If you're married or in a committed relationship, odds are that it doesn't begin to live up to that near-idyllic time of courtship. Why? Simply because during courtship, once your partner had endeared themselves to you, you knew better than to threaten the relationship by criticizing them.
And it wasn't that back then you simply couldn't find anything to criticize. True, you were focused on what you liked (or had already come to love) about them. But even when you couldn't help noticing some failing of theirs--the clothes haphazardly dropped on the floor, the frustrating tardiness, the mispronounced word or mangled phrase, the blatant misinterpretation of what you'd just told them--the positives far outweighed the negatives. So you weren't about to chance compromising the wondrous harmony developing between you. Or risk creating conflict or unpleasantness in a relationship that otherwise seemed so right, so satisfying.
The way relationships typically erode, however, is this. Once you've succeeded in endearing yourself to the person who's become "the one" for you, you feel free--in fact, almost compelled--to bring up a whole host of (submerged) issues you have with them. So what originally seemed almost like unconditional acceptance (where else, by the way, did you think those "warm fuzzies" came from?!) now becomes increasingly conditional, as you begin to air out all your suppressed grievances. Once you're confident about their commitment to you, it now feels like the right time to share exactly what you don't much like, or appreciate, about them. Time to set about changing them in earnest. Time to improve them. Time to make them better fit your idealized pictures of the perfect mate--oblivious to the fact that you're hardly the perfect (read, "unconditionally accepting") mate yourself.
And--most of the time, at least--your partner feels the same way about you. Once assured of your devotion, they also feel much more at liberty to voice their concerns about what they'd prefer be different about you, how you might be better suited to them.
So what's accomplished by this more critical attitude both of you now espouse? Hardly what either of you intended, or might have expected. For how you've expressed your frustrations with one another definitely move the relationship forward--but not in the way either of you had in mind (or would consciously have chosen). Your ever-expanding complaints and criticisms inevitably propel your union toward that unenviable second stage of committed relationships--typically designated "the power struggle."
This is the stage where each of you wrong-headedly contrives to make the other more to your liking by focusing--in sharp contrast to your earlier courtship phase--on all the negatives your partner brought with them to the relationship. Here both of you direct your attention to the perceived shortcomings in your mate's physical, mental, emotional, or even spiritual, make-up. You key in on the prejudices or preferences you don't share with them, the stylistic inclinations that separate you, right down to your hard-core (and basically unchangeable) value differences.
Curiously, many of these increasingly annoying negatives had already begun to surface during courtship. Yet they hadn't really "spoiled" anything because when you were in the process of becoming enamored with each other, the two of you saw--and focused on--so many things that you genuinely liked and admired about the other. Intuitively, you "knew" enough to edit out considerations detrimental to your achieving the accord, the loving bond, you both diligently aspired to.
It's fascinating how--when a relationship is new and sparkling with possibility--we're almost all "psychic." That is, we can intuit with uncanny precision what the other person wants us to be (namely, our best, "noblest" selves). And we're actually quite capable of acting somewhat "out of character" in our efforts to capture their devotion. So motivated are we to win their love that our abundant efforts (and be assured, we put all kinds of energy into making ourselves as lovable as possible) seem quite effortless. In the "knowing" words of songwriter Carole King:
It used to be so easy living here with you.
You were light and breezy and I knew just what to do.
What virtually all of us appear (however unconsciously) to recognize is that unconditional acceptance is the name of the game. And this is why we know--know in a kind of natural, intuitive way--that it's crucial to refrain from criticism. At some deeper level of being, we grasp that criticizing the other could lead them to feel distrusted, devalued, anxious, shamed, or offended--in some way jeopardize the growing intimacy between us. In fact, the rosy glow that so delightfully warms us during courtship has mostly to do with our both experiencing much the same unconditional acceptance that we strove for (but which generally eluded us) in our childhood relationship with our caretakers. For our parents' acceptance and approval typically had to be earned, and so never felt entirely secure. Only rarely did we feel loved not for what we did but for who we were.
In the present, however, the moment we feel sufficiently secure in our partner's bond to us is the moment we take our gloves off. Now the insatiable demands of our ego supersede the wisdom of our intuition. And typically what our ego wants is that our partner place our needs first, subordinate their will to ours, do things our way, make us right (even though this almost always means making themselves wrong). And this is when so many couples dig in their heels and take a stand--ready to defend (almost to the death, as it were) their own desires, needs, and preferences. And should one partner repeatedly defer to the other, that partner warrants being appreciated as co-dependent, which invariably leads to a whole different set of relationship problems (just consider the multitude of books written on the issues of co-dependency).
To move beyond the power struggle, what's called for is mutual compassion, kindness, understanding, and the willingness to compromise and accept differences. But when you're trapped by your ego, making the relationship work feels less imperative than controlling it. So when your partner doesn't seem to be adequately adjusting to your requirements and demands, you may become that much more disposed to step up your criticism--and maybe with greater vehemence. . . . Which, of course, is virtually guaranteed to make matters worse.
The solution--easy to describe but quite difficult to implement when a relationship has already begun to turn sour, feel mechanical, or be weighed down with resentments--is to find your way back to the far more halcyon days of courtship. You need to recall just what made the relationship so attractive, so romantic, in the first place. Not only the probable physical attraction, but also things like your listening attentively and with empathy to your partner, and putting their wants and needs on a par with your own--or even ahead of yours (as a way of showing them the depth of your caring and concern).
Essentially, what needs to happen is that you re-focus on the positives and view the negatives from a more accepting, forgiving perspective. If it's not possible to love everything about your partner (which is very likely the case), can you at least embrace--unconditionally--the overall "package" that is your partner (mostly good but, admittedly, with some not-so-endearing features as well)?
And as far as the negatives are concerned, you need to replace criticism (telling your mate in no uncertain terms just what you dislike about them) with feedback (respectfully sharing how some of their behaviors negatively impact you--e.g., make you feel anxious, embarrassed, belittled, not cared for, and so on). Moreover, you need to request-certainly, not demand-some specific, delimited change that's viable for them. In my blog I've already written extensively on both criticism and feedback; and my earlier publications should offer you some fresh ideas on how best to express whatever frustrations you're currently experiencing.
Once you realize how, inadvertently, you may have colluded with your partner to corrode something that was once so special, you stand a fair chance of reclaiming what, over the months or years, has slipped away from you. Sure, you aren't going to reclaim the relationship's original innocence. For that pristine purity was grounded more in illusion than reality anyway, and was hardly sustainable. That stage was meant to end, as a more mature, "adult" relationship took hold.
Still, if you can "take back" the skills you never realized you possessed in the first place--those largely intuitive skills that made your courtship so special, so pleasurable, so gratifying--you may well move beyond the negative focus that, till now, has undermined your efforts to create "a more perfect union."
Note 1: Other, complementary, articles I've written on relationships for Psychology Today (and their links) include:
Note 2: If you "resonated" with this post and believe others you know might also, please consider forwarding them its link. In addition, if you'd like to check out other posts I've done for PT generally, on a broad variety of topics, click here.
© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.