A criticism is just a really bad way of making a request … so just make the request. ~Diane Sawyer
There’s a great deal of wisdom in that quote from journalist Diane Sawyer. And I’m betting that wisdom played a role in her happy, 26-year marriage with director Mike Nichols.
As a psychologist, I’ve seen many relationships where the opposite is going on. Couples get stuck in a frustrating — and stereotypical — pattern. The wife points out something that’s wrong, hoping her husband will address it. He doesn’t. So, she complains some more. He withdraws, telling her to back off. Met such a reaction, her initial complaints sometimes escalate into full-blown criticism: “I don’t know why I’m even married to you.You never do anything around here!”
If this sounds familiar, don’t beat yourself up. The fact that you’re being upfront and asking for what you need in your marriage is great. Keep talking about what’s on your mind, but try the communications tweak I’m about to show you. I think you’ll see better results.
How Men Process Complaints
Before we talk about how to be more effective in your communication with your husband, I think it would be helpful to understand why you’re getting a negative reaction from your spouse in the first place.
For the most part with men, pointing out what’s wrong usually will not get you anywhere, no matter how often or loudly you say it. (Women may not be so receptive either!)
Think about your goal when you complain to your husband about something he’s doing (or not doing!). You probably just want him to change a certain behavior or deal with a particular situation, right?
But because of the way most men are raised, chances are he’s interpreting what you say in ways you don’t intend. Men grow up hearing they must be competent, independent, and do a good job of taking care of their loved ones. They’re taught not to ask for help, so they may not understand why you keep asking them for little things. Because of these messages, men will often react to complaints with irritation or defensiveness, jumping to the incorrect conclusion that you’re just trying to tell them they’re inadequate or failing.
An example: You say, “I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?” In your mind, this remark is about meal-planning — nothing more. But what he might hear is, “You let me down. You’re failing as a husband.”
Another aspect of how men often get socialized in the U.S. comes into play in how they react to complaints. Renowned communication expert Dr. Deborah Tannen’s research shows that in general women communicate to connect, while men typically talk to establish their status. Speaking broadly, men tend to pay much more attention to hierarchy than we do as women.
For example, you tell your spouse, “Honey, the trash can is overflowing again!” You just want him to take care of the trash. That’s it. You’re not trying to establish yourself as the dominant one in the relationship, right? In fact, you usually assume that the two of you are co-equal members of the same team, and that nothing you say changes that. However, he may be very sensitive to any phrasing that could seem like you’re trying to “boss” him around or convey that you’re better than him. If he thinks that’s what’s happening, he’s much more likely to be defensive and will get to the trash when he feels like it, not necessarily when you ask.
Turn Complaints Into Requests
Like Diane Sawyer, I believe that a direct request beats pointing out what’s not working any day. And there’s a way to make requests that spurs your husband to action and builds positive feelings in your marriage.
What’s important is how you phrase the request.
Right now, you might be feeling a little frustrated. Maybe you’re wondering why you have to do all this work to be heard. Or you’re questioning why he doesn’t just address your complaints so you can both quit worrying about them.
I understand. Things would be a whole lot easier if he just “got it.” But waiting for that to happen isn’t the best way to get your needs met, so focus on how you can be most effective in your relationship.
I suggest that you make a direct request for what you need, but make sure you include the following information:
What you need from your husband and
How his action will benefit you.
Instead of feeling like he’s failing you, or that you’re bossing him around, he’ll feel that he’s succeeding at his favorite role: the competent guy who makes your life better.
Let’s go back to the earlier example of a typical complaint:
“I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?”
You could voice the same need in a very different way:
“Honey, I know it’s worked for us for a long time to have me be the one who takes care of dinner. But since I changed jobs, this has gotten a lot harder for me. You’d really be helping to get my stress level down if we came up with a plan to share dinner duty.”
Do you see how your husband might be more receptive to the request vs. the complaint? Don’t forget to voice appreciation if your husband responds positively to your request, as you would with anyone else.
This week, think about something that you frequently complain about in your marriage and try this communication technique instead. Let me know how it goes!
If you were a mirror reflecting back to your husband who he is, what would he see?
Would he be bathed in a flattering glow — or would his reflection look more like a Photoshopped image distorting his worst features?
It’s not something we think about much, but spouses are mirrors to each other — we look to each other for feedback about ourselves. Psychologist Dr. David Wexler notes many men fear looking in the mirror and seeing a highly flawed reflection.
For your husband, you are the most potent mirror, so feedback from you has the emotional capacity to build him up or injure him deeply. He may fear looking in the mirror and seeing that you are unhappy with him or view him as weak and incapable. Your importance in his life is why he might seem quick to bristle at anything he thinks might be criticism from you.
Keeping your power as a mirror in mind will help your marriage. Do you mainly reflect back to your husband the ways that he is falling short? Or do you balance criticism by also reflecting back to your husband everything that you love and appreciate?
None of this means you have to butter your husband up with fake or exaggerated praise. But it does mean that it’s important to notice his good qualities, and all he does right, and sincerely express admiration. (If you’re having trouble with this, think about the qualities that attracted you to him when you were dating. They’re probably still there!)
Are you tackling some projects around the house this summer?
That’s great. Just make sure that fixing up your husband isn’t one of them.
Treating your spouse like an endless fixer-upper project is one of the most dangerous things you can do to your marriage. But It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can change him to meet your ideal. Women are under a lot of pressure to be “perfect” in all ways. And we tend to transfer those expectations, and the stress that goes along with them, to our relationships with our husbands.
In marriage, each partner needs to be seen and accepted as is. Treating your husband as a project tells him he’s not okay. Constant correction — of the way he does the laundry, talks to the kids, dresses for work, acts at a party, you name it — will eventually push him away. He may seem compliant to your wishes on the outside, but could end up feeling resentful and suffocated inside. In the worst case scenario, he ends up feeling rejected, an especially painful experience for anyone.
It’s fine to inspire each other to continue growing. Love truly can bring out our best. But before you push your spouse to change, ask yourself these important questions:
1. Is this a deal breaker? Be clear about the types of things you cannot tolerate in your relationship (i.e., addiction to drugs or alcohol, disrespect, etc.), and then directly request that your husband change those. He may agree to change, or he may not. If he refuses to work on altering something you can’t tolerate, then you have important decisions to make about the future of your relationship.
2. How realistic am I being? Ask yourself, “Is it realistic to expect my quiet, reserved husband to become really social?” Everyone has a range of qualities, some of which you will love, and others that may drive you crazy. It’s not wise to attempt to change your husband’s core personality, unless you feel like banging your head up against a brick wall! Acceptance is the key here. Don’t ask your partner to twist themselves into a pretzel in order to be with you.
3. What is the message my husband is getting? Will that make him feel more or less confident? More or less valued? Want to get close to me or push further away? If you are constantly pointing out what your husband needs to change, it will ultimately take a toll on how he feels about himself. Remember to minimize criticism because it is one of the things that can unravel the marital bond. People usually pull away from people who make them feel bad about themselves.
4. Who actually needs to change? If you have a tendency toward perfectionism, be careful to keep that in check. When you judge yourself harshly and don’t embrace your own vulnerabilities, it’s easy to be critical of your partner, too. You may need to ease up on yourself in order to ease up on him. True acceptance will make both of you stronger, which is ultimately great for your relationship.
5. Can I let go if this change doesn’t happen? Because you’re married to an adult, they have the right to say, “no” to requests you make. In long-term relationships, it’s important to let go of wishes that are not going to come true. Otherwise, resentment can build ever so quickly. If you’ve asked for a change that is not a deal breaker for you and change is not happening, work on wholeheartedly accepting things as they are and letting go.
When you are realistic about the changes you would like, negotiate respectfully for them, and accept what you cannot change, you may find that your husband seems like less of a “project.” And you can save your fixer-upper impulses for your home improvement projects!
In the 26 years she was married to her husband, Mike Nichols, Diane Sawyer learned plenty of lessons about love, relationships and marriage — but there’s only one she calls “genius.” Before Nichols passed away from a heart attack late last year, Sawyer appeared on “Oprah’s Master Class” and opened up about some of the best marriage advice she’d ever heard.
Sawyer doesn’t like to make sweeping statements about the sole recipe for a good marriage — because “every marriage is a foreign land,” she says — but the veteran journalist does believe that the marriage advice she learned on the job years ago can truly bolster even the strongest relationships.
“I learned something great on one of the stories I did,” she says. “Someone said to me… ‘A criticism is just a really bad way of making a request. So why don’t you just make the request? Why don’t you just say, Could we work out this thing that makes me feel this way?‘”
This simple statement had quite the impact on Sawyer. “I thought, ‘That’s genius!'” she says.
The strongest predictor of divorce is contempt. In this video clip, Dr. John Gottman, the leading marital researcher in the United States, talks briefly about the dangers of a critical mindset to the health of your marriage.