by guest bloggers Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, relationship therapists and authors
Hurtful words in a relationship can be like a drop of red dye in a glass of water that turns the whole glass pink. What starts out as a slip of the tongue, a small slight from one person to another, sets a process in motion that slowly (or quickly) permeates a relationship and begins to define its tone.
It’s easy to think criticism is a constructive process—one member of a relationship feels that he or she knows the other inside and out, and making “suggestions” for how the other might change or improve is merely helping him or her overcome flaws and deficiencies. “You’re a handsome man,” she might say, “but wouldn’t you rather wear a dress shirt than those ratty T-shirts?” Or he might say, “You’re always blabbing to your friends on the phone; you should be quiet—read a book or something.” Sometimes this works. Perhaps the other person abides the advice and adjusts the behavior to make his or her partner happy. Other times this doesn’t work and the response is more along the lines of “If she doesn’t like my clothes, I’m going to wear the outfits she hates most.”
Criticism may not always take the form of words. It can be a touch, a glare, an eye roll, or two hands thrown up in the air. However it comes out, the message is that one person is superior and the other inferior. One person is up; the other person is down. And it’s an unpleasant feeling for the person down—a feeling that has its roots in the animal-like parts of our brain, sometimes referred to as our “lizard brain.” Harsh words induce a feeling of anxiety. Anxiety, at its roots, is the nervous system responding to a stimulus of danger with the fight or flight response. So the criticized person may respond by slinking away, playing dead in a submissive posture, or taking on the accuser by fighting back.
Whether criticism is phrased in a gentle way or a cruel way, it comes from the same place of judgment. Unconsciously, the critic believes that his or her opinion is the “only” correct one. The way he or she looks at the world is the only reasonable way to see it, and if the criticized partner, on some level, differs, he or she must have no sense or taste—or be crazy! The partner, in a way, ceases to be a person, and is instead an object to be molded into the critic’s (sane) way of looking at the world.
That said, a relationship without dialogue, in which one person is unable to express a concern, is also an unhealthy place. Suppressed thoughts and feelings lead to passive-aggressive behavior or to the gradual dissolution of affection for one another.
But there is a way out of this relational trap!
First, take on an approach of zero negativity, in which both parties commit absolutely to refraining from put-downs, negative comments, and behaviors. It’s imperative that both members of a couple make a total commitment to this approach and follow it strictly. Not just temporarily, but always. In a particularly unhealthy relationship, this might in fact mean that both people have nothing to say to each other for a long period of time. In this case, the dynamic between the partners has become so toxic, so stuck in a loop of one-up, one-down behavior, that it has violated both members’ feelings of trust and safety.
Ultimately, though, all committed relationships contain a seed, no matter how small it may seem, of meaningful love and affection. Even if the approach of zero negativity leads to, essentially, a vow of silence, eventually the mantle of fear will dissipate and both parties will find the warmth toward each other that they once had. They will find things to say that are neutral and, eventually, positive. As the activated fear in the lizard brain diminishes, both people will begin to feel safe with one another, which is the primary and most important foundation of a healthy relationship.
The zero negativity approach doesn’t imply that partners shouldn’t be allowed to express concerns or desires for behavioral change in a relationship. It’s all about the way those needs and desires are presented. A hurtful comment out of nowhere or a passive-aggressive put-down is unacceptable. But a concern phrased carefully and delicately can lead to the desired effect.
One way to frame a safe conversation is to start with a statement like “I’m having a hard time with something, and I want to share it with you. Is now a good time to talk?” If it’s not a good time for the other person to hear this, the requester must accept that. But the other person must in turn offer a time when he or she would be more open to hearing those concerns. Knowing that you are going to express something critical takes away the element of surprise and defensiveness in the other person, and allows you to state your concern in a thought-out, gentle way. It makes it much more likely that your partner will be willing to compromise and come closer to your side of the fence.
This is the second step in creating a healthy, constructive environment for change. But again, the very first step is zero negativity. It’s a rule that’s easy to remember but may be difficult to follow at first. In time, you’ll begin to notice all the ways you were being unconsciously critical—making jokes at the other’s expense, speaking negatively about your partner to others, thinking passive-aggressive thoughts. This awareness itself can motivate change.
We challenge you to give it a try—not a word, not a comment, not a glance in a negative direction. It may just take your relationship from zero to sixty.
Harville Hendrix, PhD, co-created with his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, Imago Relationship Therapy, a therapy for couples now practiced by more than 2,000 certified therapists in more than 30 countries. He and Helen have written nine books on intimate relationships and parenting, including Harville’s New York Times best-seller, Getting the Love You Want, which has sold more than 2 million copies. Referred to by Oprah Winfrey as the “Marriage Whisperer,” Harville has more than 40 years of experience as an educator, a therapist, clinical trainer, and public speaker, and is known internationally for his work with couples. Helen was honored as an inductee in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she cofounded Women Moving Millions, and is the founder and president of The Sister Fund. Harville and Helen have six children and live in New York and New Mexico. Learn more at harvillehendrix.com.