There is no room for criticism

Somehow we are wired to be in relationship with other people. And yet it is the most challenging that we do. People in relationships live in constant connection with another human being in a conditional way based on how we each treat the other. We unconsciously select this other person, hoping that we will finally get all of the unmet needs of our childhood made whole. Sadly, criticism is right around the corner.

In the beginning

When the relationship starts, our partner looks like everything we have always longed for. S/he seems to see all that is whole and lovable about us. And we see her/him through the rosy lens of new love. We laugh, we smile, and we are flooded with dopamine.

The power struggle

As time goes on, the very things that attracted us may become irritating. We have less patience, frustrations emerge, day-to-day stresses translate to criticism and disappointment. Fights over small things become the norm. We both notice that the relationship feels harder, communication is strained, and connecting feels like a distant memory. Criticizing you is the way I express my anxiety, fears, and self-doubt.

You do you

Martin Buber said: “Love is caring enough for the other person that one takes the sometimes painful experience of letting the other person be who they are.” It can be challenging to let you be who you are. And even more challenging to look at myself when I feel bad about us.

No room for criticism

As long as we express criticism for each other, we struggle to connect. The loss of connection triggers our most basic survival nature. In the fight|flight|freeze mode we are off to the races. Shut down or blow up.

Criticism is insidious. According to John and Julie Gottman and the research they have done in their Love Lab, criticism is a direct path to divorce. Criticism pinpoints personality and identity. You may want the best for your partner and offer critical feedback as a way to help him/her be a better person. On the other hand, you may find that your criticism of her/him, makes YOU feel better. Either way, criticism is poisonous for both the giver and the receiver.

Is it kind?

Research shows that negative feedback reduces performance and commitment in employees. It stands to reason that this is true in more intimate relationships as well. What we say and how we say it matter. The old adage “If you can’t say something kind, don’t say anything as all,” is most valuable in our closest relationships. When I indulge in the possibility that those who love me will be most forgiving, I neglect the cumulative effect of the small arrows that I sling at old wounds.

How it feels

Criticism is blaming and diminishing. It assumes that the critic knows what is best for the other person. And it keeps the focus on what is wrong, using personality and character as a way in. It is unkind. It is defensive. It is divisive. And the chances are very good, that the things I criticize in you are the very things that I feel most vulnerable about in me. Criticism is controlling and demoralizing. And this is your beloved partner that you are talking about.

The brain on criticism

One of the problems with criticism is the brain’s natural inclination towards a negative bias. Heighten awareness of danger is how we survive. The brain more readily imprints and remembers the negative over the positive. We need a 5:1 ratio of positive experiences to negative experiences to be stable.

Vulnerability leads to connecting

If my deepest desire is to be connected to you and our brains are wired to be in relationship, how can I maximize the interactions that fuel positive feedback, that build resilience and joy? How do I create a sense of safety that invites us both to be more vulnerable? Vulnerability is the true birthplace of loving connection. There is no room for criticism in an intimate relationship. None.

Alternatives to criticism

Regulating the effects of my lizard brain in the fight | flight | freeze mode enables me to move out of my old brain an into the prefrontal cortex, where reasoning and logic invite me to be curious. Ways to do that include:

  • breathe work
  • smiling | laughing
  • physical contact
  • appreciations
  • Imago Dialogue

Breathe work, like belly breathing, can create a small space between the reactive survival response and the action. Place one hand on your belly and one hand over your heart. Inflate your belly and feel that hand rise by breathing in through your nose. Blow out the breath through your mouth. Breathing regulates both your brain and your heart.

Smiling and laughing triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine induces feelings of euphoria, bliss and increases focus, allowing you to reset intention and action.

Physical contact, such as hand-holding and hugging, lower blood pressure, regulates heart rate, reduces cortisol and stimulates the memory zones of the hippocampus. Touch is familiar, comforting, and restorative in its generosity.

Appreciations are a fundamental part of Imago Relationship Therapy. We use appreciations to maintain the connection and to regulate our brains when triggered. This behavior is the opposite of criticism. It is a conscious decision to look for that which is good in the other person. It is abundant and generative. It is kind and connecting.

Imago Dialogue is the most effective structure we use to create safety and hold our partner in a space of understanding and empathy. When I feel like you see me and get me, I am secure in the knowledge that you understand me. When you are able to validate my experience, you demonstrate your understanding of me. Being heard is as close to being loved as most of us can imagine.

Connecting over Criticism

We are wired to be in relationship. It is likely that we will have an intimate relationship. We can choose to be bound in our relationship by old wounds or by connecting, loving threads that heal the old and grow us in ways that we had not imagined. Criticism always divides us even as it binds us. Choose the emotional bonds that hold you in your relationship. Choose joy and loving kindness over disappointment and disapproval.

At the Imago Center we offer a variety of educational events that support connection and relational being.

Check out events here.

Workshops for individuals.

Workshops for Couples

Getting the Love You Want Workshop May 15-16

Keeping the Love You Find workshop Aug 28-29