When you’re in a long-term, loving relationship, you want to be your best self. Not only for your partner but for the life you’re building as a team. Sometimes, this means changing certain qualities, being open to growth, and receiving feedback. It’s normal to feel a little self-defensive when receiving constructive criticism, yet it is part of effective communication.
As psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., explains, constructive criticism typically involves correcting someone to provide insight rather than being punitive or derogatory. It’s meant to improve, not diminish—but there is a fine line between the two.
“It can be tricky to give constructive criticism to your partner because they may hear the message as predominantly critical rather than recognize the positive intent of it,” Dr. Thomas says. “Even if you’re doing well as a couple, finding the right words to convey the positive nature of your constructive criticism can be difficult and, thus, make it too easy to sound critical in one’s delivery of the message.”
Here, a guide on approaching this type of discussion with ease and effectiveness.
We all know how important consent is within a romantic relationship. And though many people usually think of this within the context of sexual interactions, the same truth applies to conversations. Before you start to deliver your constructive criticism, licensed marriage and family therapist Amber Trueblood says it never hurts to ask permission. “Always assuming someone wants your input or advice—even if you’re married—can be a misstep,” she explains.
Instead, try taking one additional step before you jump in to excitedly share that genius tip that will save them so much angst, she advises. As an example, when your partner is going through a difficult spell, try offering: “I think I might have an idea that could be helpful, but I can see you’re frustrated right now.” Then, be silent.
“Sometimes your partner wants to feel their feelings before you offer a solution,” she continues. “Give them some space to feel sad or mad or hurt.”
Pick the right time.
After you’ve both worked super-long days, somehow managed to put together something for dinner, and you’re finally sitting down to watch one mindless episode of something on Netflix…you probably don’t want to bring up a big ol’ discussion. Or right before you’re turning the lights off to sleep. And, of course, if your partner had one of those no-good, very bad, terrible days? It’s not a good idea to throw some criticism on top of it.
Dr. Thomas says it’s vital that you’re both in a proper emotional state to give and receive feedback. This means you’re both calm, not too tired, not overly hungry and not distracted. “It is best to give your partner constructive criticism when there is time to have an open dialogue to make sure your message is clear and to hear and discuss your partner’s reaction,” she adds.
Keep it short.
Your partner may be open to receiving some nuggets of wisdom—but maybe not to a three-hour lecture that uncovers all of the ways they’re not meeting expectations. As much as you can, keep your constructive criticism short and sweet, so it doesn’t turn into a monologue and then an argument, advises matchmaker Susan Trombetti. “Remember, you aren’t their parent. When you deliver criticism, your significant other isn’t going to hear you if you are long-winded anyway,” she explains.
Try the compliment sandwich approach.
If you’re unsure of where to begin this delicate discussion, Dr. Thomas advises the compliment sandwich approach. It’s a three-step way of giving feedback that’s widely used in workplaces and could make sense for your relationship chat. Here’s how it should be conducted:
- First: Start with something that’s positive and true about your partner.
- Second: Offer constructive criticism.
- Third: End on a high note by saying another sincere and positive compliment to your partner.
In practice, Dr. Thomas says it could look something like this:
- First: “You have been so helpful doing the laundry for me when I have to deal with more work lately. Thank you so much.”
- Second: “When you wash the whites with the colors, it causes some discoloration of the clothes. I’d appreciate it if you could separate the white and the colors next time.
- Third: Thank you again for your help with the laundry to save me time. I really do appreciate and have noticed you.”
“By starting and ending your message in positive ways, it makes it easier for someone to hear the constructive criticism for what it is and to not get as defensive or upset,” Dr. Thomas adds.
Ask for feedback.
During your conversation, it can be meaningful to level the playing field and ask your partner for feedback, too. To go a step further, Dr. Thomas says you would like to periodically schedule a time to discuss growth areas to enrich your relationship and your individual lives. “Make it clear to your partner that this type of conversation is to be done in a non-judgmental, loving way to strengthen their relationship and to help each other improve,” she says. “By mutually setting up these periodic constructive criticism conversations, the couple has the chance to be supportive, honest, and insightful with each other for the betterment of each partner, as well as for the relationship.”