Criticism, Complaining, & Unmet Needs
The more secure you feel in yourself and in your relationship, the less often you take things personally. That is, when you have a basic sense that you are a good person with good intentions and that your partner loves you and is committed to your relationship, you can hear that your partner is unhappy about something you did and trust that the two of you will work it out.
Without this felt sense of security both individually and in relationship, even the most careful expression of an unmet need and its accompanying request can be perceived as criticism or a complaint.
If you have a partner who consistently hears criticism and complaint when you express an unmet need, you might be saying to yourself, "So, all I have to do is make him feel more secure, then he will hear me and want to meet my needs." This kind of thinking leads to more suffering.
First, it is form of manipulation. You are acting from a one-sided agenda to "fix" your partner so that he will behave differently. Since no one wants to be manipulated, you will encounter resistance and resentment in your attempts to make him feel more secure.
Second, it grows out of an assumption that your partner is wrong for not hearing you. As long as you are residing in the land of right and wrong, you aren't able to be present for what's actually happening, to grieve your own unmet needs, and to honor that your partner is on his own path, which may or may not include choosing to and/or being able to hear you and respond to your needs.
Third, psychological insight, subtle communication skills, and sophisticated self-awareness are meant to help you open your heart in love and compassion and to help you respond to life circumstances with wisdom and care. If these things are used in an attempt make others different without their consent or in an attempt to continuously mold the environment to your will, you will start to feel like a rat on a wheel, working hard but not getting anywhere. Trying to mold others and the environment to your will so that you won't suffer or feel uncomfortable is an impossible task because you will always experience discomfort and pain at times. What you can change is how you meet that discomfort and pain. You can choose to meet your experience moment by moment with acceptance of what's happening and compassion for what's difficult.
So where does all this leave you? You would still like to be able to express an unmet need and have your partner hear you clearly and hopefully even want to meet your needs. You are not ready to give up on your needs or on your relationship.
If you have been trying to meet particular needs for a while with minimal success, the most helpful first step is to find the place in you from which you know you will be okay if this relationship ends. I offer this not to trigger a sense of hopelessness or distance, but rather to interrupt any compulsion or desperation that has been a part of the cycle discontent. I also hope that you might find a sense of rest by connecting with this knowing that you will remain intact regardless of what happens. Without this connection to your own sense of wholeness (security), it's difficult to express what you need while still honoring your partner's autonomy.
Second, state the situation as neutrally as you can and ask for collaboration. For example, you might approach you partner and say something like this,
"So I would like to share with you what's up for me and ask for help. Are you willing to listen?"
"I care about you and I really want this relationship to be fulfilling and long lasting. I feel happy about particular ways we are together like… I feel sad and frustrated about wanting you to come towards me more often with affection, humor, and love. I have made specific requests about these needs like: initiating a playful date a couple times a month, kissing and hugging when we come together after being apart, bringing me flowers or other little gifts, and telling me silly jokes or laughing at funny movie with me. The last three times I brought this up, my experience has been as it is now. You have your arms folded and you are looking away and I imagine you are feeling defensive and thinking that I am criticizing you. This is the part where I need your help. I want to know if you have any ideas about how we could hear each other's needs and requests just as needs and requests to consider and negotiate rather than as criticism or attacks? And if you don't have any ideas, I wonder if you would be willing to consider ways we could get support, so that we can hear each other?"
The above paragraph isn't meant to be a script to follow. It's meant to demonstrate the following basic principles:
- Respect your partner's autonomy by asking if he or she is willing to listen before sharing something important.
- Include the whole picture with neutral observations as much as possible. This often means expressing all that you appreciate and enjoy at least as often as you express what's not working.
- Name two or three universal needs you want to have met.
- Immediately follow the statement of your needs with specific, do-able requests.
- If the steps above don't open into a negotiation about all needs getting met, ask for collaboration in creating a conversation in which each person feels safe to listen and express.
Lastly, when you have connected fully with yourself, it can be helpful to zoom out. In zooming out to get a wide perspective, you might notice that it's more common than you would hope that you see people trying to get their needs met through criticizing, complaining, and making others wrong. You might even be able to name a few friends who grew up in homes in which this was the standard way of interacting. As you take in this big picture, you might feel your heart soften in compassion for yourself and your partner as the two of you struggle to create a space where everyone's needs are attended to and honored.
If you find yourself in this situation, take time to reflect on each of the instructions given above. Check in with heart as you do. As your heart softens, allow your thoughts be still and notice what wisdom arises all on its own.