Respectfully receiving critical feedback is a key skill for a happy and healthy relationship. The ability to temporarily put aside our own feelings and our own way of seeing the situation, and truly listen to our partner’s feelings and perspective, allows us to safely air grievances and work through conflicts. Without that safe space, the love and goodwill of a relationship runs the risk of being burned up by resentment and anger.
No one, however, likes to be criticized. No one likes hearing how they are disappointing the person they love. No one likes feeling blamed, misunderstood or under-appreciated. And so a lot of us are experts in defense — both in defending ourselves and hitting up against the defenses of our partner.
Do any of these defense tactics sound familiar?
- Placating. Critical feedback is tuned out and brushed over. ‘Yes, dear, okay, honey, whatever you say.’
- Invalidating. One partner tries to convince the other that his or her complaint is not legitimate. ‘Why are you making such a big deal out of this? Are you just trying to find things to be upset about? This isn’t even a real problem.’
- Chronic postponing. If one partner brings up a complaint, the other continually finds a way to put off the discussion. ‘You are really bringing this up now? I’m way too busy right now to talk about this.’
- Guilting. Critical feedback gets diverted when the recipient turns the conversation around to his or her own feelings and fears. ‘Why are you being so mean to me? How do you think that makes me feel?’ There also might be crying, pouting, brooding, disconnecting emotionally or physically, or even acting out in self-destructive ways.
- Globalizing. Instead of focusing on the actual issue that a partner is raising, the other person turns it into something huge and global, as a way to obscure and avoid the issue. ‘I am such a disappointment, I never do anything right. You are never satisfied.’
- Narrowing. Instead of addressing the deeper issue, excuses and reasons about a specific incident are used to close off the critical feedback. ‘I didn’t feel well this morning and couldn’t focus on anything. I had to work that night. I was late because there was a traffic jam.’
- Bullying. Intimidation is used to stop critical feedback. This could be raising one’s voice, pounding a fist on the table, or making vague or concrete threats about what might happen if the other partner continues to try to talk about the issue.
- Ignoring. In the face of criticism, one person just walks out of the room or house or simply ignores the other partner when he or she tries to express a complaint.
- Transferring responsibility. The partner who is being criticized passes the responsibility back to the other partner. ‘You are just too sensitive, too critical, never happy.’ ‘Maybe if you acted differently, I would be different.’ This responsibility transfer can even be in the form of pointing to the feedback itself as the cause of behavior. ‘Maybe if you didn’t nag me so much, I would do more of what you ask.’
- One-upping. Critical feedback is deflected by turning the conversation into competitive grievance one-upsmanship. ‘I can’t believe you are upset. I am upset. You do so many things that bother me.’
- Stonewalling. One partner shuts down any conversation involving critical feedback by stating that he or she is too rigid to even discuss possibilities for change. ‘That’s just the way I am. Live with it. This is what you signed up for when we got together. If you can’t accept me for who I am, there’s the door.’
- Denying. The critical feedback is flatly denied. ‘I didn’t do that. I didn’t say that.’
- Neutralizing. The person receiving the grievance ‘neutralizes’ the criticism by explaining that his or her intention is being misunderstood. ‘I wasn’t trying to upset you. I don’t think you should be mad at me when I was only trying to be helpful.’
Bringing awareness to your own defense tactics, and being able to recognize and name your partner’s defense strategies, are essential in moving toward healthy communication and a healthy relationship. This awareness allows you to begin challenging your own defenses, work on becoming strong and patient enough to listen openly to criticism, and practice standing your ground when you start to feel derailed by the skilled defensiveness of your partner.
Be prepared, however, for a bumpy road forward. Dismantling our defenses is ridiculously hard work. Even if the feedback is given in a reasonably respectful way (which is a big if, and certainly must be addressed in order for a couple to move toward healthy communication), our defensive patterns are deeply ingrained.
So when you, or your partner, make even a slight shift toward openness, celebrate the moment. Allow yourselves to feel the thrill of being strong enough to disarm defensiveness and respectfully hear criticism, and remind yourselves to treasure the deep security of having a relationship that can hold safe space for the reality that, no matter how hard we try, sometimes we upset and disappoint the people we love.