How To Express Concerns in a Relationship

How To Express Concerns in a Relationship


Nitin Julka

In our vows, Jenny and I stated, “I promise not to criticize or get hung up on little things because I love you just the way you are.” This statement beautifully demonstrates a foundational principle in our relationship.

My relationship goals are to maximize positive interactions and deeply understand my partner.

I do not agree with applying the mindset of continuous small improvement(s) to our relationship. I believe this causes a home ‘culture’ of constantly looking for small gripes about the other individual. I also think the complexity of the emotional environment, time constraints, and joint responsibilities of managing the household make criticisms and expressing concerns particularly dangerous in a home setting.

In my experience, a criticism almost immediately feels like an attack on one’s self-esteem. A criticism makes the recipient feel bad about themselves and deflates their ego. Often times, a criticism will cause the recipient to become reactive, frustrated, defensive, or even worse - inspire criticism in response.

The most destructive aspect of unthoughtful criticism is that it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the other person’s context, mindset, and mental state. Perhaps the recipient is preoccupied with another much larger issue (money, layoffs, stress, etc.), and it caused them to act sub-optimally in the time in question. Perhaps the time between the husband and wife was very limited that day, and expressing negativity in the small window of personal time together is not healthy or constructive.

I believe the expression of negative emotion - hurt, angry, critical, upset, attacking, or defensive - needs to be treated with utmost sensitivity because of the potential damage that it does to a relationship.

I also think that the timing of expressing the concern needs to happen with extreme caution in a relationship. There should be a safe environment and safe context. Both people should be well rested, objective, and have time to deeply and completely understand the other person’s perspective. Also, if possible, the criticisms should be communicated in the form of questions rather than direct attacks in order to preserve the recipient’s self-esteem and express humility about the situation.

I’d also suggest that concerns about small things are significantly less important than concerns about large things. The main reason is that it is difficult to create change in one’s life. Everyone is imperfect, and individuals in a relationship need to prioritize what is important and not important to change. If we allow our time to be filled with addressing unimportant trivialities, then it takes time away from important things such as creating positive interactions and deeply understanding your partner.

But of course - sometimes, one person in the relationship will do things wrong and the other person wants to openly communicate the concerns/issues/problems.

Some strategies that I believe are particularly useful when communicating a criticism are the following:

  • Write a draft e-mail about the topic, wait a week, read what you wrote -- and if it is still relevant, then bring it up in a healthy, understanding, empathetic fashion.

  • Call a friend or an outsider to vent and get perspective. [Your partner can be great on issues that are not directly related to him or her.]

  • Ask questions about the situation rather than directly criticizing

  • Bring up criticisms or concerns in a healthy context when both partners have the time and energy to fully understand the other person’s perspective.

In general, I think partners need to express our issues, concerns, or feedback in a healthy environment. If either partner starts to get reactive, hurt, angry, critical, upset, attacking, defensive, etc., then I think a "time out" and taking a step back is probably best for both of you.