“Are you going out like that?” my wife asked shortly after we were married.
Her tone wasn’t accusing, but I bristled anyway. I had been dressing myself for over two decades, and nobody had ever criticized what I wore. Just because we were married now, did that give her the right to impose her opinion on my wardrobe? I asked for an explanation.
“Well, I know you’re going to an important meeting,” she said. “That shirt doesn’t exactly go well with your pants, and I’m worried that you might lose credibility with some people.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. On one hand, I was being critiqued – and it didn’t feel good. On the other hand, I was getting valuable input from someone who cared about me deeply and wanted the best for me. Plus, she had a keen eye for color, while I had the fashion sense of Jabba the Hutt.
Feedback is a window into how others perceive us, and it can reveal areas that we don’t see ourselves. It can be painful, but it’s essential for growth in any relationship — especially a marriage. If we respond with defensiveness, we shut down one of the most valuable tools we have for building an honest, thriving relationship.
Some people respond with anger, putting the blame on the person giving the feedback. Others withdraw or change the subject so they don’t have to face the issue. Still others roll into a ball like an armadillo, withdrawing and pretending to be dead. Only healthy people see feedback as a gift to help them grow.
How do you respond to feedback?
Feedback isn’t the same as criticism
Feedback and criticism are different. Feedback is positive, because it lets us see ourselves — including blind spots — from another person’s perspective. Its purpose is to build us up and make us better. Criticism is negative and tears us down. It reflects another person’s opinion that we’re not meeting his or her standards.
Nobody likes criticism, but it sticks. We appreciate hearing positive things from people, but one critical comment can keep us up at night. Years later, we’ll remember it — and how we felt. Somehow our brains are wired to focus on the negative more than the positive.
It turns out there’s a physiological reason for that response. Researchers have found that when we hear negative information, our brains store it immediately. But when we hear positive information, we have to focus on it for about 12 seconds before it’s stored. “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones,” according to researcher Dr. Rick Hanson.
If we grew up in an environment of criticism, we assume that “feedback” will always tear us down rather than build us up. We grew up hearing, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but we wear armor to protect us from what anyone might say because we’ve experienced the hurt that words can bring.
We protect ourselves from the stinging pain of criticism, but insulate ourselves from the life-giving value that feedback can bring when it’s given correctly.
We can drop defensiveness
When we’re in a healthy relationship where we know that the other person loves us, accepts us and wants the best for us, it provides safety. That safety allows us to accept feedback from our spouse instead of interpreting it as criticism. It might still hurt, but it’s coming from someone who deeply cares about us. It’s like a surgeon who hurts us with her scalpel, but it’s because she’s committed to complete long-term healing.
“But my spouse only gives me feedback when he or she is frustrated or angry,” you say. “It’s delivered as an attack, and it’s hard to get past that.” That could be a sign of deeper relationship issues or communication skills that need to be addressed. Fortunately, an experienced counselor can provide guidance to grow relationships. And communication skills can be developed with direction and practice.
The only way we can grow is to get an accurate reflection of ourselves, both the good and the bad — and safety makes it possible for us to see them both.
So how can we overcome defensiveness when our spouse shares what he or she sees in us? Here are three basic principles for becoming open to feedback:
Reframe feedback as a gift, not an attack
Feedback gives you information about yourself that you’re unable to see on your own. Your spouse doesn’t have to give it, but he or she cares enough to take the risk. Focus on the message to see if it’s true so you can decide what change might be needed.
Ask for feedback often
Don’t wait for your spouse to give feedback out of frustration; make it part of your regular conversations. Start small so you can practice together, such as asking for his or her thoughts about a specific clothing choice (“Do you think these shoes work with these pants?”) or how you communicated with one of your kids (“Was I too harsh in what I said to Molly during dinner?”). Don’t defend or explain, just listen. For bigger issues, let your spouse know what you want feedback about, then give him or her time to process a response. Don’t expect an immediate answer.
Don’t respond right away
If you react defensively, you’ll never get feedback again. Make it safe by:
- Listening without interrupting.
- Not justifying or explaining.
- Avoiding sarcasm or quick emotional reactions.
- Asking clarifying questions (“When you say ‘too often,’ can you tell me what that looks like?”)
- Thanking your spouse for the input.
If it’s an emotional subject for you, you’ll be tempted to speak your mind right away. But ask for time to process so you can think carefully about your response. Your thoughts will be clearer when you do share them, and your emotions will be more controlled. It will be a much stronger response if it’s carefully crafted.
Plan time for the two of you to develop a game plan for mutual feedback. Decide on ground rules you’ll use to make feedback safe, and post the rules somewhere obvious. Use them to practice your skills together, and you’ll open a whole new world of communication!