If you are an adult with Attention Deficit Disorder, chances are, you are no stranger to criticism. Perhaps you have been hearing about your downfalls and deficits for most of your life – from parents, teachers, employers, your partner, and, possibly your biggest critic of all – yourself. Changing how you respond to criticism however, could bring unexpected changes for the better to your relationship. Dr John Gottman, one of the world’s leading relationship researchers refers to both criticism and the defensiveness that often follows it, as belonging to a cluster of behaviors he refers to as the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, so strong is the association between these communication patterns and divorce.
According to Dr Gottman, when one partner is critical of the other, they generally mean well. In the mind of the criticizer, they are merely trying to convey what seems to them to be a better, more logical way to their partner. However, criticism is different from simply airing a complaint. Instead, it comes across as a problem with the person rather than the behavior.
For the person on the receiving end of criticism, the natural response is to defend and may well go something like “you just don’t understand”, “I can’t do anything right for you” or “Nothing is ever good enough for you”. The danger of this cycle is, as negativity builds over time, each partner is likely to become less tolerant of the other and even more critical or defensive. Small issues soon become big issues.
If the criticism and defensiveness cycle is playing out in your relationship these simple changes could make your relationship a happier place.
Instead of criticizing your partner: Try approaching the problem behavior in a more gentle way, and take care to keep your request specific to a specific behavior or need that you have. Make an effort to understand your partner’s point of view on whatever it is that you would like them to be doing differently. Let them know why this is important to you, and express appreciation for other aspects of your partner’s behavior.
Instead of reacting defensively: Try to take responsibility where you can. Rather than continuing to defend, experiment with genuinely opening up to what your partner is saying and owning whatever small part of it you can.
Work on simply understanding each other’s position: See if you can work towards understanding what your partner is saying from their point of view before you react. Within most conflict, there is an underlying need or longing that is not being met. Working on being curious about and understanding these needs can amplify the positive feeling in your relationship.
My husband used to be very critical earlier in our relationship. I can see now that he simply couldn’t understand why I didn’t do things as efficiently or logically as he did and thought that pointing out what I was doing wrong and how I could do it better would help me be more effective. All this did was make me stressed, flustered and defensive and often lead to a fight. Once we stepped out of this cycle and examined what was happening between us, I was able to explain to my husband how his criticism made me feel and we were able to work together to find a way for him to bring things up with me in a way that felt safer.
Learn how to calm yourself down: The other tool that Dr Gottman’s research found to be extremely helpful in de-escalating conflict is to use self-soothing techniques when you notice your stress levels rising during conflict. Due to that history with shame and blame I talked about earlier, it is incredibly easy for people with ADD to become very emotionally activated in the face of criticism or conflict. In fact, once you start paying attention, you may notice your body starting to react before you are able to put words around how you feel. Start noticing any changes in your body such as increased heart rate, shallow breathing, sweaty palms or a rising feeling of distress, and immediately employ calming responses. What you want to do is send your brain the message that you understand why it is feeling under threat, but that there is no reason for panic. See if you can slow your breathing down a little, take some deeper breaths and release any tension you notice you are holding in your body.
Research has also shown that there are many benefits to taking a break from the conversation or conflict when either or both partners are in a state of distress. If you do take a break, and return to the conversation later on, you will probably notice that it is a totally different conversation now that you are both feeling calmer.
By working to understand how you and your partner’s behaviors impact on each other and stepping out of the criticism/defensiveness cycle, you will be making your relationship a safer and more joyful space for both of you.
Madonna Hirning is a Psychologist and Couples Therapist in private practice in Australia. When one of her children was diagnosed with ADD and she realised that she experienced many of the same issues, Madonna was finally able to understand aspects of herself that she had struggled with her whole life. While difficult and confronting at time, she has found coming to understand both the challenges and the advantages that come with her ADD traits to be a hugely helpful and empowering process. Madonna writes about self-awareness, empowerment, creating a happy life and other struggles common to the human condition in her blog at www.letmeflourish.com