Nobody loves a critic, a nag, a kibitzer, a “backseat driver,” except perhaps that person himself. We do not like to be told what to do and how to do it, and we definitely dislike being evaluated and criticized. Occasionally, bosses, parents, or teachers might need to be critical, but friends, lovers, and spouses should seek to minimize this.
In February’s asiancemagazine.com, I wrote about three loveable Taoist attitudes that some Asian American women – my beloved wife, Tina Su Cooper, included – bring to their relationships and marriages: compassion, moderation, humility. When she and I discussed criticizing, Tina and I agreed she very rarely criticizes others. I think this is partly why she has had so many wonderful inter-personal relationships. Avoiding criticizing each other certainly has helped our marriage. An accepting spouse garners few gripes.
How might one’s compassion discourage criticizing? One would rarely correct another person. More often, empathetic support would be given and more readily received. Mentally walking a mile in another’s shoes may lead us to offer a foot rub rather than a lecture.
How would moderation discourage criticizing? If moderation implies being thoughtful or judicious, then contemplating before commenting might inhibit being openly critical. Look before you leap; think before you speak.
Humility is key, however. When we criticize another, we assume that we know what is correct and that we have the right to judge and that we can communicate it in such a way as to get the other person to accept it and then change. Difficult. Too often, the person being criticized gets defensive, tries to justify himself, soon seeks to get even by criticizing the criticizer. The interaction may get unpleasant and even spiral out of control.
Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Similarly, tossing the first verbal rock requires that you at least be less flawed than the one you will be pelting, that you not be the “pot calling the kettle ’black.’”
Ideally, we would not be trying to change our partners, except rarely and only for important reasons. If the one you love needs to be “fixed,” make sure it is significant and that you are right before proposing that repair. Was this a hidden defect, or did you know about it when going into the relationship? Is it fair to raise the bar now?
The cynic is said to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Wisely, fairly valuing our imperfect partners may require us to overlook their faults. A Chinese proverb goes: “Better the diamond with a flaw than the pebble without one.”
Being properly assertive about your wants and needs is fine, but expecting others to change to meet these is likely to leave you disappointed and your partner irritated. The overly assertive woman speaks to a man the way men do not speak to each other without expecting a fist-fight to ensue. “Women get sad. Men get mad.”
Instead, the Bible advises, “A soft answer turns away wrath.” So true. Our Tina has mastered this; it may be from her Asian “cultural dowry” or perhaps it is just part of her DNA.
Two kinds of disputes between partners are: What shall we do? What is wrong with you? The first, the making of choices, requires thought and compromise, but need not become emotional. The second, correcting one another, is usually upsetting.
When the occasional fight erupts, it should not be extended. We are advised not to go to sleep angry. British poet Robert Browning [1812-1889], husband of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning [who wrote Sonnet 43, “How Do I Love Thee?”], imagined himself to be a loving wife as she is saying, “A Woman’s Last Word,” the first half of which is:
Let’s contend no more, Love,
Strive nor weep:
All be as before, Love,
What so wild as words are?
I and thou
In debate, as birds are,
Hawk on bough!
See the creature stalking
While we speak!
Hush and hide the talking,
Cheek on cheek!
What so false as truth is,
False to thee?
Where the serpent’s tooth is
Shun the tree—
Where the apple reddens
Lest we lose our Edens,
Eve and I.
Although still convinced she is right, this wife concedes the argument, to preserve the love they have: “What so false as truth is / False to thee?” She prefers to lose this fight than harm their relationship. Sometimes being right is less important than other values, “Where the apple reddens / Never pry— / Lest we lose our Edens, / Eve and I.”
The last half of Robert Browning’s poem ends with her invitation to cuddle. Emotional Intelligence at work:
Be a god and hold me
With a charm!
Be a man and fold me,
With thine arm!
Teach me, only teach, Love,
As I ought,
I will speak thy speech, Love,
Think thy thought—
Meet, if thou require it,
Laying flesh and spirit
In thy hands.
That shall be tomorrow
I must bury sorrow
Out of sight:
—Must a little weep, Love,
And so fall asleep, Love,
Loved by thee.
At this point, some readers may object strongly to her giving in, but others will appreciate her wisdom. Too often one can win the battle and lose the war, damaging the relationship more than the victory was worth. This especially applies to voicing a critique, often both judgmental and demanding. In fact, the more one prefers that the male in the relationship be traditionally masculine, the more one would be hesitant to confront and criticize him, to cause him to “lose face,” as this sets up a fight-or-flight response in many men.
Constructive criticism has great value, but must be given sparingly, as it is easily misinterpreted as hostility and implied boasting. A true friend will occasionally save us from ourselves by giving us critical insight, but any virtue can be over-done, including candid advice-giving. The Reverend Norman Vincent Peale wrote, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”
If criticized, evaluate it and perhaps accept it. If tempted to criticize, make sure you are right and that it is important…then speak up—rarely—and at your own risk.
Dr. Cooper is a retired scientist, now a writer, author and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011 and is available from Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, in paperback and ebook formats, as are his co-authored memoir The Shield of Gold and the memoir he edited, High Shoes and Bloomers. His writer-coaching web site is http://writeyourbookwithme.com. On Twitter he is @douglaswcooper. His blog is http://douglaswinslowcooper.blogspot.com.