Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

Are You Using Your Judgment or Just Being Judgmental?

There’s an important difference.

Life requires us to make assessments literally hundreds of times a day. We assess risk level, costs, benefits, and appropriateness of behaviors in specific situations. We make these judgment calls in our relationships too, but we sometimes forget that they are personal, subjective evaluations, and instead hold our views as being objectively, undeniably true. Taking a position in this way is a form of judgmentalism and can be hazardous to your health and to the health of your relationship. Being judgmental in a relationship can be disastrous because once we attach ourselves to a fixed characterization of someone,  it becomes very difficult to see them differently. Attachment to a judgment prevents us from accepting any new information that may conflict with our views, leaving us unable to update assessments that may no longer be accurate or correct. Our friend Paul discovered that there are other hazards in being judgmental in relationships.

Paul had been self-centered, insensitive, and controlling in his relationship with his wife, Cookie. When Cookie announced that she could no longer tolerate his disrespectful attitude and behavior, he apologized, promising to mend his ways and demonstrate that he was committed to being the loving husband that he had promised to be in his wedding vows. His New Year’s resolution was to become an ideal life partner and to focus unconditionally on doing what he believed would make Cookie most happy. He also immersed himself in self-help books and CD’s. He brought Cookie flowers and he stopped watching TV after work. He expressed interest in her life, in how she spent her days, and he stopped expecting her to wait on him. He shut off the TV and listened to her when she wanted to speak with him. He was attentive to their granddaughter when she came to visit. But no matter what he did, Cookie continued to view him through the lenses of her old, familiar perspective. It was as if she had taken a snap shot of Paul years ago and put it in the photo album. She couldn't turn the page; she still had it open to the same old picture, which was the only one that she could see.

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Convinced that the other shoe was going to drop at any moment, Cookie laid in wait for evidence that Paul was untrustworthy and that he had shadowy motives behind his “changes.” Since no one is perfect, Cookie easily managed to collect “evidence” that Paul was guilty of deceit and deception. She held a zero tolerance policy and she was unwilling to forgive Paul or to give him the benefit of the doubt when he slipped, even briefly into old patterns. Cookie was convinced that Paul’s past transgressions had disqualified him from any second chances. She claimed that her motto was “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Despite his resolution, eventually, Paul began to feel like there wasn't any point in continuing to make the effort since he felt that in Cookie’s mind, he was guilty until proven innocent, and her attachment to seeing him that way made the possibility of seeing his innocence remote at best. In time it became apparent to Paul that he had no control over how Cookie viewed him. Cookie’s attachment to  her judgments prevented her from appreciating the changes Paul was making. Re-establishing trust after it’s been broken takes time, and while Paul had certainly given Cookie reason to mistrust him, Cookie had played a part in the deterioration of their marriage as well. Her relentless focus on Paul’s part in the breakdown however, made it impossible for her to recognize the part that she had played, and consequently prevented her from seeing what she might do that could support Paul’s intention to repair their relationship.

When Paul eventually told Cookie that he was no longer willing to keep trying to prove his love, Cookie took this as more “proof” that he didn’t really care and had been pretending all along. Shortly thereafter, Paul made the judgment call that he was unable to persuade Cookie to see him as being sincere in his love for her. Cookie’s judgments protected her from the pain of disappointment by keeping her expectations of Paul to a minimum. Ultimately however, her attachment to them prevented them both from experiencing a satisfying and fulfilling connection together.

Cookie was not the only one in the marriage who was guilty of judgmentalism. Paul had previously judged her as someone who was unworthy of receiving the kind of attention and respect that she had for years asked him to give her. He had also judged her to be in too much need of his support, particularly financial support, to challenge his authority and risk jeopardizing their marriage. His attachment to these judgments prevented him from seeing that Cookie had reached a point in which she was not longer willing to remain in a relationship in which she felt disrespected and unappreciated. Unfortunately, his realizations of these changes came about too late to repair their marriage. As of our last contact with them, Paul had remarried and claimed to have learned his lesson. Cookie was single with no intention of marrying again. "I’m not bitter,” she told us, "just clearer than I’ve ever been that I don’t need to be married to survive or even to be happy. I’m doing fine, thank you.” Still, you have to wonder.

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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