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How to communicate criticism in a way that your partner will listen

13 February 2024

 Mostly when we criticise our partner they switch off, they see it coming and are already forming their defence in their mind before we have completed our sentence.

 So, how can we communicate about something our partner has done that has annoyed or hurt us, without them becoming immediately defensive?

 Well, it’s a tough one and there will be situations where our feelings just spill out and an argument ensues. That’s not necessarily a bad thing - sometimes we need to argue and it can get messy. But if this confrontational way of talking about difficulties becomes habitual, it can become a problem.

 It’s often better to find a way of communicating our feelings that is not going to so easily lead to defensiveness on our partner’s part. 

 Here are some tips:


 Use ‘I’ statements

 This means that rather than focusing all our negative attention on our partner and what they’ve done ‘wrong’, we give more attention to ourselves and how their behaviour has impacted us. It means more use of ‘I’ and less of ‘you’ statements. 

 An example would be if you are feeling upset that your partner has forgotten your anniversary. One ways of communicating would be: “I can’t believe you forgot - you obviously don’t value our relationship! You’re so self-centred!”

 Notice the focus on the partner in the above phrase. Also, notice the sweeping statement and judgment contained in the criticism. 

 A different way of expressing this might be: “I feel sad, and annoyed, that you forgot our anniversary. Can we talk about this?”


Identify the underlying need

 Usually when we want to criticise our partner it is because an underlying need of ours has not been met. We’re not used to thinking in those terms so normally we don’t reflect on what underlying need might have been neglected. This focus on needs was popularised by Marshal Rosenberg and his Non Violent Communication (NVR) approach.

 In the case of the forgotten anniversary the unmet need may have been to feel important to your partner. When they forget the anniversary you interpret that as they don’t care. Being able to think about what happens to your feelings when your needs are not met can help you see an incident in a different light.


Ask yourself what is underneath the anger

 This is connected to the above suggestion about identifying the underlying need. When we are irritated, annoyed or angry there is usually another emotion or emotions underneath. Anger often covers over fear, vulnerability or hurt feelings.

 But for many of us it can be easier to feel, and express, the anger because that leaves us feeling powerful. It can be harder to say that our feelings were hurt or we felt left out or unimportant. 

 But majoring on the anger runs the risk of alienating our partner and making them defensive. Then we have two people who are feeling, and expressing, anger or annoyance. That’s a long way from really listening to each other.

 Becoming curious about our emotions and what might be going on for us at a deeper level can help us express all of our emotions rather than just the surface anger. When our partner hears us express our vulnerable feelings they may feel less criticised and therefore less likely to go on the attack themselves. It may also encourage them to share their own vulnerable feelings as, if we have done this, they are less afraid of judgment.


Think about the other person’s perspective

 When we are able to slow things down a little and become curious about our own reactions we may also be able to try and think about our partner’s perspective. Being aware of the importance of our own unmet needs can also make us aware that they too have experiences of underlying needs not being met. 

 Becoming curious about our partner’s perspective might allow us to enquire in a calm, non-angry way as to what their experience was. In the anniversary incident, for example, it may turn out that they were distracted by a work emergency and had too much going on so that the anniversary slipped their mind. 

 Learning this may help us be a bit more understanding of their behaviour. We may still feel some hurt but it is tempered by our understanding that their action was not deliberate. We may be able to shift our own perspective and not take the incident so personally. 


Recognise the power of projection

 Frequently, what we criticise in our partner is a reflection of a part of ourselves that we have disowned. This is one example of what is called projection. Because it is happening unconsciously we can only become aware of it by doing work on ourselves and understanding something about the mechanics of projection.

 Basically, what this means is that when we grow up as a child we receive messages about what is ‘acceptable’, from our family, schooling and people around us. We develop a certain identity that may be partly based on our innate temperament and partly on family or cultural expectations. 

 So, an eldest child in a conservative family might grow up with parental expectations that they should be responsible, sensible, emotionally reserved. They get the message, an early age that being angry, excitable or spontaneous are not qualities the parents want. This message is not usually communicated explicitly, but rather indirectly through the parents’ non-verbal communication such as facial expression or tone of voice.

 As the child grows up they don’t realise that these disowned qualities - anger, spontaneity, excitement - are within them but have been unconsciously repressed. What they do know is that often when their partner expresses these emotions or energies it is extremely uncomfortable for them and they feel judging and critical of their partner. 

 Being aware of our own upbringing and what emotions we unconsciously learned to suppress can help us understand the dynamics of our relationship better. We can become more accepting and less judging of our partner because we are less inclined to project our own stuff onto them.