Criticism’s Damage

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.

And the Winner for Most Ridiculous Ad Message is……..

I was watching some sporting event over the weekend and was jolted alert by a Cadillac ad which carried one of the most offensive messages I had ever heard blurt through my speakers.  “A weak man urges compromise,” said the narrator as a brand spanking new, full loaded Caddy rolled into view.cadillac-logo-wallpaper

Seriously?  Who were the people that cooked up that piece of rancid filet mignon?  In my experience, refusal to compromise has led to governments that shut down, rampaging armies that blow across a distant desert and, on a more personal level, couples that explode in pain and acrimony.   Compromise is actually a sign of confidence and inner strength.  Compromise is a sign of resilience.  We all have our ideas of the way our lives should go and what we’d like others to do in order to satisfy our needs.  Those things aren’t going to happen much of the time.  Why?  Because almost always, those other people have different, sometimes incompatible needs. This comes up all the time in mediation.  That’s why mediators are so valuable.  Two (or more) people with deeply felt and important competing needs are challenged by the necessity of resolving their conflict.  How do you think that’s going to work when one or both are thinking, “To compromise is to display weakness”?

Compromise does not mean loss.  One of the most inaccurate and destructive adages I have heard (and I have heard it frequently from litigating lawyers) is that, “the best settlement is one in which both sides feel equally bad.”  Compromise does not mean you are giving up something that pains you to abandon.  Rather, it means that you have chosen to relax your insistence that every element of your collection of needs is so important that you will experience pain upon their relinquishment.  That is not true for people who can summon up the resilience to understand that all needs are not based on unbreakable principle and a personal goal may be compromised in order to fulfill the needs of the other person(s).  Compromise is not a sign of weakness.  Effective mediators are also valuable in that positions which one feels they cannot compromise, can be translated (transformed) into “interests” which can be satisfied in a variety of ways.  Positions force us to draw lines in the sand.  These positions are always, always, supported by needs and interests which can often be satisfied in ways that will allow the other person(s) to experience acknowledgment of their own needs and interests.

Compromise reflecting weakness?  Far from it.  Shame on you, Cadillac, for projecting this painful myth.  Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

He/She Said THAT??

I hear it so often in my office.  One partner or the other (usually both) will report that in the height of some nasty fight they escalated into, one of them said something so wounding that the target is still bruised.  He or she struggles with how to make sense of a world where they are supposed to be working on their relationship and at the same time things are said which couldn’t feel more destructive.  It’s heartbreaking to see the pain that good people can inflict on one another when they have escalated to the outer reaches of their own cycle.   It is an inescapable fact that when two people are reacting to each other from the raw and vulnerable places inside – and they are swept up in their cycle of fear, anger and reactivity, they can spin so fast (almost instantaneously) that both feel out of control.   It is for sure that these deeply hurtful statements aren’t made during a placid dinner conversation right after, “Please pass the peas.”  These missiles that are launched almost always occur when the cycle is spinning so fast, that the centrifugal force of both people’s emotional reactivity throws them to the extreme edge of their experience.  So, rather than mull on the thing said, it’s far more helpful to view the statements as symptomatic of a cycle that has gone from “zero to 60” in a nanosceond.  The path to healing is to begin to find ways to catch ourselves at the very beginning stages of this emotionally reactive cycle – to slow it down at the outset and step out of this tightly choreographed automatic dance.

The Marital Dance of Conflict

Our fights sometimes have the feel of a couple of siblings in the back of the car on an endless road trip. “Johnny, Susie, stop fighting!” The inevitable response is something like: Susie – “He hit me first!” Johnnie – “I did not! She kicked me.” Susie – “That’s because he took my pencil.” Johnny – “Did not!” Susie – “Did too!” Etc. Now this is not to say that the hurt and anger we feel when we are locked in painful conflict with our partner is child-like or immature. Quite the contrary – it seems to go to the core of who we are sometimes. That’s not the point here. If you look at the above scene, you’ll see a circular argument in which each person believes the other person started it…that the other person is the cause of the distress. Of course, the other person thinks that it started with you. In law, partners who are locked into this conflict will go and hire lawyers, who in turn will try to convince a judge that their side is right and the cause of the problem is the other person. I promise you, that in every case that a judge says one person is the cause of the problem, that decision will never, ever, ever convince the other disputant. He or she will just feel screwed – unheard – misunderstood. For good reason, too, because our ongoing conflicts are ultimately circular in causation. We ultimately react to the other person who ultimately reacts to us. By the time the circle is joined, the conflict has a life of its own and the start is about as obscure as trying to find the missing link in the fog of antiquity. The key isn’t who is right. Rather the key is, how can we disengage from this cycle and stop hurting each other and get back on track. Helping with this often difficult task is, by the way, one of the great services a skilled marital therapist can provide.