You might’ve heard of Maslow’s hierarchy and having to meet our basic needs of food and shelter being key for our survival, well as human beings, one of our other basic needs is to be loved and accepted for who we are – especially when it comes to our relationships.

Our relationships provide our biggest support and nurturing, especially on an emotional level. It feels nice to know we have people that care about us, that love us and whom we can turn to in times of need and also in times of celebrations. This help to create memories and moments that builds our bond with each other.

Sadly, not all relationships experience this, many relationships over time fall into a rut where couples become disconnected, grow apart, criticism can set in, becoming a toxic space that can ultimately destroy a relationship.

One of the main factors that trips relationships up is that of unmet expectations resulting in reactive or defensive behavior such as naming, shaming, blaming, belittling, fault finding, criticism and more.

Often we will create an expectation in our own mind of how we envisage a person responding or reacting to our engagement with them, and when they don’t live up to that expectation we feel let down and disappointed. What we don’t realise is that by not sharing or voicing that expectation with the other person up front – we are actually setting them up for failure as they have no idea what we are expecting from them.

Why is criticism bad for a relationship?

Going back to our basic need of wanting to be loved and accepted, when we are constantly criticised for what we are doing wrong, it erodes at our self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence (research shows that constant criticism can impact our mortality rate)

Eventually over time, we create an environment that is constantly in defensive or reactive mode to protect and defend ourselves, especially on an emotional level and this becomes toxic. It erodes all the good and positive things that are in our relationship as the negative overshadows the positive. We see, feel and experience very little nurturing and connection in our relationships and with our partners.

As humans we have good intentions and mean well when it comes to giving feedback but how it is received and experienced is often where it goes wrong – it’s not what we say, it’s how we say it. And often it sounds like criticism.

Usually criticism is a smokescreen for an underlying need that is not being met, in other words our emotional needs are not being met in some way form or shape so we project this onto our partner without necessarily realising it as we are often unconscious or unaware of what’s really going on underneath.

I have found that it’s usually a case of feeling unappreciated, invalidated, not heard or acknowledged, not a priority and being disconnected from our partner. As a result we resort to lashing out at our partner in ways that cause pain to try and minimise the hurt we are feeling – “you never, you always, you are, you do”. When we start using the “you” word, we get caught up and stuck in the blame game and it just spirals downwards from there.

Here are some practical tips on how to communicate better:

  • One of the greatest gifts you can bring into your relationships is that of Active vs Passive This helps to co-create a safe space for connection and communication to take place.
  • Be conscious and aware of how you are showing up and co-creating your relational space – you are both equally accountable and responsible for co-creating a safe pace in your relationship. A safe space where you feel free to share your thoughts, emotions and needs without retaliation or what is perceived as criticism.
  • Be aware of your conflict management style and how you deal with conflict, some people tend to shut down and avoid conflict while others attack. Being able to self-regulate your reactivity helps to co-create a safe relational space where connectivity and communication can happen.
  • Conflict is not all bad, rather it’s just feedback that something is not working and needs to be looked into. We’ve been conditioned from a young age that conflict is negative and it feels awkward and uncomfortable, so we tend to avoid it and are very seldom taught how to deal with it in a positive and constructive way.
  • Have a solution orientated mind-set and approach when it comes to resolving issues in your relationship. For every problem there is a solution, you both need to be willing to step into the middle and find a way that benefits both parties and the relationship because you value each other and your relationship.

Manage your expectations, there is no such thing as the perfect person or perfect relationship – we are all human and all make mistakes. There is no need to punish each other, rather find ways to uplift and grow together than grow apart.

If you find you are unable to co-create that safe relational space for each other then seek the help of a professional that can facilitate the process and equip you with healthier communication skills.

A version of this article also appeared on the Lionesses of Africa website

Paula Quinsee: Relationship Expert, Tedx speaker and author of Embracing Conflict and Embracing No. Paula works with individuals and companies to have better and healthier human interactions in both their personal and workplace relationships.