Category Archives: Boundaries

Can You Handle The Truth? Taking Criticism Well

how to take criticism - give and receive feedback in a relationship without shame or bullying

Do you know how to hear feedback with grace?

There was a time when I couldn’t hear criticism.

I was easily offended and very defensive.

When someone tried to tell me I was wrong or had hurt them in some way, I would immediately justify my actions, minimize them or dispute the facts.

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe I had flaws. I would frequently admit to being very flawed. You can sound very noble as you paint yourself with broad strokes of imperfection but the grit is in the details.

I could put someone else under a microscope but wanted to keep my own specific transgressions at a distance.

Even just writing this makes me feel, well, yuck.

Admitting you are flawed is very different than holding yourself accountable for those flaws. Click To Tweet

I was so defensive because I had a very fragile sense of my own worth.

When someone gave me tough criticism, I sank into despair.

I easily dropped into toxic shame–that place where I felt worthless and broken.

To avoid feeling so badly, I avoided honest feedback.

How to take criticism, criticism in marriage, criticism in relationships

I didn’t realize then how self-indulgent it is to go to toxic shame.

Think about it: if someone tells you something about yourself you don’t like, and you sink into despair, you still aren’t holding yourself accountable. You are beating yourself up but not changing anything.

In essence, you are sending out the message that you are too fragile for the truth. You are either expecting those around you to soothe you and minimize your actions or enabling them to avoid confronting you. Or both.

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Married couples who can’t take criticism land in my office all the time.

Couples dance these same steps over and over. I see it in my office. Charles and Mindy are a particular couple I have in mind. (Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.)

Charles is a bully. He is big and loud.

When something doesn’t go the way he thinks it should, he yells and curses until his family caves.

Mindy is scared of Charles. Not physically–as far as I know, he has never raised his hand to anyone. But his yelling is just as intimidating to his family.

Charles is like a lot of bullies. He is very charming and playful when he isn’t raging. He comes across like a big, lovable teddy bear–until he shows his claws.

And this is how he justifies his bad behavior.  Since only his family sees this other side of him,  he is well liked by everyone. He often reasons that his family is overly sensitive because he has no problems with anyone else.

Standing up to a bully

After working with Mindy, she was finally able to stand up to Charles. She stopped letting him have his way and when he would yell, she would set limits on how much she was exposed to that behavior. This infuriated Charles even more.  He said he felt attacked and that Mindy was controlling him!

When Mindy told him he was a bully and why, instead of looking at his behavior and feeling remorse, he pouted. He moped around the house for days. He gave everyone the silent treatment.

He took every opportunity to let everyone know that he was apparently a big, bad ogre. Sometimes he appeared to get it and would cry and ask her why she stayed with him if he was so bad. He did everything but actually change his actions.

See the self-indulgence? When you wrong someone, true remorse says, “I’m so sorry. What can I do to make you feel better?”

Charles is saying “If what you say is true, I’m a terrible person. What can you do to make me feel better?”

Being able to hear the truth is a gift you give yourself and those you love. Click To Tweet

Defensiveness breeds shamelessness.

Giving and receiving feedback increases intimacy in such a powerful way. I cannot underestimate the importance.

Charles and Mindy will never have a truly intimate relationship until Charles can hear what Mindy is trying to tell him AND he holds himself accountable for it.

Right now, Mindy is willing to wait and see if Charles can let go of his defense mechanisms and allow himself to be vulnerable, and if he will accept her vulnerability. I don’t know how long she will wait in this holding pattern.

Charles is on borrowed time but it doesn’t have to be that way. He is risking losing everything he holds dear just because he will not hear the truth.

Are you married to someone who can’t take criticism?

If you are married to someone who cannot hear the truth, I feel particularly bad for you. That’s a tough situation. But you aren’t stuck.  Mindy is learning how to set limits on bad behavior.

There is more conflict, but Mindy is getting stronger each day. One day, I believe Charles will have to face the truth or face living alone. But Mindy is more at peace today than any other time in her marriage. Only she can decide if that is good enough.

You need to be able to hear feedback to keep you grounded.  Otherwise, you will become shameless.

Shameless people are obnoxious, intrusive, immature people.

The first person who comes to mind when I think of shameless is Donald Trump. He offends in outrageous ways. Whether you love or hate him, you know he is offensive.  He needs someone in his life who is willing to tell him the truth and set loving limits on his outrageous behavior.

How a therapist learned to receive criticism and feedback

I learned how to hear criticism and it completely changed my life. It taught me how to be more relational to others, including towards my husband. It also taught me how to be more relational to myself! I no longer dip into toxic shame on a regular basis. I have learned to accept that I am imperfect and it is ok to be imperfect.

Giving and receiving feedback takes skill and practice. Click To Tweet

I learned how to give feedback in my therapy training, but I didn’t learn how to receive it until a therapist confronted me. It was ugly. But it was also life-changing.

How to give feedback well

When giving feedback, always ask if someone is willing and ready to hear your opinion. Never force your feedback on anyone.

Once they are ready for it, state your feedback without a lot of emotion.  It’s so much easier to hear tough criticism if you aren’t angry when you speak your truth.  Just state the facts and do so without judgement.

And no name calling, please!  Not if you want to give the person on the receiving end even a remote chance of hearing you.

How to receive feedback well

When receiving feedback, fight the urge to defend, minimize or rationalize.  Just hear them.

Then run it through 3 filters:

Is it true?

Is it untrue?

Is it questionable?

If it is questionable, find out more information.  Ask for examples. Once I have more information, I then have ask myself again if it is true or untrue.

If it is true, make amends if you can and be gentle with yourself.  You are human and you are going to mess up.

If it is untrue, step back emotionally.  Do not try and convince the feedback giver they are mistaken.  They are allowed their perspective. When I experience this, I detach my emotions and I also detach from convincing the other person it is untrue.  They are allowed their own opinion and perspective. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree.

If the person giving the feedback has been hurt by your actions or attitude because they misunderstood or misinterpreted the situation, gently let them know you had no intention to hurt them.

Staying accountable with new skills

I never want to go back to the self-indulged ducking and dodging that kept me blind to how others saw me. To make sure I don’t go back, I have people in my life who hold me accountable.

When I hear, “Are you open to some feedback?” I view it as a gift. Even though what I’m about to hear may be painful, seeing how someone else is viewing me is priceless. When I hear feedback, I go through the process I described above.  I ask myself, “Is it true?  Is it untrue?  Is it questionable?”

Instead of being defensive, I brace myself and hang on for the deep dive in the intimacy pool. I listen for the truth in what they are telling me, and I remind myself it is ok to be imperfect.

I make amends when and where I can and I resolve to do it better next time. Then I thank God for putting people in my life who will tell me the truth.

This process keeps me grounded. It keeps me from being shameless.  It keeps me relational so that the people in my life feel closer to me.  I’m willing to hear their truth.

As a result, I feel stronger and more secure.

My relationships are closer and more intimate. And now, I am very adept at appropriately giving honest feedback to others. And that’s a gift too! Because I am no longer putting up with bad behavior or building resentment toward others.

Are you defensive when it comes to criticism?

If you are the person who is defensive, I know how you feel. It can be scary to admit you have an ugly side. But guess what? Everyone has an ugly side. Not looking at it only allows your ugly to get uglier.

Be brave. Clean yourself up. Wash off the shamelessness. When your family sees who you really are, chances are they will love you more not less.

They may stay where they are now because they are afraid or intimidated, but that isn’t love and intimacy. And somewhere inside of you, you know that. It feels cheap because it is​ cheap.

Come out from behind your wall and see if they love you more. It is possible you will be rejected. But that’s why intimacy is so messy and scary and real. It is unpredictable and involves other flawed human beings. All you can do is show up as your best self. But the reward is worth the risk.

I promise.

There’s help for learning how to manage criticism and grow intimacy in relationships

We can help if you or someone you are in relationship with can’t hear the truth. Contact us here.

Our coaches and counselors are trained in telling you the things about yourself that others see but don’t feel safe to tell you. We do this with compassion and without judgment–and then we will hold you accountable. That’s our gift to you.

See also: 4 Ways to Shut Out Your Spouse (including bullying and the silent treatment) and When Your Spouse Always Gets Their Way & What the Wall Street Journal has to say about this topic.

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Do Ultimatums in Marriage Work?

Marriage Advice for those who are unhappy, married and miserable

ultimatums in marriage

If I told you that setting an ultimatums in marriage can be one of the smartest things you can do for your relationship, would you believe me? In fact, Ultimatums can be necessary and the only way to save a marriage. Click To Tweet And yet I find that most people are either reluctant to use them, or don’t really know how to use them and end up making a big mess.

When Are Ultimatums in Marriage Necessary?

Ultimatums become necessary when your partner pushes against your bottom line and refuses to take whatever steps are necessary to make things right again.

Your bottom line is the place where you cannot continue to feel safe, secure and respected in a relationship as long as certain behavior goes unchanged. It’s the place where you feel you can’t continue in this relationship if something doesn’t change.

Sometimes, ultimatums are the only way we can protect ourselves and the relationship.  If your husband is an alcoholic who refuses treatment, how can you protect yourself?

You can’t make him do the right thing.

You can’t control how much he drinks.

But you can control what you will tolerate.

You can control how much misery you endure and how long you wait for him to see how his behavior is destroying the marriage.

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Ultimatums in Marriage are Scary

We want the relationship to work.  We love our spouse even though they are hurting us. And we are scared that the ultimatum will force the relationship to end.

If we really are at our bottom line that means we know we can’t continue on if things don’t change.  Since we can’t control our spouse’s behavior, it is very possible we will be forced to follow through with the ultimatum.

This is terrifying, so we avoid using the only real power we have and instead we explode in anger or implode into hopelessness and depression. When we explode, we feel more powerful as we tell our partner we aren’t going to take this anymore and we threaten to leave if things don’t improve.

Because our actions never match our words, we are actually only becoming even more powerless.

We are teaching our partner that we don’t mean what we say.

It becomes easy for our partner to make nice for a while to appease us and then go back to the behavior that is destroying the relationship.

Or worse: for our spouse to disregard us entirely like the teacher on Peanuts…”wah wah wah” or the “nut job” who overreacts.

I am often telling my marriage counseling clients that getting so angry and making meaningless threats doesn’t mean they aren’t taking it anymore.

It means they are taking it, but taking it angrily.

All that anger will destroy the relationship even if the offending behavior does not.

Either way, they will continue to live in a miserable marriage until they are willing to set an ultimatum or the relationship continues to erode until there is nothing left.

What I like about ultimatums is that it shows your partner that you really do mean business, and it gives them the chance to clean up their act sooner rather than later.  (Later is oftentimes too late.)

The most common reason women leave a marriage is that, for women, the longer the resentment builds up, the greater the chance she will shut down.

When her partner does change, it no longer matters to her.

By the time he’s willing to change, she’s already given up.

Had the wife spoken up and given a meaningful ultimatum earlier in the conflict, it could have changed the outcome drastically.

Do Ultimatums In Marriage Work?

Yes! There are two possible outcomes in each ultimatum situation.

The first is the most desirable.  Your spouse gets it and has to come to terms with the possibility of losing you.  This forces him/her to confront their bad behavior and make changes and repair.  The relationship is on a fast track to healing.

The second outcome is the one we feared would happen.  Our spouse refuses to acknowledge their contribution to the destruction of the relationship or work to repair it.

But even this is a win because I promise you, this is the eventual end you would have come to anyway.  It’s a win because you haven’t spent years in misery and whittling yourself down to a nub in the process.

You know sooner rather than later that this marriage is destructive and doomed to fail.

The Difference Between Ultimatums and Boundaries

I think it is important to understand the difference between ultimatums and boundaries.  Every healthy relationship has boundaries.

I’m not going to be happy if my husband comes home from work grumpy and bites my head off.  If this happens frequently, I will set a boundary or limit.  I may stop greeting him at the door, or I may choose to eat dinner alone on those nights.

I will protect myself respectfully, but I don’t see this as worthy of putting the whole relationship on the line.

Boundaries are necessary to navigate daily stresses and annoyances. Click To Tweet Ultimatums are the big guns.  You only use them for truly relationship-threatening behavior such as abuse (of any kind) or infidelity.

Using ultimatums for boundary issues is a huge mistake.  If you use them inappropriately, you will become the controlling, abusive partner in the relationship.

Using Ultimatums in Marriage: Real life examples

Joe and Emily: Life with an alcoholic

Emily believed that her husband Joe had a drinking problem.  She begged and pleaded and tried to change him, but nothing worked.  Because of his drinking habits, Joe lost his job, and Emily felt hopeless about the whole situation.

During our counseling session, I helped Emily work on an ultimatum.

Emily calmly told Joe that he had two weeks to find a 30-day treatment center at an inpatient clinic for alcoholics.  And after that, he would need to sign up with a sponsor for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Joe tested Emily’s resolve and didn’t seek treatment within the two week time frame, so Emily packed up the kids and went to stay with her mother.

Joe checked in to a  treatment center the next day.

Joe finished his treatment and enrolled in AA with a sponsor, and he is doing very well these days.

In this extreme case, Emily knew something had to change, and she put her marriage at risk.  In the end, they were able to work through their issues and make a profound difference in their marriage.

Matt & Lisa: A sexless marriage

Matt and Lisa came to see me because they weren’t having sex.

They had been married for 25 years and it had been 5 years since they last made love.

Lisa simply wasn’t interested.  In fact, she never really enjoyed sex.

She was happy to live as roommates, but Matt was becoming increasingly frustrated. He was tired of the endless rejection and felt Lisa was being selfish.

In my office, I established there was no physical or emotional reason Lisa was refusing sex. She wasn’t depressed.  She had a complete physical and all was normal.  There was no history of sexual abuse or trauma. She said she just had a lower sex drive than her husband.

I explained to Lisa there was a difference between a low sex drive and going 5 years without sex!

Matt was more than willing to explore different techniques that might increase pleasure and fun for both of them, but Lisa wasn’t interested.

In fact, she didn’t want to come to counseling with him either.

She clearly stated that he was the one who was unhappy so he could find a way to get happy or he could come to counseling alone.  She was fine.  So even without my prompting, Matt decided to make himself happy and told Lisa he refused to live in a sexless marriage.

If she wasn’t willing to work on this with him, he wanted a divorce.  Lisa actually did divorce Matt.

I found out later that  Lisa had been having multiple affairs over the years. Matt had no idea until after they divorced.

He was sorry his marriage ended, but he was so glad he finally stood up for himself and for his needs in the marriage.

If you are in a marriage that has hit your bottom line, it may be time to set an ultimatum.

It’s scary. But remember, it can be the best way to get your relationship moving in the right direction.  The Marriage Place can help you figure out if it is time for an ultimatum.  We can also teach you how to show up in your marriage in a way that makes it easier for your spouse to want to give you what you need.

Sometimes, pent up anger and resentment creates bottom line issues that can be resolved with counseling.  Either way, we are here to help  you!  Give us a call at 972-441-4432,  or contact us using our confidential online form.  We care about saving marriages!

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