My Partner Criticizes Me—How Should I Respond?

My Partner Criticizes Me—How Should I Respond?

Have you ever found yourself thinking: “My partner criticized me, so why did that conversation blow up in my face?” or “My partner complained about me and I didn’t know how to respond.” In this article, I’ll cover what you can you do to make sure communication with your partner is open and productive, even when faced with criticism.

Close quarters. Work pressures. Homeschooling. These are just a few of the stressors couples experience acutely right now. Your or your partner’s worst communication habits may get worse or resurface. Even in the best of times, all relationships involve disappointments and missed opportunities. It’s hard to hear complaints, but learning to be open to criticism isn’t the same as tolerating insults. 

If our partner complains, we can learn to respond better. It may come as a surprise to you to hear that changing how you respond to complaints and criticisms is one of the most important things you can do to improve your relationship.

We naturally become defensive when our partners complain or criticize us. We tend to refute or to correct what is unfair or wrong. We may become defensive or attack back. This is a big part of what so many couples mean when they say that they have “communication problems”. These communication problems may have become more acute during the COVID-19 crisis.

Can you take it?

How do we listen to criticism or complaints without getting defensive? How do we stay connected when we feel like striking back?

Even if we think our partner is wrong or we don’t like how they deliver a complaint, something in their message says, “I need your help” or “Please hear me, this is important to me.”

You can begin to change the relationship and you can do so unilaterally even if your partner doesn’t seem to be making any effort to improve. To begin to turn things around, try asking yourself these questions when you are hearing your partner’s complaints.

  1. Am I in a good place to hear fully what my partner is saying, so that I can understand their message to me?
  2. What can I do to de-escalate tension, rather than intensify it?
  3. How can I soothe myself so that I can stay calm?
  4. Can I hear the complaint without complaining back or getting defensive?  

The reality is that only when you are truly open to hearing the complaints of your partner can you expect to be truly heard yourself. And you cannot do this simultaneously. In other words, you cannot expect to be heard at the same time that your partner is expressing a complaint or a criticism of you.

Nobody said it would be easy

Not everyone can do this. It is very difficult to listen to a person accusing you of causing distress, anguish or discomfort. Listening with an open heart and an intention to understand that person requires commitment and practice.

If you are on the receiving end of criticism or complaints from your partner, the following tips may be helpful to keep defense or attacks in check.

  1. Stay calm. Feeling anxious about being the target of criticism is the mother of all problems in communication.
  2. Listen to the complaint without planning to argue or refute.
  3. Be curious and ask questions about what you don’t understand.
  4. Listen carefully for the piece of criticism you can agree with, even if it comes with exaggerations or inaccurate statements.
  5. Apologize for that piece first.
  6. Never criticize a person who is criticizing you. There may be a time to bring up your own points, but that time is not when the other person has started to voice his/her own complaints. Your time will come in a different conversation.
  7. It’s ok to say, “You hurt my feelings when you talk to me this way”; “I need you to bring up just one thing at a time”; “When you start bringing up the past, I shut down and can’t listen.”
  8. If you are having trouble staying calm, stop the conversation. It is perfectly ok to say, “I need a little time to think about what you are saying.” Commit to another time and follow through with it.

Practice, practice, practice

No one likes being the target of criticism, but a lot can be learned from the challenge. With practice, we can enhance our capacity to listen differently, to ask questions, to get our intensity down, and to move toward, rather than away from, the other person. 

We can learn to apologize for the part we can agree with and wait our turn to speak about our own issues at another time. If you have never responded to criticism and complaints in this way, it may take some getting used to, and some practice. That is the road to better communication and true healing and repair. You do have the power to lead your relationship down that road – why wait?

This post was inspired by ideas in The Dance of Connection by Harriet Lerner and It Takes One to Tango by Winifred Reilly.

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