We are at a particular moment in our cultural and political narratives of relationship and identity where democracy itself seems under threat.
The assertion in some spheres of the perceived “right” to not be offended is at odds with the right (principle) of free speech in which there is always a risk of offence. We live increasingly in an age of “safe spaces” “trigger warnings” and narratives of victim hood and oppression. Now more than ever we need a relationship culture in which giving and receiving criticism is understood as a way to deepen connection and intimacy whilst simultaneously fostering emotional and psychological resilience.
In my last blog I wrote about the evolutionary context of criticism. How criticism could lead to ostracism, posing a threat to livelihood and even life itself. Whilst killing the criticiser is part of an evolutionary survival instinct, so open and compassionate listening in response to criticism is now an essential part of our evolutionary future.
In myriad subtle ways as social beings we organise ourselves to avoid the (life threatening)sting of criticism. We seek approval from our social groups through acts of conformity or denial. It is more often in our most intimate relationships that we reserve the right to unleash our most critical and savage selves… all in the name of love. Where there is love there is dependence and where there is dependence there is power.Understanding the balance and imbalance of power as a fact of life and love is important.
Focusing solely on the content of our routine and familiar arguments with our partners is a way of missing the expressions of power and the underlying vulnerabilities they obscure. A major theme often at play is that of fear. For some this will translate as fear of losing the other(abandonment) whilst for others the fear will be of losing themselves (engulfment). This may translate into a relational dynamic in which one person, fearing abandonment is more likely to pursue or demand more (contact,closeness etc) from their partner whilst the other, fearing intrusion (exploitation) is more likely to maintain distance. We all emerge from our childhoods with different tolerances for connection.
When we perceive criticism from our partner it is all too easy (natural) to react defensively. How, in these moments might we become less reactive and more reflective, less combative and more collaborative? Firstly of course you have to decide that this is indeed what you would like to do…to lay down your weapons, so to speak, to relinquish the need to be “right” in favour of the desire to understand and value the other such that you might deepen your connection rather than remain locked in a state of division. When this becomes your shared intent you each take your responsibility for the health and well-being of your relationship.
When in conflict with your partner try holding in mind their best intent, hear them out , resist interruption or the desire for distortion. One voice at a time. Keep your energy on your partners story rather than your own defences. Imagine that your partner cares! Check that you have heard them by clarifying what you have understood. Be aware of your body language….are you listening or pseudo listening? Notice what happens, energetically ,in you, in your partner.
None of this is easy, but all of the above are relational tools that require practice to refine. Of course they also have the potential to become weapons to deploy. We are less under threat from criticism perhaps then we are of our failures to listen to the communications beneath. If we value democracy we need to practice it in our relationships.
Gerry Gilmartin is an accredited, registered and experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor. She currently works with individuals (young people/adults) and couples in private practice in Hove.
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