Hurtful words in a relationship are like a drop of red dye in a glass of water; it turns the whole glass pink. What starts out as a slip of tongue, a small slight from one person to another, sets a process in motion that slowly (or quickly) permeates a relationship and begins to define its tone.
It's easy to think criticism is a constructive process — one member of a relationship feels he/she knows the other in and out, and in making "suggestions" for how the other might change or improve, he/she is merely helping the other overcome his/her flaws and deficiencies.
"You're a handsome man," one might say, "but wouldn't you rather wear a dress shirt than those ratty t-shirts?" He might say "You're always blabbing to your friends on the phone, you should be quiet — read a book or something."
Sometimes this works. Perhaps the other person abides the advice, and adjusts the behavior to make you happy. Other times this doesn't work — "if she doesn't like my clothes, I'm going to wear the outfits she hates most."
Criticism doesn't always take the form of words. It can be a touch, a glare, an eye roll or two hands thrown up in the air. However it comes out, the message is that one person is superior and the other inferior. One person is up, the other person is down. It's an unpleasant feeling for the person down ... a feeling that has its roots in the animal-like parts of our brain, sometimes referred to as our lizard brain.
Harsh words induce a feeling of anxiety. Anxiety, at its roots, is the nervous system responding to a stimulus of danger — the fight or flight response. The response of the criticized person also takes one of these forms: he/she may slink away, play dead in a submissive posture or take on the accuser by fighting back.
Whether criticism is phrased in a gentle way or a cruel way, it comes from the same place of judgment. Unconsciously, the critic believes that his opinion is the only correct one. The way he/she looks at the world is the only reasonable way to see it, and if the partner differs, he/she must have no sense, or taste — in fact, he/she is crazy! The other person, in a way, ceases to be a person, and is instead an object to be molded into the critic's way of looking at the world. Continue reading.
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