Relationship Communication: How to Give Negative Feedback to Your Partner


Most people don’t like being told what they’ve done wrong.

Even if we try to keep an open mind, negative feedback can lead to counter-criticism and argument that ruins relationship communication. In fact, often, poor communication between couples leads to blaming, fights, and damage to the relationship.

It’s difficult to tell your partner that you’re bothered or irritated about something they’re doing or not doing without causing hurt feelings. But it’s possible to give negative feedback that is effective in changing behavior without causing your partner to counter-attack, retreat, or just cave in.

It’s a skill that takes time to learn but is worth the time and effort.

Giving some thought to the following suggestions before telling your partner what’s bugging you can make your communication more effective.

Talk About Behavior, Not Personality

It’s easy to assume that the behavior you’re complaining about denotes a flaw in your partner’s character. Be clear in your own mind that you’re upset about what your partner did, not their whole personality.

If your partner is to hear what you’re asking them to do, they need to feel cared for and respected. If you can maintain a loving attitude, you’ll make it easier for them to listen.

Don’t generalize about their personality: “You’re such a slob!” Instead, focus on the behavior that bothers you. “It really bugs me when you leave your dirty clothes on the floor.”

Focus on How the Behavior Affects You

When you ask your partner to change their behavior, it helps if you focus on how the behavior makes you feel. Your partner probably didn’t intend to upset you.

Use “I” language. “I worry when you don’t let me know you’ll be home late. Can you make a note to call me next time?”

Be Specific

As mentioned above, generalizing is not helpful. Instead, tell your partner exactly what you’re upset about. Not, “I can’t rely on you,” but, “The babysitter told me that you were late picking the kids up today. It’s really important that we stick to the schedule.”

Ask for cooperation. “What can you do to be sure to get there on time?” Give your partner a chance to respond.

Describe what you want to change. Instead of commanding, “Stop ignoring me,” suggest a specific solution. “I feel loved and respected when you look at me when we’re talking.”

Stick to the Present

If you want your partner to react positively, don’t bring up the past. Focus on the issue at hand. And once you’ve made your point, don’t go on and on about it. Keep your comments short and sweet.

Consider: “Am I the Problem?”

Stay open to the possibility that you may be overreacting. Learn to tell the difference between irritations you can let go of and problems worth complaining about.

Pick a Neutral Place and Time

It’s not a good idea to bring up an issue when you’re angry. Find a place and time to have this discussion when neither of you is in a hurry or tired or hungry.

For the discussion to end happily, both partners need to be relaxed and ready to talk. Ask for your partner’s full attention. Turn off the TV. Then, be calm and careful in what you say and be ready to listen and respond to what you hear.

Giving your partner the option of having this discussion at another time is a good idea. Insisting on a critical discussion when your partner is tired or down is not likely to work well.

Make a Habit of Giving Positive Feedback

Telling your partner what they do right on a regular basis will make it easier for them to listen when you have a complaint. Positive feedback fuels growth. Couples who give compliments when they’re deserved establish a pattern of good relationship communication.

Like anybody else, your partner will tend to brush off positive comments that are merely sandwiched in with negative feedback.

Make some Ground Rules

Ground rules for relationship communication should include a few basics. No yelling, no name-calling. Couples who treat each other with respect are less likely to get into arguments that escalate. So, avoid sarcasm, insults, and, of course, violence.

Threats are counterproductive. You gain nothing by threatening to retaliate, get playback, a divorce, or take the children away. Relationship communication requires cooperation, not power plays.

Couples who learn to air complaints and give negative feedback in a loving and positive way can change in ways that nourish their relationship. Negative feedback can be a gift when it improves communication instead of breaking it down.

Relationships grow stronger when partners understand how the other partner feels about their behavior. Yes, negative feedback can improve relationship communication if you take care to give it in positive ways.

If you would like more information about relationship communication, please click here: Couples Counseling.