Here’s how to stop the criticism and begin modeling a healthy marriage for your children.
The first step is to…
1. Regulate your own reaction to criticism.
You can’t control what your partner does to criticize you, but you can control your response to your partner.
And if you’ll do that, you’ll change the whole dynamic of your relationship.
Criticism triggers defenses and activates counter-criticism.
Whenever opinions differ, you’ll tend to criticize your partner for not being like you.
Wife: “Make sure when you load the dishwasher you face the dishes inward, put all the silverware sorted in the tray, and don’t turn it on until is full so we don’t waste energy.”
Husband: “You know it really doesn’t matter which way they are facing, they’ll get clean either way. And just put the silverware in there. We can sort it when we put it away. And really it doesn’t use that much energy.”
That’s a setup for a critical reaction and a counter-critical reaction:
Wife: “You never listen to me!”
Husband: “You’re always telling me what to do!”
Can I say it again? You CAN’T control your partner’s choice to criticize you, but you CAN control your response to your partner.
You don’t have to engage in counter-criticism. And when you make that choice, you diffuse the tension, disrupt the cycle, and the whole dynamic of your relationship changes.
So, how do I regulate my reactivity?
Instead of reacting in your default, “critical mode”, respond by “MIRRORING” what your partner says.
MIRRORING is a tool that empowers you to stop reactive feelings in their tracks, and turn your rational brain on with genuine interest and curiosity.
When you mirror your partner’s criticism back to her, you not only hear WHAT she’s saying, but you become curious as to WHY she’s saying it.
Here’s what that could look like:
Wife: “You never listen to me!”
Husband: “Let me see if I’m getting what you’re saying.”
OK, before you say that’s a silly way to answer just bear with me!
That opening sentence becomes a powerful pivot point, enabling you to turn in the opposite direction – from reactive criticism toward interest and curiosity. It helps you turn on your upper brain and temper your lower brain.
“If I got it, you said that I never listen to you.”
Mirroring is about focusing on what your partner is saying with such intensity that you can repeat it back word for word.
Then you ask a question that helps you focus on hearing her with complete accuracy.
“Did I get it?”
This ensures that you hear ALL she is saying.
In the case above, the husband heard the words the wife said, but now he’s inviting her to clarify what she meant with those words.
Is there more about that?
This last question puts curiosity in overdrive, and bingo! Congratulations! You’re in “regulation mode”!
Now you’re not driven to react with that ugly counter-criticism:“You’re always telling me what to do!”
And, you have made it safe for your partner to access what she’s really feeling.
When you do that you’ll probably see her re-compensate and say something like…
“Thanks for hearing my concern. What are your thoughts?”
(OK, I admit, it doesn’t always go this smoothly, but your chances are a whole lot better than if you react with your counter-criticism! :-))
Then you’ll find yourself without a ruptured connection, and in a better place to solve the problem.
You cannot be curious and critical at the same time. Your brain can’t run on those two tracks at once. The problem is our reactive neurons move 10 times faster from the bottom up (lower brain to upper brain).
And the moment a conversation becomes unsafe, your lower brain triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline into your system. This causes all the blood to rush from your brain into your larger muscles in preparation for fight or flight.
In this kind of reaction mode, we can’t think straight! In that drugged-up and dumbed-down condition, we tend to do our worst when it matters most!
Mirroring disrupts all that. It gives the top-down neurons a chance to regulate your emotions, and this empowers you to make a conscious response rather than a triggered reaction.
And here’s a BONUS! This process builds new brain pathways, connecting your lower reactive brain to your upper rational brain. So the more you practice it, the better you get at regulating your reactions.
Modern scientific discoveries about brain plasticity tell us that “old dogs” can learn “new tricks”!
As the husband in the example above regulates his own reaction, it not only keeps him from adding to the negativity, it also changes the way his partner responds to him.
Many times that’s how it works. But of course, not always.
Sometimes regulating your own reactions is not enough, because your partner’s reactivity is so intense.
That’s where a second, even more powerful tool comes in.
2. Respond to criticism with forgiveness.
How can I forgive someone when they are attacking me?
Well, what happens when you mirror her criticism? What do you discover?
You discover that beneath your partner’s criticism is cry for connection with you.
Disconnection results in anxiety. Unchecked anxiety is what manifests in criticism. Therefore, every criticism is an unspoken desire for connection.
Knowing this, enables you to “pre-validate” your partner’s feelings.
And then, when you stand tall and forgive her for that criticism, rather than shrinking in shame, or exploding in retaliation, you become her hero!
That’s what happened with Mark and Sunny.
Nedra Fetterman tells the story of her parents, Mark and Sunny, how a simple request changed their whole relationship dynamic in a way that stopped the criticism.
The impact on their relationship was not a surprise. These tools really work.
But the subtle impact this had on their daughter’s marriage, and even their grandson came as a complete surprise!
3. Model for your children a marriage that is “in process”.
The third step is to simply let your children see you growing in your relationship.
Regulating your reactivity, responding in forgiveness, and reconnecting with your partner will help you eliminate criticism in your relationship.
This will become a beautiful example for your children – one they will see when you least expect it!
Watch how all this worked in Mark and Sunny’s relationship in the brief video below. Then use the discussion questions to go deeper with your partner.
The video ends with these words:
“Consciousness is contagious. Love is irresistible. Acts of courage and kindness are never forgotten. You never know who is watching you, or who you inspire. The ripple effects of healing pain are boundless in every neighborhood, in every family. In every moment you have a choice. Each moment is a crossroads. Our culture glorifies the magic of falling in love, but says very little about how to sustain a more seasoned love.” – Nedra Fetterman
Discuss with your partner:
1) How is criticism affecting our marriage?
2) What can we do to regulate our own reactions?
3) Behind every criticism is a wish. How can you turn your criticism into a request from me? How can I turn my criticism into a request from you?
4) How can we “pre-validate” each others criticism as a cry for connection, and how can we meet that criticism with forgiveness?