Whether you have been together 30 days or 30 years chances are your partner has done something that you did not agree with. And when you realized your partner’s misstep, you made sure to “lovingly” point out the flaw and tell your partner how they should have done it differently. You were trying to help, but somehow your partner heard, “You are wrong and I am right” instead. Then an argument ensued. While there will be plenty of times for you to be right in your relationship, sometimes you should just bite your tongue.
Why It’s So Easy to Criticize
Why are we so quick to criticize and slow to empathize?
Quite simply, its easier. It’s easier to see and act only from your point of view. It’s harder to take into account your partner’s perspective and to act from a place of understanding and love. When you are sure that rolling socks into balls is better than folding them, it is easy to criticize the fold. The same can be said when your partner expresses frustration after being overlooked for a promotion. Every bone in your body wants to scream, “If you would have just worked harder/better/faster, you would have gotten it!”
Why is this your first inclination?
Because you, like many others are a fixer. And when fixing, you have to first identify the problem (your partner) and then make changes (work harder). Criticizing is an effective way of saying I don’t like what you did, here’s why, and here is how you can do better. You will feel validated in your criticism, because there is probably some truth to it. After all, socks balled together tend to stay together in and out of the drawer. Unfortunately criticizing others leaves you feeling heard while your partner is left feeling resentful and hurt.
Why You Should Try Empathy Instead
Empathy is not an end all, be all cure for all marriage woes, but it comes pretty close. When you are able to genuinely empathize with your partner you open the door for better conversations, higher understanding, and greater emotional intimacy. Empathy does not mean sympathy. You are not simply feeling sorry for your partner that she/he lost out on a promotion. You are interpreting what they are feeling and experiencing it as best you can. Empathy in this situation could be expressed as…”That sucks that you didn’t get the job. I know how much you wanted it and how hard you tried”. Note that I didn’t say, “I’m sorry, I feel so bad for you”. While this would not be bad, it is not empathy.
Empathizing with your partner lets them know that you are in this together and that you have your partner’s back. Empathy allows you to hold your own perspective while being open to a different perspective. So, if you come home from work and see a dirty house, misbehaving kids, and that awful meatloaf on the table, you have two choices. You can criticize the cleaning, the whiny kiddos, and of course the meatloaf or you can empathize with your partner and realize that he/she tried hard to make your evening better by having dinner ready when you got home. Rest assured empathizing will make for a better evening.
Empathize, Then What?
So you empathized with your partner and opened yourself up to a differing perspective that left your partner feeling warm and fuzzy, but you still hate meatloaf. There is no rule in empathizing that states you can’t express your true views as well. When you empathize you take on the perspective of your partner, but you don’t lose your perspective. In order to maintain a healthy relationship it is important that along with empathy you also have truth. If you like your socks in a ball and you don’t meatloaf let your partner know. Truth can be shared without criticizing your partner’s sock folding preference or taste buds. Truth and differing perspectives may lead to disagreements. That’s OK! Empathy throughout a disagreement will help solidify respect and kindness within the relationship and will ward off escalated arguments.
There is always going to be something about your partner that doesn’t line up with your preferences. Sometimes it will be small (socks) and sometimes it will be big (religion, sex, child rearing). Whatever the trial, remember that empathizing is not waving a white flag in defeat and rolling over. Rather it is agreeing to sit down at the table, no tricks, no weapons, with your love and respect for your partner in mind to talk about the situation.
About the Author
Amber Groves is a Marriage and Family Therapist and infertility specialist at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO. She helps couples, families and children to have the calm and peaceful life they want in their relationship and family. In her spare time, she is the mother of one busy toddler and a new little baby.