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Constructive Criticism for a Healthier Marriage

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Nobody enjoys receiving criticism, and listening to negatives from close family or friends can be particularly painful, putting people on the defensive and stirring up old and new tensions. Criticism from a spouse can be especially emotionally charged, yet couples caught in destructive communication patterns can foster a healthier relationship by learning how to give and to accept, constructive criticism.

Changing Habitual Communication Patterns

Over the course of a marriage, some couples fall into a comfortable yet negative communication pattern, regularly criticizing each other for what they see wrong rather than what they see right in their spouse. Soon a vicious circle of negative feedback becomes the norm, with the marital “hot buttons" (kids, money, chores, sex) frequently setting each person off, eventually putting the marriage at risk.

Yet learning how to give constructive criticism, feedback designed to offer genuine assistance, to be helpful rather than harmful, to promote improvement in a relationship rather than to erode it, can open up communication in a marriage and resolve underlying and active conflicts.

As with any long term relationship, success lies in the mutual willingness and intention of all parties involved. There’s an art to giving constructive criticism so someone will listen, so the recipient hears the positive intent behind the message, rather than only a negative, destructive dig. Yet, for constructive criticism to make any headway, the giver and the receiver need to enter the conversation with a particular mindset.

The most carefully placed, well-intentioned criticism will fall flat if the spouse becomes angry, closed off or hurt. The person giving constructive criticism should set the goal to keep her partner interested in the feedback, curious, rather than defensive. In turn, the recipient should try to actively listen.

“Active listening and healthy emotional boundaries are essential," says Glassmoyer, Psy.D. “The more a person can begin to substitute curiosity for defensiveness, the easier it will be to accept constructive criticism. Listening with the intent to understand the other person’s perspective can create emotional space and diffuse the need to respond defensively."

The Timing and Emotional Tone of Constructive Criticism

Steve Siebold, a public speaker and author of 177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class explains that emotions can sabotage an exchange, “The secret is processing the criticism through logical rather than emotional thinking." Easier said than done however, if the person giving the criticism doesn’t know how to approach the subject in a positive manner and the recipient reacts in anger or hurt.

Issues that couples regularly argue about can change the emotional climate in zero to sixty, spiraling the dialogue into a full-fledged fight, leaving little room for constructive criticism to enter the conversation. The goal is to keep the conversation calm, forward moving and positive.

Timing and tone is key. Broaching a sensitive subject when a spouse is exhausted, clearly stressed or hurried sets the stage for a failed exchange. Couples should find quiet uninterrupted time to talk, minimizing or eliminating distractions such as phone calls, the television, etc.

Constructive vs. Destructive Criticism

Everyone knows how they feel when they feel attacked vs. how they feel when someone offers them thoughtful, positive criticism with an agenda of genuine caring or concern. Constructive criticism feels very different than destructive. It:

  • Focuses on the problem and finding a solution rather than getting personal. A positive approach might for example sound like, “I know how busy you are at your job and I appreciate how hard you work. I’d like to find some time to relax for an hour each day because I’m so stressed out being home all day with the kids’ three days a week and my part-time job the other two days, affecting my sleep and health. I have some ideas that I think can help both of us, a compromise that won’t cost anything. Can you and I sit down this week and talk about it?"
  • Is specific, avoids vague or superlative statements such as: “You’re just stubborn." “You always, you never, etc."
  • Is descriptive rather than judgmental or blaming. “I’ve noticed that our credit card balance is getting pretty high. You really deserve to splurge on yourself once in awhile, I completely understand, I’m just concerned about paying the minimum that just increased by $15 more a month. Let’s work out a new budget that allows us both to enjoy some indulgences from now time to time, but still keeps our balance under x dollars."
  • Has the best interest of the other person in mind. “I want you to live a long time because I love you so much. I’m really concerned that this pace of working 80 hours a week at a job you seem to hate is hurting your health. You’ve been telling me about feeling some heart racing which is a sign of stress. I know how hard you work, and we do need the money, but would you consider exercising at least a few times a week to manage your stress? What about the possibility of a job change sometime this year? I’ll help you find the perfect job, but if you don’t that’s fine; I know how hard the market is right now. I just want you to be happy and healthy."

The GRIPE Method – The Goals of Constructive Criticism

Randy Garner, author of Criticism Management: How to More Effectively Give, Receive, and Seek Criticism in Our Lives, explains that constructive criticism is based on accurate perceptions of the other person and circumstances, with a genuine interest in helping the person improve rather than denigrating or trying to elevate her own ego.

Garner recommends using the GRIPE method to facilitate positive criticism:

Grow: Individuals (or colleagues) find ways to help each other grow. “Growth in the relationship occurs when there is ‘care and attention to the garden.’ " The criticism should develop not diminish the individual’s potential for growth.

Recover: The goal is recuperation, healing in order to help people move from a place of low self-esteem, lack of self-respect or no direction. “Our criticism should be directed towards helping others overcome their sense of loss and stem any further deterioration."

Improve: Criticism should focus on improvement, yet most criticism focuses on what is going wrong rather than someone offering useful and specific suggestions for how an individual can improve.

Prosper: Criticism that helps a person thrive. “The ultimate goal of productive and constructive criticism is to help others succeed."

Excel: In order for criticism to be effective, it not only offers solutions for someone to “improve and prosper, but to become truly exceptional as well."

Wrapping the Positive Around the Negative

One technique to offer constructive criticism is the “sandwich" approach suggests Denise Glassmoyer, Psy.D., a doctor of clinical psychology and a family therapist. “The sandwich approach is useful in both professional and personal settings," says Glassmoyer. “The bread consists of very specific positive feedback (a compliment), and the ‘meat in the middle’ is the constructive criticism."

For a couple, the sandwich approach begins by the spouse giving positive input, for example, “I really love how hard you work for our family and I’m so grateful" then subtly she shifts the focus to her areas of concern, “I’d really appreciate a little more help around the house at night when the baby is restless and I can’t get much done. Can we talk about this tonight when she goes to bed. I’ve got some ideas that will work for us and I want your feedback."

The spouse giving the constructive criticism should end the conversation by reiterating what is working well in their relationship, pointing out her spouse’s positive attributes, “Thank you so much for taking the baby to the park for an hour and picking up dinner as a surprise. That was so thoughtful and I appreciate it so much. Sometimes out of the blue you have this amazing knack for sensing when I really need a break."

The “sandwich" approach minimizes the impact of the negative by surrounding it with positive information and useful, actionable advice.

Garner points out that the Hebrew word for criticism toch’ acha, translates to “proof." He suggests the best way to offer anyone criticism “is not through a harsh rebuke or condemnation, but by offering clear and obvious proof so the person can see for themselves, the potential for improvement." “The goal of criticism," he writes, “should be therefore, to help others grow, recover, improve, prosper, or excel."

When a spouse receives well-intentioned thoughtful constructive criticism and in turn doesn’t become defensive, but instead actively listens, is receptive, curious, even appreciative for the feedback, this kind of exchange sets a new tone for couples caught in destructive habits of negative communication, developing a positive pattern for the relationship.

  • References
    • 1. Garner, Randy. Criticism Management: How to More Effectively Give, Receive, and Seek Criticism in Our Lives. [S.l.]: Prescient, 2006. Print.
    • 2. Myers, Wyatt. “The Value of Constructive Criticism – Emotional Health Center – Everyday Health.” Health Information, Resources, Tools & News Online – EverydayHealth.com. Web. 21 Sept. 2011. <http://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/value-of-constructive-criticism.aspx>.

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