction reveals some painful mistakes most of us make on a regular basis, leaving us to wonder why our mate reacts defensively. Consider their interaction.
First, he reacts. Without taking a breath, he reacts rather than taking a moment to respond. He says the first thing that comes to his mind, beginning an avalanche of negativity.
What could he have done differently? He could have taken a moment to digest what his wife was saying, considering how he wanted to respond.
Second, he slips into ‘awfulizing.’ He complains about never being able to do anything right, which hooks Kari. Rarely are we accused of never being able to do anything right, and to accuse our mate of those actions will surely get a rise out of them. The fight will be on.
What could Derrick have done differently? He could have spoke from his most vulnerable self, declaring his feelings: “I feel discouraged. I feel deflated, like I’m trying to please you and it seems like there is little I can do to help. Can you help me understand what I could do that might make more of a difference?”
Second, she did take the bait, launching into a ready defense. The fight is on as she defends herself. Her defense leads to another barrage of criticism, leading to a counter-reaction on his part. Had I not been there to stop the escalation, it is likely there would have been an all-out battle.
What might she have done differently? She could have taken things slowly, listened for his frustration and then commented on it. While difficult to do, she could have said, “Derrick, I’m sorry you’re feeling discouraged. That certainly isn’t my intent. I want to work together to solve our problems.”
Third, both could have caught themselves and chosen to stop the criticism. Both could have watched their tongues, guarding against saying anything that might escalate their fight. They could have chosen to never say anything that might be a global criticism, seeking to remain focused and solving problems.
Derrick and Kari are like you and me. They want admiration and acceptance, not criticism and shame. They want to feel safe from put downs, moving closer to each other rather than away. Sadly, in many relationships where criticism, sarcasm and labeling are rampant, couples slip easily into loveless marriages. It doesn’t take long to see your mate as unsafe, over-reacting to little comments that have a bite to them.
What is the answer? Consider the counsel of Solomon:
He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for a friend. —Proverbs 22:11
A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult. —Proverbs 12:16
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. —Proverbs 16:8
When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. —Proverbs 10:19
Clearly, our way out of difficult encounters is first to be aware of what we are saying and doing. We must slow down the process so we can be aware criticism, in any form, at any time, is loaded with the possibility of an explosion. It is far better to frame what you need in positive terms rather than blunt criticism.
I would like to hear from you. How have you learned to stop criticizing? How do you respond effectively to criticism? Share your thoughts with me at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com, and read more about my work at www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com.