A common complaint among many married couples is that their partner is overly critical. Most marriage breakdowns come after a breakdown in positive communication. Couples move from love to contempt very quickly when they don't know how to control the cycle of criticism and insult. While it is difficult to live with someone who is constantly complaining about what you do and how you do it, learning to respond to criticism with patience and understanding will improve your marriage and help turn negative communication into positive communication.
1. Make a commitment
As you and your spouse endeavor to improve your communication, it is vital that you both make a commitment to that effort. Problems with communication are almost never one-sided, and both spouses must actively find ways that they can change their behavior in order to achieve success. Your relationship will never improve if only one of you is trying.
2. Stop hurtful behaviors
Part of overcoming negative communication is learning to recognize and control those behaviors that hurt your spouse. One way to do this is to record an argument and then listen to it together. Each of you can point out the things the other says that are damaging. Another way is to come up with signs or gestures that can be used during a discussion to let the person talking know whether what they have said affects the other person negatively or positively. This provides immediate feedback and is effective in helping each partner become more aware of some of their communication issues.
3. Respond to criticism with empathy
Try to understand the perspective of the other person. A good way to do this is to establish the rule that you may only speak after summarizing what it is that you understood from your spouse’s comments. Allow your spouse to correct or clarify anything that you misunderstood. This exercise will force you to understand exactly what your spouse intended to communicate and will allow you to see things from his or her point of view.
4. Use “I” statements
Do not say things like, “You never…” or “You always….” Commands or accusations will inevitably create resentment and will only intensify feelings of defensiveness. Instead, use “I” statements that refer to how you are feeling. For example, instead of saying, “You never listen to anything I say,” you could say, “I feel hurt and ignored when you turn away while I’m talking to you.” It is very difficult to argue with the way someone feels because it is completely subjective. And because you are taking personal responsibility for your feelings, the other person is much less likely to feel attacked and more likely to understand your point of view.
Being happy in your marriage is more important than being right. Most people are inclined to latch onto their argument and defend it at all costs, even if they know deep down that they are wrong. Resist this impulse. Many things that couples fight about just aren’t worth the time and energy involved. Learn to let things go and to give in when it isn’t important. Then realize that there are few things that are more important than your relationship with your spouse. If you can accomplish this, your disagreements will become fewer and farther between while your love and respect for one another will increase exponentially.
6. Seek professional help if needed
Some problems need an objective third party to intervene. If you cannot work out your differences on your own, consider seeking help from a marriage counselor.
A. Lynn Scoresby, founder and president of My Family Track , First Answers , and Achievement Synchrony , and has been a marriage and family psychologist for more than 35 years. He has published more than 20 books and training programs.