I loved your Difficult Woman article and wish we could make it required reading for humanity. I think it is heroic for a man to actually stop, pause, and respond lovingly when criticizedby his wife. That man’s stature instantly would increase ten-fold in my eyes. One thing seemed contradictory, though. In passing, you said, “Criticism never helps a relationship.” But you also said, “In the happiest couples, the wife does the vital job of complaining…” If we Difficult Women never criticize, how are we supposed to do our job of Dealing With (you know—changing!) our Difficult Men?
Your core question is one for the ages: Can you change a man? We’ve all been told it’s impossible. But we’ve been shown that a woman’s job is to treat men like grapes, stomping them until they’ve metamorphosed into worthy dinner companions.
Science finds a truth quite opposite this cultural show-n-tell. In fact, You Can Change A Man. Just not with criticism.
Now that I’ve got your attention…here’s how.
Step 1: Repeat the mantra: “Criticism always hurts.”
Dr. John Gottman has spent decades discerning which couples are happy, why, and how the rest of us can get there. His unparalleled The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert concludes that “There is no such thing as constructive criticism.” That’s because criticism predictably snowballs into defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling—habitual reactions so deadly to marriage, Gottman calls them “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”.
Criticism never helps; it always hurts; it gets us to the opposite of love, respect, and happiness. Whatever phrasing works, the basic point is crucial.
Step 2: Learn the difference between criticisms and complaints.
Happy couples don’t let resentments build or ignore disrespectful, unloving acts. Instead, they gently complain as soon as they notice something amiss. And we all know who “they” are, right? Yes, we women, who bring up over 80% of sensitive issues.
Complaining is valid work. The tough point for many of us, though, is divining the difference between a complaint and a criticism. The tell-tale signs?
—Complaints make a specific request for change, dealing with the present situation only;
—complaints begin with “I” (“I think you’re a jerk” does not count, by the way); and
—complaints avoid blame, accusations and character assassination.
Criticisms, on the other hand, are global denouncements, attacking the other person’s general behavior and even their character—a sure sign of disrespect that swiftly and surely kills love. Statements that inject absolutes such as “never” and “always”, or that begin, “You know what your problem is?” are reliable tip-offs.
So here’s a Really Brief Quiz On Complaint Versus Criticism (Gottman’s Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last gives much more detail for Criticizers In Recovery):
“I wound up taking out the trash today, even though we agreed you’d do it. Will you do it this Thursday?”
“Your never take out the trash—your one chore! How lazy can you be?”
One of these is something most of us could respond to favorably; the other….
Step 3: Replace criticisms with gentle complaints.
Does your man tune out or shuffle away, vacant-eyed and deaf-mute, at the slightest hint of negativity? Exposure to habitual criticism causes Zombie-like stonewalling—not because men don’t care, but because they can’t process emotional interactions once their heart-rates exceed 100 beats per minute. The more criticisms men hear, the more they learn to expect, and the more hair-trigger their physiology becomes.
To reclaim your Man who makes eye contact and engages when you need him, replace criticisms with gentle complaints…very gentle…ideally, so gentle, they may not even sound like complaints. “Oh, Honey, I can’t wait for you to get home and wrap your arms around me” might replace “You workaholic! Get your a** home pronto if you ever want to see mine again!” For instance.
Be gentle with yourself, too. Even blissful couples criticize a little; nobody’s perfect. And breaking the criticism habit is tough. So start by noticing after you’ve criticized. Soon, you’ll notice during criticism; and then eventually, you’ll notice that you’re about to criticize, and you’ll complain instead. Kudos! You’re on your way.
Step 4: Add positives—a lot of them.
Criticism always hurts, but an over-abundance of complaints is a deal-breaker, too. How can you express what you need without overdoing the negativity? Elementary, my dear Anna: Overbalance with positives ‘til you are far, far into the black at the Bank Of Love.
Think of your relationship as a bank account, except that at the Bank Of Love, you have to deposit at least $5 for every $1 you withdraw, or you’re broke. But the 5:1 ratio just covers bare-bones survival. Research shows that love’s happy millionaires squirrel away $20 of hugs, kisses, adoring gazes, sexual enthusiasm, compliments, supportive comments, and kind and respectful acts for each $1 in negativity they spend.
Extra Credit: Persist to reap the rewards.
I began this post with the extravagant claim that You Can Change A Man. Now, it’s time to confess: You won’t ever change who he is, not really. And if you ever loved and respected him, that’s probably best.
But you can change the relationship dramatically for the better, so that both of you are your happiest and most in love—just by doing these Steps as often as you can, even though none of us is in danger of doing them perfectly.
You might see positive results immediately—many do. But if your Man has already been Taken By Zombies, it might be a few weeks. That’s okay. Persist. Research shows these Steps are extremely likely to return your sweetheart and foster his openness to your influence—maybe in a way you haven’t known in years. Isn’t that worth a bit of effort?
Yes, it is. Bank on it.
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Do you have a question for Duana? Contact her at Duana@LoveScienceMedia.com
All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009