According to divorce lawyer James J. Sexton, “In our day-to-day lives as professionals, parents and just plain human beings, there is no shortage of voices telling us what failures we are. We're bombarded with advertisements designed to make us feel inadequate. Whether there selling pistachio nuts or sports cars, the implication is often that something is wrong or missing.
In the face of this relentless onslaught, you are uniquely positioned to be a voice of support and encouragement for your spouse—a shelter in a storm of disparagement. If you want to keep your marriage healthy, don't squander that power. Resist the temptation to compare your spouse to an imaginary ideal you have created or what romance films have told you a perfect spouse would look and act like. Your partner needs a cheerleader. We all do. If there is no major achievement to cheer for at the moment. Cheer for the small things your spouse is doing well. When people have a taste of victory, they often crave more of it.”
Sexton confirms what research has revealed about relationships. Criticism is toxic to marriages. John Gottman, an American psychological researcher and clinician who has done extensive work over four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability, has written about the negative impact of criticism on marriages. If fact, he refers to criticism as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The other three are contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
Criticism can gallop into your relationship making you or your partner feel vulnerable, rejected, and inadequate. While feedback is important in any relationship, criticism differs in that it can evoke such hurt, shame, and self-doubt that the effects prevent it from being constructive once the victim begins to feel anxious and defensive. Criticism is corrosive, not only to the victim's self-esteem and your relationship with them, but also to your own self-esteem when you criticize others. Unless you are a sociopath, harsh words or insults that hurt your partner don't make you feel good. We all have a tendency to move away from pain and toward pleasure. We want to flee and escape uncomfortable people and situations. As criticism increases, your partner will begin to create distance if not physically, emotionally. Many people report that verbal abuse is more damaging than physical abuse.
To improve your relationship, remember to encourage your partner. One good way to accomplish that is when possible soothe your anger before speaking harshly to your loved one. When you feel angry or frustrated you may feel the greatest urge to provide feedback, but remember that's also when you're most prone to insult, shame, or criticize your partner.
In any relationship from time to time we all communicate in unskillful ways. None of us are perfect. It takes practice to keep our communication upbeat and to accentuate the positive. Sexton is correct, “when people have a taste of victory they crave more of it.” Positive attention and encouragement are strong motivators. And they help raise your partner's morale while simultaneously improving your self-esteem. So if you want to keep the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from trampling your relationship, look for opportunities to praise your partner for both large and small victories.