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.

Thanks,
Aoife

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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Comments:

  1. 1
    Christoff

     
    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
      m

      “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
        kelly

        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
      SparklingEmerald

      @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
    Selena

     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
    Frimmel

    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
      Julia

      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
        Frimmel

        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
    Angie

    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
    Laurie

    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
    Aoife

    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
    Athena

    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.

  11. 11
    maryjane

    I find the attitude that men want us to be perfect, while they throw tantrums, to be absolutely pathetic – it’s a wonder Evan isn’t bald from pulling his hair out with such comments! First point – who made these men? Women! Second point – there are zillions of men that are loving, intelligent, open minded, willing for you to share your worries and happy to reach compromises. Pick them for heaven’s sake! if any of you keep finding awful men, ask yourselves this. what is the one thing they all have in common? YOU. Work on your man radar, figure out what attracts these types towards you. Do they seem childlike and throw tantrums? Stop acting like a mom! Men pick up on who you are very quickly. Beaters choose the simpering and weak, narcissists choose the flattering and helpful – can you see the pattern here? Be the woman that attracts the right man. Be aware of what your words, body language and style are saying to him. I don’t want any nonsense about, “I should just be myself” because everyone needs a little improvement with how they could present their true selves more correctly to the world. You have to be in it to win it and it starts with you – self analysis, awareness and knowing it is your choice. Blaming makes you a victim. Find out who he is as early as possible. If he doesn’t suit you, move on. Life is too short for sulking, pleading and whining and it’s VERY unattractive.

  12. 12
    JennLee

    I have to tell this now, because my relevant friend is here with me to verify the details.  A mutual friend of me and my boyfriend took a woman into his home.  He is a great guy, and the type that wants to be a good guy and help others out.  Well, he met a woman who moved to our area about a year ago.  This is her verified story.  She is one year away from becoming a lawyer.  She worked with her husband who was a lawyer, and owned his own small firm.  He died about two years ago.  This sent her into a depression.  She used the insurance money to live on without trying to get on with her life.  Now the money has run out and she has to do so, and is now actively seeking a job, preferably in a law firm.  But she has also run her own cleaning business before she went to work in her husband’s firm, so she is keeping her options open.
     
    Anyway, he was attracted to her, and took her in, initially to help her get on her feet.  But attraction and living together has advanced it beyond that.  Now here is where it becomes relevant to this article.  She is highly critical.  She criticizes everything and wants everything her way.  She always falls back on how well suited her and her husband were, and yet she recently revealed that toward the end they were having very little sex, to the point that her husband asked if they would ever have sex again.  The 3 of us have agreed that her husband, while a shark in the courtroom, was a Beta in a relationship, and put up with a lot of crap to keep her happy.  Of course she does not agree.  She looks back with rose colored glasses, I think.
     
    Anyway, she criticizes everything from his driving, to how he keeps his house, to how he talks to her.  He has told us that in some ways they are alike, they both love to talk, and initially had great conversations that went into the wee hours of the morning.  But, he said she tries to dominate conversations now.  She will go on at length, but then when he disagrees with her, she wants to shut him down before he can make his point.  Then when he gets a little miffed about that, she acts as if he is the problem, that he is the one who is wrong.
     
    He said that she claims she wants to start helping with bills, but doesn’t have the money, yet she wanted to shop for stretch pants/yoga pants at Walmart yesterday.  Get this…they walked around a festival yesterday, and then when it was closing down, she asked if he was going to get a movie.  he said he was not, and asked if that was what she wanted to do.
     
    Now here’s the thing…the Redbox where he usually gets movies is in front of the grocery store.  So, she said no, but that she thought he wanted to, and besides they needed milk.  She drinks a lot of milk and eats cereal when she wants a snack.  So the fact is, she really just wanted to get milk, but instead of saying that, she then went on about how she just wasn’t ready to go home.  So he said they would go to the store, and that he would pick up some other things he wanted to get, so they would walk around the store.  They get there and it is closed.  They had just recently altered their hours to close 1 hour earlier.  So he said he would drive to a Walmart that was about 4 or 5 miles away.
     
    They get there and she decides she will just sit in the car while he runs in and gets the milk.  Again, let me note that she is trying to manipulate him here.  He had made it clear he was going to shop, but that wasn’t what she was after.  She just wanted him to buy milk so she could have it to snack with.  So this was he passive aggressive way to try to make him just get the milk and leave.
     
    So he asked her again if she wanted to go into the store, and she said no, she would wait for him in the car.  So he told her that he would be back in about an hour at most.  She said OK.  Well, as he was in the line to pay for his groceries, she comes in and tells him she is going to look at those stretch pants.  He let her know that as soon as he was done, he would use the restroom and then they would leave.  As he was in the line waiting, he saw her casually browsing racks, slowly making her way to the area with the pants.  After he went to the rest room, he waited near the registers, assuming she would be there soon.  She was not in a hurry it seems.  In my opinion, sh was trying to inconvenience him for not just getting the milk and leaving.  She had to sit in the car and wait, so she was going to make him wait for her.  Keep in mind it was her choice to do so.
     
    So he parked his buggy and went to look for her.  He said that because it was late, there was almost nobody in the store, so when he got close enough to call to her without yelling, he said he simply called to her and said. “Hey, you ready to go?”  She ignored him.  So he said, “M_____, come on, we need to go.”  He says that she got very angry and in an angry tone, said, “Don’t you ever talk to me like that again.”  He said that in effect, she expected him to walk up to her and quietly ask her if they could go.  She didn’t like him basically saying that they HAD to go.
     
    So he said he looked at her in shock, and said, “I have milk and ice cream, so we need to get it home.”  She rolled her eyes and in a sarcastic tone said, “Oh well, you’re right, we better go right now.” and stormed out of the store.  Then she criticized his driving on the way home
     
    He wants her to move out now, and isn’t even worried about getting any money from her.  This guy is such a gem he won’t kick her out, because other than just being a bitch, she hasn’t done enough in his mind to be made homeless.  He just wants her to get a job and move out as soon as possible.
     
    Watching what friends like him go through, I can truly empathize with many guys like him who try to be good guys but get trampled on by women like her.  It isn’t a surprise to me anymore that some men become really jaded.  I do think many of those jaded guys can be “rescued” by a good strong woman, but she has to be an incredible woman with the right personality.  She has to be the kind that is slow to anger, is patient, is forgiving, kind, and empathetic.  She has to nurture his mind back to health while GENTLY being firm in not allowing him to run over her, or take advantage of her.  In a way, it would be just how you should treat a child.  Be loving, yet firm.  And of course you would have to make sure that you aren’t being one sided.  You would have to be careful not to try to have everything your way.  Compromise will be necessary.
     
    I hope our friend finds a good woman he is attracted to before he becomes one of the jaded.

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