By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.

Virtually everyone has faced the experience of criticism, both being criticized and being the one who criticizes. This style of communication between people causes discomfort and is often responsible for significant damage to relationships. What is criticism? I will define criticism as the confrontation of one person by another with an accusation of fault and an implication of judgment. Within the context of personal relationships, I question whether or not any good comes from such communication.

It is often said that criticism can be constructive. However, based in my work with individuals, couples, and families, I have serious doubts that criticism is ever really constructive. Yet we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people, and we need to be able to resolve the conflicts that come up between us and the people we care about. Since criticism is so limited and destructive we must find and use a more productive concept to help us solve these problems in living.

The essence of the destructive quality of criticism is the communication of fault and judgment. Since most people do the best they can in life, faulting and judging them is not likely to be productive. Let's turn away from criticism and toward loving confrontation, a special kind of interaction that can be productive and that does not convey judgment or fault. This interaction is helpful as it conveys care, love, and support, and simultaneously holds the goal of reducing conflict. Conveying caring within confrontation requires a certain view of the self, the other person, and the situation being addressed. It requires looking at one's own needs and conveying them in a loving manner. This inward look is in direct opposition to looking outward, while faulting and judging the other person. This is a perceptual framework that our culture does not promote effectively and hence it appears to be the exception rather than the rule.

This orientation toward confrontation enhances rather than damaging relationships. I have found, in working with couples for example, that once they are able to shift from being critical of one another, to being lovingly confrontive, their relationship takes on a new and valued dimension. There is much less fear of criticism and rejection, and they are much better able to love and feel loved by one another.

Lets consider John and Sarah, as an example. They came to me as a result of their wanting to decrease the defensiveness and conflict in their relationship. They wanted to remain together, but were finding themselves coming apart, largely because they were emotionally tangled with one another and were becoming increasingly critical of each other. Among other issues dealt with, was the notion of learning to become lovingly confrontive. To do this, they first had to renew their uniqueness and separateness as individuals. Once these emotional boundaries were re-established they were better able to accept and appreciate the naturalness of their differences. As this awareness continued to develop they were more able to confront one another in tender and loving ways rather than with defensiveness. They began to be supportive of the other's struggles rather than feeling attacked or rejected. While people are lovingly confrontive in different ways, the key to success is the loving feeling conveyed when confrontation takes place.