The words we speak are powerful.
You may be familiar with an illustration about bullying that has been widely circulated around the internet. A teacher instructed her students to take a piece of paper and crumple it, stomp on it, and really mess it up—everything short of ripping it. Then, she had them unfold the paper and try to smooth it out. No matter how much the children tried to fix the paper, the “scars” from their rough treatment remained.
The same thing happens when we speak unkind words to our spouses or children. Though we may be forgiven, our words can still leave a scar.
Criticism is one form of communication that can cause great harm to a marriage relationship.
We’re not talking here about “constructive criticism.” Obviously there will be times in a relationship when a grievance needs to be vocalized, and there are healthy ways to do that. But for the purposes of this article, we’re using the word criticism in alignment with a definition given by relationship expert John Gottman.
He describes criticism as an attack on the core character or personality of the other person.
Another way to say it is that when we criticize, we’re attacking the “who,” not the “what.”
Let’s say your spouse makes a joke about your driving when the two of you are out with friends, and you don’t like it. You decide to address it later when the two of you are alone.
If you express your complaint in a non-critical way, it might sound something like this. “I felt embarrassed when you joked about my driving in front of our friends at lunch today. I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t make jokes like that in front of others.”
In that statement, you’ve explained your feelings about your spouse’s behavior without attacking them personally.
By contrast, a critical response might sound like this: “I can’t believe you embarrassed me like that in front of our friends. You are always doing selfish things like that. All you care about is getting a laugh, and you never think of how your stupid jokes affect me.”
See how this approach attacks the whole person, instead of just addressing a specific incident or behavior? Note the words “always” and “never,” which are often used in critical statements.
When spouses habitually speak to each other in a critical manner, it causes a breakdown of intimacy.
True intimacy can only take place when we feel safe and secure with someone, and criticism has the opposite effect.
Author and pastor Joseph Fort Newton once remarked, “People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.”
The next time you feel the urge to speak to your spouse in a critical way, try this. Picture every critical thing you say as a brick being added to a wall you are building between the two of you.
Which kind of spouse do you want to be—a wall builder or bridge builder?
In part 2, we’ll learn more about the qualities of criticism and discover how to break the habit.