Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (NRSV)
All relationships have conflicts. That’s normal and can even be helpful for the relationship. Disagreements help couples to learn more about each other and if they are dealt with in a healthy way can actually bring people closer to each other. Even those couples who are very careful to avoid arguments have disagreements, they just don’t argue when they come up. But most people find that they do get into arguments with their partners from time to time. So what’s a healthy way to deal with conflicts? What do we need to avoid when having a disagreement with our partners?
John Gottman’s research into relationships revealed that not all negative exchanges are the same. Some are much worse than others. He identified four mistakes couples make when disagreeing that are highly predictive of relationship decline and divorce. Borrowing from the biblical image of the 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse, Gottman describes the 4 patterns of interaction that predict relationship failure: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.
Today we’re focusing on criticism. The image from the Sermon on the Mount (quoted above) seems so appropriate here. The critical person when facing a conflict with their partner sees the source of the problem in the other. They are always looking to place the blame on them. If they’re late, it’s because their partner “always makes us late!” If they’re broke it’s because their partner “constantly spends too much!” No matter what the complaint is, the problem is inside the partner and we think if we can just get that speck out of their eye, things would be fine. The problem is that it can’t work. Even when there’s some truth behind the criticism, people don’t react well to being attacked. I’ve yet to observe a person, after having been told over and over again how flawed they are, strike themselves in the forehead with their palm and exclaim “You’re so right! Thank you for helping me correct my flaws! I’ll be so much better now!”Relationship expert Dan Wile reminds us that behind every argument, there is a deep wish for a conversation that you needed to have, but didn’t. When we find ourselves moving into criticism, playing the blame game by focusing out our partner’s flaws we need to take a minute to ask ourselves a couple simple questions. “What do I really need here? What am I feeling?” If we focus on ourselves rather than our partners we can begin to break the critical habit of mind. Saying something like, “I’m nervous because we’re running late, can we try to hurry?” is so much better than “You are so irresponsible!” There are many people who believe that this softened approach won’t work because their partner is so stubborn (or thoughtless or something else negative) but what we know is that avoiding criticism at least makes it more likely that your needs will be heard, so give it a try.