If you’re in a committed relationship and you live with a partner, you may cosign the idea that you’ve been spending an excessive amount of time together in quarantine (so. much. together. time.). Perhaps during this time, you’ve noticed some new ways that you and your partner clash: Maybe the way they load the dishwasher irks you, or how they make the bed (if they make it at all). You may assume that clueing them into what they’re doing wrong is just a way for you to be helpful—after all, if you have the right answers, why not share them? And besides, if you don’t speak up, your frustration may be at risk for bubbling over. But are you actually providing helpful constructive criticism or simply nagging? (And, does the difference really matter?)
What is constructive criticism, though, and how does it differ from nagging? Well, the line separating the two is super-subjective to the person receiving it. But as a rule of thumb, the difference essentially comes down to how you want to make your partner feel. Chances are, if you want them to feel good, your wording is going to be a heck of a lot different than if you’re trying to be hurtful. And to be sure, the difference is important, since nagging—which can skew demeaning, hurtful, and disrespectful—can actually be damaging to their health.
A new study published in Health Psychology says having a partner who is overly critical can shorten your lifespan. Clinical psychologist and relationship expert Carla Manly, PhD says this finding makes sense: someone who feels a regular fear of being told they’re doing something incorrectly may live in a state of fight-or-flight, which puts stress on the cardiovascular system, and is, not surprisingly, no good for longevity.
Of course, regardless of whether your feedback skews more toward nagging or constructive, no one is contending that you intend it to compromise your partner’s health. In fact, you don’t want to harm them at all—you just want them to fold towels a different way, right? Well, to make sure you are actually helpful (and certainly not harmful) in your delivery of feedback, below Dr. Manly provides three key rules for distinguishing what constructive criticism is from simply being overly critical.
3 tips to make sure you’re using constructive criticism, not nagging, in your delivery of feedback.
1. Gauge whether feedback is wanted
If your partner isn’t actually open to hearing your thoughts, you offering them won’t be helpful in effect. To find out if this is the case, Dr. Manly suggests simply asking, “Hey, would you like some constructive feedback?” This, she says, “is very different than just giving it without asking.”
2. Choose your wording very carefully
There’s one phrase Dr. Manly says should be avoided at all costs: “You’re doing it wrong.” “As soon as you use that terminology, it becomes a turf war and turns into an argument of who’s right and who’s wrong,” she says. Instead, she says to use “I prefer.” “Using ‘prefer’ instead of ‘wrong’ opens up a discussion,” she says. “You can say why you prefer something done a certain way and ask the other person why they prefer to do it differently.” This approach provides the opportunity to explain their reasoning instead of being automatically dismissed, leading them to become defensive.
“Using ‘prefer’ instead of ‘wrong’ opens up a discussion. You can say why you prefer something done a certain way and ask the other person why they prefer to do it differently.” —psychologist Carla Manly, PhD
Once both viewpoints are expressed, a decision can be made about how to do the task at hand moving forward. Often, Dr. Manly says, there’s a way to meet in the middle so both people are happy. “If, for example, one person likes to load the dishwasher with all the silverware pointing up because they feel it gets cleaned better that way, but the other person likes them pointed down to avoid getting poked, you could point the forks and knives down but load the spoons whatever which way,” she says. “The solutions aren’t always so black and white.”
3. Recognize when there’s a deeper issue that needs to be worked through
Some people are more sensitive to criticism than others—even when the feedback is worded carefully. Dr. Manly says this response is often rooted back to a person’s childhood experience. “If someone was raised in a very critical environment, even the word ‘criticism’ may be charged,” she says. It can take someone back to feeling weak, disempowered, or even worthless, and those feelings will get in the way of being able to process the feedback at all. The same logic follows if someone grew up in a chaotic environment where there was a lot of screaming or cursing. Dr. Manly says when someone is confronted with that again as an adult, often they will just shut down internally.
All of this is to say that it’s important to consider how your partner grew up and recognize that if they are super-sensitive to criticism (even when it’s constructive criticism), there may be a deep-rooted reason to explain why. Sometimes, it can take professional therapy to work through these issues.
And, of course, if you’re the one who’s on the receiving end of constant criticism that makes you feel less than, speak up. “If someone is being constantly criticized, I would encourage them to tell their partner how it makes them feel by saying, for example, ‘I feel horrible when you tell me I’m a terrible cook. I would prefer you simply tell me what I can do better or just make your own dinner,’” Dr. Manly says. And perhaps a relationship therapist could help facilitate some of these sorts of conversations in a healthy and effective way. (Remember, feedback is only effective if your partner is ready to hear it.)