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.