Human Matters: The difference between complaint and criticism
I can’t get sloppy or casual with this guy. His brain is smart, thorough and relentless. He’s a bit intense, but so am I, so maybe we’re a good fit. He wants nothing more (and nothing less) than to be a good human being. And, someday, he’d like to be a good mate and life partner in a terrific relationship.
He challenges me: “You say, ‘Stop confronting each other and start confronting yourself.’ I can’t come to peace with this. What if I am confronting myself, yet my partner is throwing darts at me? Am I not supposed to let her know that she’s hurting me? Your statement is all or nothing and that’s what I can’t accept.”
Ah, caught again in hyperbole. Without hyperbole, I don’t think I could ask directions to the men’s room. It makes me a lively discussion partner, but it also regularly oversells my hand.
“Try it this way,” I say. “On average, husbands and wives should spend a greatly disproportionate time confronting themselves as opposed to each other. That’s more literally what I mean.”
He pounces: “OK, so what’s in bounds and out of bounds for bringing a mate’s shortcomings to their attention? Aren’t we better able to identify issues in our mate than they are? I certainly recognize that we need to spend a lot of effort on ourselves, but nobody would be better at knowing what issues need improvement than our significant other.”
It’s a great question. An important question, for sure. Because the man is correct: Should you spend days, weeks, months and years cohabitating with, making love to, unloading dishwashers and cleaning toilets with someone, then you will indeed become the planet’s resident expert on that someone’s “issues.” The man is also correct (and wise!) to recognize that, just because I identify a shortcoming, this does not necessarily mean I should open my mouth and “bring my mate’s shortcomings to his/her attention.”
Yes, it can be enjoyable (on a level of ego) to have the “moral goods” on your life partner. And, regularly over a marital lifetime, you will! But step lightly here. Condescension is not in fact the active ingredient of intimacy. Especially when your mate is wrong and out of bounds, the hope is this generates more mercy than glee.
The work of John Gottman (“The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”) distinguishes between “criticism” (bad) and “complaint” (necessary) in the work of marriage:
“Criticizing your partner is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint! The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack: It is an attack on your partner at the core. In effect, you are dismantling his or her whole being when you criticize. (A complaint is) “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.” (A criticism is) “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!”
Here would be my word of warning in this discussion: It’s one thing to know our mate’s issues. It’s a much more complicated question, however, to conclude you know what issues need improvement. Some, maybe, but probably not as many as you think. Not to mention that some issues needing improvement will never improve. Every human being is going to bring some list of odd and/or annoying foibles that are more or less fixed.
I think of these items like, say, your mate having diabetes. Yes, I have identified the issue. Your blood sugar needs improving. But it’s really not going to improve. Because you have diabetes. So, I’m not going to complain about that any more. What I will insist is that you eat responsibly, check your blood sugar and take your insulin.
Similarly would it be just plain silly for my life partner to complain about the limits of my attention to detail. It’s really not going to get any better. But she would have every right, then, to insist my life be filled with sticky notes, my calendar, copious note-taking and timers.
When should you open your mouth and complain?
— When your mate’s behavior threatens to erode the bond.
— When you want to negotiate respect, justice and equity in the relationship, and/or when your mate’s behavior is openly disrespectful.
— When your mate has stopped paying attention to the work of great love.
— When your mate is hurting you.
In these cases, for heaven’s sake speak up!
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at email@example.com.
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