Dear Dr. Alasko: "D" and I are planning our wedding next year, but we have a serious problem: "D" makes a lot of critical comments about things I do or say. She insists she doesn’t intend to be critical, or she'll explain that she's trying to give me important feedback about issues she feels I have to correct. But her criticisms upset me and I shut down—and then she wonders why I won't talk. A few times I've exploded and it’s turned into a nasty fight. How can I get her to understand that what she's doing is pushing me away?
Dear Reader: You can start by showing your fiancé the email you sent me --- and arrange for a quiet time to discuss your problem. It’s crucial that she know exactly why her behavior is pushing you away. More important, she must learn that using blame always has the same consequence: it destroys trust and ruins relationships.
But wait— don't we need to use blame to assign responsibility, to get people (as "D" believes) to change?
Definitely not. In fact blame does the opposite, because blame is made up of four highly destructive behaviors: criticism, accusation, punishment and/or humiliation. A few synonyms for these are disapproval, censure, condemnation, reprimand, shame, and dishonor.
None of these feel good to the recipient. On the other hand, non-blaming statements are far more effective, because they avoid both launching and getting hit by these highly negative emotions.
Here's an example. Suppose you do something D. doesn't like, such as yawn without covering your mouth. If using a blaming statement— a criticism— D would say, in a disapproving tone, "Why can't you cover your mouth?"
How would it feel to hear that? Bad, for sure, because it's really a personal attack that implies there's something wrong with you; that you “can’t even” pull off a common adult act of courtesy. Thus it's also tinged with humiliation.
In contrast, were D to use a non-blaming statement, it might be a softly-spoken "Honey, please cover your mouth." This is basically neutral, gets the message across, and is unlikely to provoke your anger or sense of humiliation as an instant reaction.
Another example of blame. If you interrupt when I'm speaking, and I frown and say, "Why can't you let me finish?" that's criticism—because my stern facial expression and harsh words imply that you're really rude and stupid.
Instead suppose I say, in a calm voice, "Please allow me to finish." That's neither criticism nor accusation. It's a calm, quiet request with little or no negative impact.
Many people defend the use of blame because we mistakenly believe that only by being harsh, accusatory and punitive can we effectively get people to change. We honestly believe that asking politely won’t work. That belief is flat wrong. (Refer to my book BEYOND BLAME, published 2011 by Tarcher/Penguin, for a detailed explanation of this topic and what to do about blaming habits.)
Your task is to educate D about how blame is destroying your mutual love and trust. She must know that her current method of giving you "feedback" is not merely telling you to correct a behavior. It’s eroding your ability to relax around her, as well as, on a more subtle level, impeding your ability to change the behaviors she wants to see change.
Even though blame has deeply penetrated into our culture and daily use, its toxic effects can be reversed. Learn a bit more, talk about better ways to communicate, and good luck making your relationship more peaceable as your wedding day approaches.