Does this sound familiar? Your partner does something that you don’t enjoy, you express this to them, and it starts a fight. Or, you’ve acted in a way your partner didn’t like, they complain about it, and BOOM: Conflict.
I recently came across an article by Russell Bishop about the nature of criticism that I just loved. While Bishop’s article didn’t mention sex and romantic relationships specifically, I think his points are incredibly relevant to those arenas.
In the piece, Bishop notes “how much easier it is to criticize than it is to create” and encourages people, when incited to criticize, to imagine what a more positive outcome would look like. Make that possibility into a direct request, instead of a complaint. To my delight, Bishop quotes Marshall Rosenberg (the author of Nonviolent Communication) as saying, “”We criticize people for not giving us what we ourselves are afraid to ask for.”
The temptation to criticize one’s partner can be very strong. The intention behind criticism can be to educate, but it’s rarely heard as anything other than blame. As Bishop observes, “the rancor of the complainer” can obscure the request. I would argue that one of the benefits of a healthy intimate relationship is the opportunity to challenge long-held behaviors and become a better self. Partners can facilitate this process, but their messages must be palatable.
In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the importance of clarity and specificity when it comes to communicating with an intimate partner. The instinct to criticize can be shifted so it becomes an opportunity to connect, rather than create emotional distance. Instead of “You always rush into sex,” one might say, “You know what I would love the next time we have sex? It would delight me if you spent 10 minutes touching and kissing my naked body first.” While the first statement sounds accusatory and hostile, the latter sounds downright hot. Which one would you rather hear?