But it’s not too late! There’s a common mistake a lot of women are making — maybe even most women — that drives men away. If I call my female friend and say, “I’m having a terrible day,” she’ll respond with a gasp and say something like, “I’m so sorry; what’s going on? Do you want to get together?”
Woman-to-woman, a complaint translates into an invitation for support. Sharing a grievance is a female call for contact; a bid for the other person to tune in, move closer. Complaining is also a compliment; it says I value you; I trust you; I’m bringing you into my intimate circle, and I’ve chosen you over others to be my confidant.
On the other hand, if I call the man in my life and say, “I’m having a terrible day,” most likely his heart will sink and he will be lost for words because he figures at some level this is going to be his fault. Most men are fixers, and so a woman’s complaint feels like his failure for not fixing the problem or preventing it from happening in the first place.
I made this relationship mistake early in my marriage. I would call my husband just to download and complain about my day. Turns out, airing my troubles was a turn-off for him. He’d go silent or get irritated. Finally, his irritation turned into his own complaint. “Why are you telling me this when there’s nothing I can do about it?!”
His question caused me to have what I call a “TMM” — a temporary moment of maturity. I paused, stepped back, and pondered his inquiry. Why was I telling him about a problem that he couldn’t fix? Then it hit me. Listening is helping. It shares the burden; clarifies my thinking; helps me to find my own solutions.
But why him? Why hadn’t I just called a girlfriend? Once the answer dawned on me, I came up with a statement that I have used in therapy to help couples ever since. I said to him, with emotional words of gratitude that still bring happy tears to my eyes, “I tell you my problems and share my complaints because when you listen it means more to me than when anyone else listens.”
He got it. He got the emotion. He got the gratitude. He got that he was helping. He was fixing. Now when I’m calling just to have him listen, I say that up front so he’ll know I just need his attention. We’ve actually created a code for these times from a song performed at Esther’s Follies in Austin, TX years ago. A gorgeous, sexy woman would come on stage and introduce her song by saying, “I feel like sh*t and I just want to share it with you.” I loved that performance and totally relate to the concept. So now, when I just need my husband to listen I say, “I feel like sh*t and I just want to share it with you.”
I don’t want to give the impression that we have a perfect relationship and never result to a pure gripe session; believe me, there are still times when the criticisms fly and all maturity goes out the window. Critical habits die hard. Our lowest points come when we complain about each other, not just a bad day.
Thankfully, these times are few and far between because criticizing is one of the strongest predictors of dissatisfaction, divorce, and separation. It is also the most common complaint I hear from men. “I do ten things right and I never hear about them, but the one thing I don’t do to perfection — that’s the one I hear about!”
As odd as it seems, criticism is often a genuine attempt to improve the relationship. It is a signal that something needs to change; but when it is stated as a disapproval, condemnation, or blame; when it is delivered with a harsh voice or with ridicule; when body language or facial expressions are contemptuous, all it does is create distance and can hasten the death of the relationship.
When I lecture about this, I get a lot of pushback from women who say, “Well, does this mean I can never complain? Isn’t this being dishonest?”
Here’s my answer: behind every criticism is a desire; behind every blame is a request; behind every ridicule is a plea for change—so cut to the chase! Ask for what you want.
- It would make me happy if…
- It really helps me when you…
- Thank you for…
- Would you please…
- I feel loved when you…
- It lowers my stress when you…
Almost forty years of clinical practices have given me a bias. Many women do not understand how important it is to the man in her life to please her.
Much of what he does is motivated by making her happy.
Not only that — he measures his success by her contentment. She has to be happy for him to be happy. This why asking for what you want, especially in a positive, specific way is such a valuable practice. Help him make you happy!
If you are skeptical about this, try this experiment:
First, catch him in the act of doing something right and tell him about it. It can be small, even seemingly insignificant, like, “Thank you for being on time, it lowers my stress and helps me enjoy the evening more.”
Success inspires motivation. Acknowledge the small things and he will be more encouraged to tackle the big ones.
When you feel like criticizing, ask for what you want. Remember P.M.S.: make it positive, measurable and specific — this increases the probability he will get it right and you’ll both win.
“Some evening before the weekend, I’d like you to block off an hour and a half for us to talk about our holiday plans.”
“When you want to have sex, let me know at least a couple hours before bedtime.”
“I’d love for us to switch our lovemaking time to mornings at least once a month.”
“Say that again in a kinder tone, please.”
Another strategy that goes a long way: when you realize you have been critical, harsh, or blaming, correct yourself. Apologize. Push rewind.
My dear friend and colleague Eva Berlander (one of the finest therapists in Sweden) actually makes the sound of a tape rewinding by talking backward in gibberish, “Beeezzzzrrrruuuppp,” when she wants to take back a criticism. It’s a do-over.
Lastly, be more kind in your approach by softening your tone, slowing the pace of your words, looking at your partner with soft eyes, smiling, and making physical contact. Thirty days of this practice can yield amazing results.
If you need more encouragement to transform your criticism into requests, think about this fact. Almost a third of men don’t feel sexual desire when they are repeatedly criticized. Criticism creates stress, which prevents erotic desire for half the population — and many of these are men.
Criticism also teaches the man in your life it is not safe to confide in you or share intimate details. You will become a source of pain, not pleasure. He will likely become resentful and withdraw or become irritable.
If you are still skeptical and thinking, “Why should I be nice to him when he isn’t nice to me?” let me answer.
“You will feel better about yourself when you do the right thing. Don’t let him determine what kind of person you are going to be.” Being critical hurts everyone involved.
With repeated criticism you will eventually associate your partner with pain and vice versa, when this happens the distance between you will widen at an alarming rate.
One of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama is this: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
Want more insight on transforming criticism? You’re Tearing Us Apart: Twenty Ways We Wreck Our Relationships and Strategies to Fix Them includes a complete chapter on why we criticize, how criticism hurts relationships, and how to keep criticism from tearing your relationship apart.