Where Is The Line Between Criticism And Communicating On Relationship Issues?

Where Is Line Between Criticism And Communicating on Relationship Issues?

Hi Evan,

I have a question after reading your recent message ‘The One Thing You Need to Know to Ensure a Healthy, Lasting Relationship’. You talk about not criticizing or asking your partner to change, and I accept that constant criticism is not healthy in any relationship. My question is this: where is the line between criticizing and authentically communicating when certain behaviors are damaging the relationship?

I recently ended a 3-year relationship where my needs were not being met and promises were not followed by action. My partner had been working 60+ hours per week for the last twelve months of our relationship. We had been living together and I felt increasingly lonely and distant from him. I had done a lot of work with a therapist over the last 2 years, learning how to communicate my needs, as well as working on dealing with conflict, raising my self-esteem, etc…basically learning how to show the world the most authentic version of myself. However, when I communicated my concerns to him, I was met with stony silences or promises to prioritize our relationship which were not followed up.

It would be really helpful to hear your thoughts on where the line is between criticism/asking someone to change and genuinely communicating about issues in the relationship.


Important question and I hope I can shed a little light on it. Years ago, I answered a similar question called “How Can You Change Your Boyfriend Without Him Getting Insulted” and I would encourage you to read that as well.

But first, let’s establish a few things as true.

You can’t change anybody. People change because they want to change. If a man finds it within his self-interest to make the necessary adjustments to make you happy, he will do so. If he fails to do so, it’s clear that he values “not changing” more than he values you.

Your man valued his 60-hour work-week more than he valued you. You didn’t like it. You ended the relationship.

If a man finds it within his self-interest to make the necessary adjustments to make you happy, he will do so.

I don’t think there is much more to the situation than that.

Which is why your question, Aoife, is so dicey. Is it criticism or communication to tell a man that he’s disappointing you?

Well, as always, the best way to view any situation is from the other side.

You’ve got a boyfriend who tells you that you’re a poor time manager. You prioritize things questionably. You’ll spend eight hours packing for a three-day weekend. You’ll take two hours to pick up cheap toilet paper at a Costco that’s a half-hour away during the workday, then be slammed because you have to work late at night. After working until 3 in the morning, you’ll be dead tired the next day, which means that you won’t want to go out that night and you won’t want to have sex either. This is something you do routinely. It affects you plenty, but you’re a night-owl, not a morning person, and this is just the way you’ve always done things.

Is your boyfriend being helpful or critical in pointing out that there are negative effects to your behavior? Not only are you tired, cranky, and stressed as a result of your methods, but he ends up with a tired, cranky and stressed partner. The way he sees it, if you would only change your ways, everyone would be a lot happier. While you recognize your boyfriend’s point, you don’t want to change. Or maybe you want to, but you just can’t. Should your boyfriend keep harping on this? Or should he leave you alone, accepting this flaw of yours?

I’m asking sincerely because I just described my wife, and I don’t like feeling like the critical husband. Because of what I do, I’ve analyzed my behavior over and over, and always draw the same conclusion: my wife could absolutely improve her life and my life if she were to change her time management skills, yet I’m 100% wrong: there is no value to my criticism because my job is to accept her, not change her.

The best way to view any situation is from the other side.

As you’ve recognized, Aiofe, the best you can do is frame things in such a way that don’t make him wrong, but inform him of the effects of his behaviors on you. “Jim, I know your job is important to you. I know how hard you work and how passionate you are about it. It’s one of the things I admire about you. I especially appreciate how you’re committed to doing the best you can and providing us with a better lifestyle. The thing is that when you work 60-hour weeks, it means that I’m essentially home alone. We rarely see each other. We rarely go out. We rarely connect and share things. And it’s leaving me feeling pretty bad about myself and our relationship. Do you think there’s any way to adjust the hours you put in? Or is this going to be our status quo for the indefinite future?”

It would be pretty hard for him to argue with such a declaration, wouldn’t it?

In fact, I’m sure you said something just like that. And he listened and either ignored you or acknowledged you. Either way, nothing changed. Only thing I would have done different is cut him off after a few months of this situation instead of waiting an entire year.

But if you handled it the way I suggested, there is literally nothing you could have done different. Let it go and find a man who is more available to you. It shouldn’t be that hard.


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  1. 1

    This is a very fine line to walk indeed.  No room for error–the slightest raised voice can cause quite a bit of damage.  My philosophy:  never complain.   Make your concerns known in a cool, low voice–almost an aloof attitude towards things–then go.  Be a class act–then go.   Be the “better” one, always.  If he doesn’t “get” it or make the necessary amends, then stay gone.    
    Neither walking on eggshells nor having fits of frustration do anyone any good

    1. 1.1

      “No room for error–the slightest raised voice can cause quite a bit of damage. “
      Truth indeed.
      I find it quite telling that this is the level of perfection men expect from women in relationship … and yet they also expect us to forgive their every slight, mistake, thing they do that damages both us and the relationship because why?  Because “they’re only human”.
      Don’t women get to be human too?
      We’ve been waiting millennia now.  Maybe this year …?

      1. 1.1.1
        Evan Marc Katz

        You know the only time you comment, m, is to complain when I offer constructive criticism of women. You never write when I tell women to dump a jerk. It seems to me that my advice would be more suitable to you if I never criticized women and made men wrong for every transgression. What am I missing about your posts?

        1. Ana Garcia

          Evan, I dont know “m” and she might write to criticize but her point is valid. Men expect women to control emotions like a samurai And we dont they blame everything on us. They get scared and definitely decide not to change their behavior just because we expressed our feelings in a way that reglected how crappy he is making us feel??? Kind of unfair isnt it?

        2. Evan Marc Katz

          If you don’t like the way a man is behaving, Ana Garcia, break up with him. Don’t complain about “men” and their inability to be good partners. Be a good partner, choose a good partner. Stop with demonizing one gender as if it’s worth than the other. What do you disagree with?

      2. 1.1.2

        Ok I dont know how old this article is but I do have to comment on m’s reply.
        She’s right! Im married to a decent man who is better than most no exaggeration, but not perfect don’t expect him to be.
        But “sometimes” I would like to tell him that he’s wrong or that maybe he’s making a mistake. I wait until he is in a good mood,I don’t even make a big deal about it, but no matter what or how i go about it, it  does not matter. This man will pitch a baby fit, in front of people, the kids, the mayor it does not matter. My husband loves loves loves to argue and fight and then wants me to mother him afterwards. Yes he’s a big baby and he knows it and we keep that between us. But when he looks at another woman and I want to act like a baby ,(its not allowed). It feels terrible when you see them do it, they deny  it and then yell at you and blame your for being insecure. Look, all woman except morons don’t like there husbands checking out other women, (unless they don’t like there husband). Why cant we get a break and be human to. Why do we have to always be mommy, don’t get me wrong I love being mommy, but not when he looks over the hedge of our protection that we established between us. Sometimes it gets tiresome being the serious one or the only one looking out for everybody’s best interest. When do we get to loose our minds and have a husband bring us back to earth. Ok I went off topic there a bit, but the thing is men need to stop being big baby’s all the time and think of there wife sometimes as there assistant in life and get over there feelings and desires and do whats right, make up there minds that I made the decision to be husband and father and do it and do it well and look down upon other men who decide to fail at it and encourage others who are trying.

    2. 1.2

      @Christoff 1 –
      Any relationship that “no room for error” is relationship that is doomed.  We all make errors.  And who wants to spend a lifetime towing a very thin line ?
      If you plan on marrying someone, that could be a 40 + year stretch of time.  That’s a very long time to expect someone to talk in a monotone.
      What you describe IS walking on egg shells, which you say doesn’t do anyone any good.

  2. 2

     I’m not sure what this letter is about, does Aoife think the boyfriend would have given up the 60 hour work week if she had phrased her needs differently? Is she second guessing herself for breaking it off? Looking for validation? (I’m right, right? He’s wrong.)
    I’m sure there were many discussions over the last year about her wanting more time with him and him-by his actions- not acquiescing.  I don’t see how different phrasing would have changed anything.  Did she ever try to adapt to his schedule? Using the time apart for hobbies, friends? ( I had a partner who worked 60 hours for years, that’s what I did.) Did she break it off hoping he would “come to his senses” and work less?
    If she broke it off because she realized she truly needed someone who would give her more time and attention, I’m not seeing the point of this criticism/communication question after the fact.
    “Your man valued his 60-hour work-week more than he valued you. You didn’t like it. You ended the relationship.”-EMK
    That really sums it up.

  3. 3

    So my question would be what were her economic expectations of her now ex? What did she expect in ways of dates and gifts and where they live and the car he drives and clothes he wears and how they vacation? What happens to him at work if he stops doing sixty hours a week? Were his promises “empty” because she should have known better than to ask? i.e. He obviously had no ability to fulfill this promise even if he wanted to?
    This is not to say she shouldn’t stand up for herself and ask for what she wants. But I have to ask if it was as simple as him not wanting to make the change.

    1. 3.1

      well you are projecting lots of things not discussed at all in this letter. Seems she needs more time for her partner, this guy couldn’t provide it to her. She broke it off. She says nothing about what she expects/need in terms of a man’s finances. You are projecting.

      1. 3.1.1

        That I’m projecting is not an unfair criticism. However, it doesn’t negate my point.
        There is frequently a disconnect between a woman wanting a man to work less and her own overt and subtle expectations on his financial provision motivating those long hours. It just seems to me that she broke it off because she wasn’t happy even though this guy is probably behaving quite like he did when they first met. 
        Isn’t that what Evan is often telling his readers? Driven and ambitious comes with things you might not want. Wealthy men with important jobs driven to succeed don’t work 40 hour weeks.
        So perhaps the letter writer didn’t understand what she was in for. But it is in her best interest and that of the men she’ll date in the future to examine my inquiry before she repeats this.

        1. Clare

          Sorry Frimmel, but you are bringing up an often-cited idea about women that has a dubious basis.
          Women want/need time, attention and affection. Having a lot of money is not nearly as important to most of them. It irks me because I feel like this is just an attempt to sidestep the real issue, which is that women want their men to be a little more available to them in terms of effort, time and attention. Money and lavish gifts and dates is not a need for most women, not the vast majority I’ve ever met anyway, but attention is. As much as I really do try and understand men’s perspective, it bothers me when they try to dodge this basic truth.

  4. 4

    An interesting thing to read about relationships is John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the (Relationship) Appocalypse”, which I first read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.
    Criticism is a communication technique that kills relationships…
    But so is stonewalling.
    OP, you may be at the place where you are perfectly emotionally healthy and capable of being successful in a relationship.  You just need to pick a partner who is as well!  It sucks and sh*t happens, but it’s not you.

  5. 5
    Dina Strange

    I think Evan summed it up nicely. The guy obviously showed a girl that his priority was his job. Actually this reminds me of my ex boyfriend who’d never walk the talk. Eventually the level of frustration and mistreat on my part toward any of his promises ended and i (emotionally) blew up. It didn’t take me 3 years….but 9 months but to be honest i should have walked away after 3 months.

  6. 6

    If he were as serious about her as he appears to be about his job, there would be no issue. The sign he was giving her instead of having a dialogue with her was “over the past 12 months”. He didn’t have the gumption to reveal how he felt, so he masked it in his behaviors. That is always harder to see when you’re in the midst of it. It makes you wonder just how many hours is he working per week now that she left. Sorry it happened, but good for you there is someone much better on their way. Stay happy, positive and open to life.

  7. 7
    Endangered Species

    All relationships require some level of give and take. The problem is when either side brings in baggage and unresolved issues into the current relationship. No relationship will survive when one person is doing all the give and the other is doing all the taking. No one is perfect but we all strive to be and sometimes much too hard which eventually leads to our own destruction and winding up alone and very miserable. 
    The one sound point that was made, was to step outside and see it from the other person’s viewpoint. You would be amazed at how things are seen. If more couples did this, there would be less resentment, less cheating, less broken relationships.

  8. 8

    Hi everyone
    First, thank you so much Evan for replying to my question, which at its core was how to tell a man he’s disappointing you. As I mentioned in my letter, I’ve been going to therapy for a while now and one of the main things I’ve been learning is how to communicate constructively when certain behaviours are negatively impacting me in my relationships. Previously, I would be the type that would avoid dealing with problems and would let things build up before expressing them, usually in a very angry/destructive way.
    One thing I noticed in Evan’s letters and advice is that he is big on accepting your partner exactly as they are, which I agree with and which I tried to do every day in my last relationship. However, it was unclear to me whether that advice left space for expressing the full spectrum of emotions that naturally come with being in a relationship. I was unsure if Evan was equating any expression of disappointment (from the very small to the very big) as criticism, or if his point was more about people who constantly criticise and belittle everything their partner does (I’m not in this camp, btw).
    Evan’s answer and the suggested words for addressing the specific issue I mentioned, were along very similar lines to what I said to my ex-boyfriend when I brought my concerns to his attention. While there were a lot of great things about our relationship, I got tired of constantly coming in 2nd or 3rd or even 4th on his list of priorities. I did absolutely everything I could to make myself a better person and have a full life outside of the relationship – I worked on developing my friendships, hobbies, etc – but I eventually realised that I was in effect planning my life as if I was single and I could no longer accept that as the status quo.  
    To address some of the comments:
    Selena, yes I did everything I could to adapt to and accept the situation. I wasn’t looking for validation or better words after the fact. My question was more about clarifying Evan’s belief is when it comes to expressing disappointment in relationships and what he means when he says criticism. If his point is that you should never bring up problems, then I’d probably move on to a different blog for my relationship advice, but his answer is fairly clear that that’s not his belief.
    Frimmel, my economic expectations were that both of us would contribute equally to our lives together, which we did. I would happily have accepted a life with this guy if he’d been making half of what he makes. I don’t think it’s as a simple/easy as me ‘not knowing what I was in for’. Life brings us these experiences so we can learn from them and not repeat the same mistakes again. I surely will recognise these behaviours next time before investing 3 years in the relationship.
    Finally, I’m feeling fairly positive about the future. My heart is on the mend and I’m trying out online dating. Mostly, I’m looking forward to finding a relationship with an emotionally healthy man who’s ready to spend his life with a great gal!
    X Aoife

  9. 9
    MIchael H

    I was just struggling with this today, but from her side of the issue initially. I was the one being critical about something.  After reading this I see that we both have issues with how we judge and obviously our expectations.  Acceptance is an easy thing to talk about but, I see now that it is truly a daily task that requires dedication. This has helped me immensely as I move forward with my wife.  I’m working to change.   I truly value the statement “frame things in a way as to not make him/her wrong”.  She is an amazing person, I fell in love with that person.

  10. 10

    I did this this weekend Evan and my man was horrified my needs weren’t being met, promised change, showed me change thr next day and said he would kill himself trying.
    Great advice.

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