Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Before You Unleash Your Tongue, Consider This

July 1, 1996

Happy couples criticize less often than distressed couples. This is one of the main findings when happy and distressed couples are compared with each other.

Couples who are angry are quick to criticize each other. In the heat of an argument, these criticisms are meant in a destructive and hurtful way. The tone of voice, body language and choice of assaultive words rip away at the fabric of trust and security in the marriage. Most likely, heavy doses of criticism occur when concern, friendship or interests aren't being expressed in day-to-day interactions.

When sharp tongues are unleashed. Heavy doses of criticism shut down dialogue, arouse defenses, and drain a relationship of its spontaneity. Each person wants to be loved and accepted as they are, not held up to their spouse's measuring rod and found inadequate.

A marriage partner wants to see their mate as a best friend and a person with whom intimate thoughts can be safely shared, not as an enemy who never seems to be pleased or satisfied. It is a terrible feeling to feel deserted, misunderstood, or misjudged by a mate.

Too much criticism leads to low levels of self-esteem and nurturance. It interferes with intimate relations. It can be seen as control and coercion. Criticizing a spouse is an extremely delicate matter. The first thing a fighting couple can do to improve their marriage is to stop the barrage of negative criticism and find respectful, loving ways to share their concerns.

A dozen points to consider. Criticism should be infrequent and artfully done with utmost consideration for a partner's feelings. Just how do couples voice strong concerns about a partner's behavior and its effect on the relationship without creating an atmosphere of defensiveness and anger?

1. If in doubt, don't. Some faults can be lived with. Expecting perfection isn't fair. If in doubt, wait. Wait until you think you have a clear understanding of what you are talking about it before blundering over tender feelings.

2. Some grievances cannot be ignored. There are facts to be faced. Reacting with hurt, brooding and inconsiderate silence is just as destructive as saying the cruel thing at the tempting moment. Hurts fester in the privacy of our minds. Sacrifice your pride and clear up misunderstandings before they become magnified by silence and inattention.

3. Don't surprise your mate or catch him or her off guard. Give notice you intend to have a serious discussion. Timing is crucial. There is a right time, place, and mood when your partner will be the most receptive. If your partner is obviously not ready to hear you, wait for a better time.

4. Don't criticize in public. Protect your spouse from any possible embarrassment.

5. Use a calm and matter-of-fact tone of voice. Be seated. Have a gradual warmup to the topic. If you get angry, you will not be effective. Your tone of voice and body language will speak louder than the words you use.

6. Explore their side of the issue. Listen and be open to influence and correction. What starts out as your criticism may end up as a meaningful two-way exchange with your role also examined.

7. Keep the mood positive, upbeat and reassuring. Reassure your mate of your love and appreciation for him or her. State the positive first. The foundation of love between you and your daily loving acts will determine to a great extent how they will receive your criticism.

Use gentleness and humor. Don't use sarcasm or humor meant to wound. Your spouse will resist force and yield to kindness. Don't threaten, ridicule, or make negative assessments of their character. Your goal is to communicate so that your mate doesn't feel resentful or inadequate.

8. Limit your criticism to a single goal. Focus on a specific problem or behavior. Limit your description to three or four sentences. Say how a particular behavior makes you feel without asking or demanding your partner do anything about it.

9. Offer your partner time to think about what you are saying. When he or she is ready, listen carefully to their response. The way you listen will do more good than anything else you can say or do. Especially listen and probe into what is being said about your role in the problem.

10. Keep the discussion open-ended. Allow your mate ample time to make suggestions or propose a course of action before volunteering suggestions of your own. Think through and be prepared with specific solutions or it may appear you are dumping a problem instead of sharing a commitment to resolve it. Express your commitment to work on the problem and help in whatever way possible.

11. Follow the criticism with an expression of appreciation and support. End on a good note. A closing expression of love and concern is essential to the process.

12. Follow the criticism with an increased effort at being more loving and considerate. Accept your partner's efforts to change at face value instead of questioning his or her motives. Be patient and give ample opportunity for change to occur before bringing up the issue again. Express appreciation for the effort being made.

There it is - a formula for success in an area that is about as delicate as brain surgery.