How to Handle Criticism From Your Spouse

Marinus Begieneman

By Marinus Begieneman, MSW, RSW

In my years of counseling, I have found that the way we communicate with each other is vital to harmony in a relationship. One way to think about the relationship between two people is like a bank account. The way we communicate with each other can either create a withdrawal from or deposit into that relationship bank account.  Authentic communication results in a deposit to the relationship bank account, whereas poor communication results in a withdrawal.

In a good relationship where there is a strong connection based on authentic interactions and a caring concern for each other, there would be a high positive balance in the relationship bank account. Relationships that struggle are usually close to, or in an overdraft situation.

One of the many hallmarks of authentic communication lies in how we handle criticism. To explain what I mean, I'd like to highlight what David Burns, in his book "Feeling Good Together", describes as the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. Specifically, I'd like to briefly discuss the first secret, which Dr. Burns calls the Disarming Technique. When using this secret, "You find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if it seems totally unreasonable or unfair." (p.262).

Let me illustrate with the following type of interaction:

Wife to husband: "You really don't love me."

Husband to wife: "You've got to be kidding, what the heck are you talking about?"

There are more authentic ways that the wife, in this instance, could express what she is feeling to her husband, but for the moment, let's take a look at the husband's response. Notice how he dismisses her concerns. His response is likely to block her attempt to communicate with him. Now compare this to how he might respond using the disarming technique.

Wife to husband: "You really don't love me."

Husband to wife: "Wow, it really hurts me to hear you say that, but I can see how you could feel that way. I've been really uptight recently, because of my job situation. Let's talk this out. Can you tell me what I did or said that hurt you?"

Dr. Burns provides us with a few ideas as to how to ease into using this technique. He suggests that we work to identify a specific criticism out of a broader one. If a friend says "You're stupid" in response to something we've said or done, our first reaction might be feelings of hurt, and we're likely to try to defend ourselves.  However, in order to "disarm" the situation, we could respond with "I probably should have said/done that differently.  Why don't you tell me what's going on for you right now and how you're feeling?"  This response allows your friend to feel that you are willing to try to understand their position, and you'll move from "stupid" to "collaborative" in your interactions.

Also, you don't have to agree with the criticism in a literal sense, but instead, agree with the feeling or spirit that was invoked in the other person. This type of response invites dialogue and diffuses tension between the two of you.

Finally, Burns talks about another intriguing idea, which he calls the death of the ego or the self. When you agree with the person who has criticized you, it often feels like you are "dying". In fact, your pride and sense of "self" may both have to "die" in order for you to disarm your critic, but if you can skillfully do this with a sincere and open heart, your sense of "self" and your pride will be reborn in that same moment. In fact, if you do this you and your critic both will "die" and be reborn together. All the antagonism and mistrust that have come between you will dissipate, and you will instantly feel more warmth, love and respect toward each other.

I've found that this is a difficult technique to master. We need to be genuine and sincere and persistent. With practice, however, and in harmony with the other four secrets, wonderful results can be achieved.

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