I had a personal experience recently which helped me gain a deeper understanding of criticism and its impact on an intimate relationship. My wife and I were driving somewhere we had never been. I had a map and when we stopped for gas, she suggested I ask for directions. I felt comfortable and confident in my understanding of the map and told her it wasn’t necessary. Of course, we got lost! The combination of having no idea where we were and low blood sugar caused her to snipe at me, “You are so arrogant! You won’t even ask for directions.” Now understand, my wife is the kindest person I know (and the person who comes in second is way back there in the distance). I’m a very lucky person to have her in my life. These kinds of barbs are almost unheard of in our relationship, going in either direction. Indeed, she apologized for it shortly afterward and her remorse for the intemperance was legitimate.
Still, I could not let it go. I experienced myself folding back into myself and I really didn’t want to be around her or have anything to do with her for a couple of hours. She’d ask if I was still mad and I’d say that I didn’t want to talk about it…because I didn’t want to talk about it. I was emotionally shaken. I had a dark cloud hanging over me and not only couldn’t shake it, I had not desire to shake it. This state lasted until that night and, still, it hung on in lighter form until I awoke the next day and felt fine and reconnected. I’m glad I was allowed to go into my shell and not have that become an issue, only to escalate our emotions and time was permitted to salve my wound.
But what was that wound? I certainly understood that the next day, looking back at my strong reaction. During many years of my childhood, I was the target of pretty consistent criticism. We all have our own themes and I recall mine as having the flavor of, “You have so much potential, but you ___________ . That blank would be filled in with a criticism of my character in some way. Over the years, I was able to put the lie to those internalized barbs that would, for so many years, deflate my sense of confidence and well-being. Yet, that one critical barb from the person closest in the world to me (and that’s an important part of this) felt like a scab being violently ripped off, exposing my raw, pulsing vulnerability to the open air (and wind and dirt and rubbing and….anything that was further damage). So I had to fold up into myself and let the wound heal. For those hours, the world was suddenly transformed into a profoundly unsafe place and retreat was the only remedy.
I can say with great confidence that my experience of early, chronic, and painful criticism has been shared by many (perhaps most) of us. John Gottman has identified criticism as one of his Four Horsemen of marriage apocalypse. I understood from my recent experience why that may be so. Also, and most importantly for my work, couples in distress often enter my office with one partner, not knowing how to make connection with a disconnected spouse, criticize incessantly. It is a reflection not of meanness or ill will. Rather this reflects an almost desperate effort to make connection and overcome a feeling of utter isolation and abandonment. The critical partner is not the “bad guy.” However in their pain of abandonment, it is hard for the criticized partner to find the words to help them understand the ancient and existential pain that can be experienced from being on the receiving end. I hope that my own experience recently will help me find better ways to assist the criticized partner describe their wound in ways that the other can understand without feeling blamed or judged. That, after all, is one of the primary goals of couples therapy.