I'm pretty sure that not a single person on this planet likes being corrected. Correction or criticism can be something people are generally okay with, but no one actually LOVES it or looks forward to it with delight. And I'm pretty sure that if anyone does, this person probably conditioned him/herself to being okay with correction, and that takes a heck of a lot of time and practice. Positive feedback is always pleasant to hear, but it always stings, even just a bit, to hear criticism. This is true at work, at home, among friends, and this is most especially true in relationships.
I suppose in the context of relationships, we tend to take criticism harder than in others because we're always 'best foot forward' in these relationships. And more than that, our whole being is on the line — our hearts, souls and bodies. And if our 'best foot' is threatened, then we become anxious, angry and nervous. Case in point, on several occasions in the past, whenever Nicollo told me to be more orderly, or to try my hand at cooking, or that I talk too loud (come on, I’m not that loud), I would either be on the defensive, or think of my inadequacy as a partner, even if that was the farthest thing from his intention.
Although we've sort of graduated from this kind of thinking as a couple (thanks to a couple of tips I'll be sharing in just a bit!!!), it's good to point out that many, many couples go through this problem and is often a source of stress and tension in a relationship. For instance, your partner has this horrible habit of complaining. You wanna tell him so badly to quit complaining, but you don't want your comment to cause a fight. So you hold it in. Until he complains again. And again. And again. And the next thing you know, you become so full of it that you just SNAP. A fight ensues. You cry. He brings up your faults. You get pissed off because you just wanted to fix this ONE problem. And it goes on and on. The thing is, while we acknowledge that correction is important and even necessary in a relationship, we also always have to think of our partner’s emotions. We always have to think of the total package.
I've found that what has worked for me and Nicollo are just two simple and very doable things. Since the time we started practicing these, we saw that we've become much happier and much more satisfied in our relationship, and that we've constantly been growing as individuals and as a couple. These are:
1) Focusing on the good, and acknowledging that goodness; and
2) Providing yourselves with a specific time for constructive criticism and feedback where emotions are totally out of the way, BUT with a well-thought out intention.
This will require a bit of digestion, so stay with me!
Focusing on the good
As I mentioned earlier, no one enjoys criticism. It’s human nature: criticism hurts our fragile egos, and makes us feel small and inadequate.
But what I’ve found is that we tend to respond to goodness, more than we do to attacks on our person. When correction is done negatively, we tend to rebel against it. But when, instead, we are dealt with with goodness, we tend to latch on to that goodness. For instance, when I see that Nicollo does something I want to see more of, I praise him and say, “Nicollo, I love when you open the door for me. It makes me feel so safe and so important to you.” He, in turn, responds to the praise, and desires to keep doing it because he knows it makes me happy. Imagine, if, instead I’d say, “Nicollo, why don’t you open the door for me? Is it so hard to go out of your way just a bit for me?” I’m sure he’d feel small and insecure.
But I’m not saying that it's all about lip service. No — farthest from it, actually. The kind words spring as a result of an internal change. What I’m forwarding instead is first, a change in perspective of your partner. In relationships, this change in perspective — from dwelling on what's wrong with him, and which bad habits need to be corrected, to focusing on his great, unique qualities (and acknowledging them) — will become a source of positivity and vitality.
First, internally, it's a change in YOUR perspective of your partner. When we dwell on the positives rather than the negatives — on the glass half-full, rather than the glass half-empty — we tend to see our partner as a person we can learn from, and a person we can grow with. We tend to look up at our partners with more admiring eyes, than down at them with criticism. We respect and admire their whole person, instead of try to change them. And the habit of looking up to them and admiring them is already half the battle won.
Second, externally, because you choose to focus on the good, the natural fruit becomes a positive change in the way you communicate TO and ABOUT your partner. When we admire our partners, our admiration overflows. It becomes easier then to praise our partners, and to speak more kindly to and of them. It becomes easier to overlook the tiny stuff that irritate us. It becomes easier to acknowledge their strengths rather than to nag them about their weaknesses. We can say with more love and ease that we admire how hard she works, or that we admire how organized she is, or that we appreciate his efforts in making us feel loved. And the more we praise the person we love, the more he responds by behaving the way he is recognized for. So try to fill your words with kindness and praise. The more your partner will want to keep doing the good he does because he knows you recognize and appreciate it.
We even bring this admiration to the way we speak about our partners among our family and friends. Because of the love, respect and even reverence we have for our partners, we would never speak ill of our partners. We become their number one supporters in every way.
What's more, I'm a firm believer that kindness begets kindness. The kinder we treat someone, the kinder this person in turn, treats us. And so, in a relationship, all it takes is one person to change his perspective, one person to choose to speak with more kindness, and it will create a ripple. Your partner will respond to this goodness, and hopefully, sooner rather than later, the culture of your relationship will be changed for the better.
But I'm not oblivious to the fact that no one is perfect, and that this strategy of positivity won't always work. We all have our flaws and bad habits that ought to be corrected and that need to be brought to light to be improved. But we have to be smarter and kinder in the way we bring this up to our partners, and we must make sure that the correction is one of love not of selfishness.
Correct with love and respect
In the early days of our relationship, Nicollo and I were very critical of each other. We didn't know how to correct each other, so whenever we felt slighted by the other, we would immediately correct them (with raging anger), and it never ended pretty. We ended up saying things we regretted, words that we wished we could take back. On other occasions, I felt the need to change some bad habits of his, so I'd nag him about this and that, and he would end up feeling annoyed. This caused distance and bitterness in the relationship.
We found that neither immediate correction nor nagging worked at all. With immediate correction, the danger of anger and emotions can sway you to throw logic out the window, and be on "self-preservation mode". We end up thinking about how he wronged ME, and MY convenience, instead of thinking about how he can improve as a person (and, in a Christian perspective, as a child of God). With nagging on the other hand, our partners turn rebellious, because nagging is, well, annoying. I'm sure we all tune off when the nagging starts (just think about the last time mom nagged you). So instead of these usual strategies (this is going to sound strange...), HAVE A REGULAR FEEDBACK SESSION. If, of course, your partner is amenable. ;)
The session should be one where both people in the relationship (or even the family or the friendship) come together with the sincere desire to understand themselves more by knowing how we show up to the people that matter to us, and to change ourselves for the better. The session shouldn't be seen as an opportunity to crucify the other, but instead as one to help this person become his best version because you love him, and because of this love, you want him to actualize the potential that you see in him. This way, correction becomes selfless and pure.
So, going back to the complaining example. There are two ways to go about the issue. First, you can correct him because it irritates you and because you hate it when people complain. Or second, you can see it as a barrier to how he relates with other people, and look at it as an opportunity for him to grow in being more charitable. The two are very different. The first scenario is about you and your convenience; the second is for him and his growth. You see where I'm driving at here?
Try it at home
Putting structure to the session also helps you communicate your thoughts and comments more constructively than otherwise. When you have structure, you are able to condition your mind to receive feedback knowing that you're doing this first, to be better for your partner; and second, that your partner is doing this out of love, not out of spite. It doesn't have to be rigid or too regular. It can be done as frequently as once a quarter, or even just once a year. Every relationship is different, so each relationship's needs are different, too. You both just have to decide that you want to do it, and then when.
Then, prepare for it. Put together a list of questions that you want to find answers to. Have alone time to really think about your feedback and make sure you do it out of love for the other. Here are some questions you can consider:
1. What have I been doing right?
2. What can I do better?
3. How can I be a better girlfriend/friend/wife/husband to you?
4. What would you like to see more of?
Having these questions in advance helps you to really purify your intentions for your correction. When you prepare, always ask yourself, "is this feedback for me, or for her?" Then you'll have a deeper understanding of your partner, and even of yourself. In anticipation of this feedback session, you start to think of your own faults, strengths and weaknesses, so you become more aware of them, and hopefully, become firmer in your resolve to change for the better.
Admittedly, this all seems to be a very ideal way to deal with problems. And I'm certain that there will be moments when correction needs to happen ASAP. So, whether it's organized or not, my tip is to always purify your intention for correction. Do it for them and for their growth, not just for your and your convenience. And use gentle words, too. I'm sure you'll find that when you do this, your partner will be more willing to listen.
At the end of the day, all this boils down to seeing your partner with kinder and more loving eyes. This doesn't usually come naturally, so I suppose this is what people mean when they say true love means hard work. So put in the work, and hopefully you'll see your relationship blossom.
Let me know if these tips work for you as they have for me. I'd love to hear your comments, questions, and suggestions!
'til next time, Onward & Upward!
DISCLAIMER: this article is for generally healthy relationships with some frustrations (esp in matters of criticizing). If you are in a relationship where matters of correction are very serious (ie - abuse, manipulation and some others), this WON'T WORK. What will work is leaving the relationship.