TELL ME ABOUT IT ®

By Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

Dear Carolyn:

My boyfriend feels that I don't handle criticism well, and I feel that when he criticizes, it is in a condescending tone. We don't bump heads that often, but when we do it often boils down to this. How do we work this one through?

Virginia

Internalize everything, concede nothing, and keep meticulous score.

No, not really. I just need to get out more.

My reflexive answer is to ask just how often he criticizes you. "You can't take criticism" happens to be what controlling people say to those who resist them. The whole world is out there to keep a person in check, and the happiest couples seem to balance that out with much-needed warmth and acceptance.

Still, even supportive mates have a right to challenge you, if you're hurting them, others or yourself. So it is important that criticism be on the list of things you both know how to address.

And the difference between good and bad criticism lies not so much in its tone as its depth. At the extremes, criticism doesn't belong in a loving relationship. If your boyfriend is picking apart the essence of your being -- and/or the way you fold towels, bag groceries and floss -- and if your response is a civilized version of "Bite me," then you're handling criticism exactly as you should.

But if his criticism is measured, constructive, infrequent and ultimately in your best interest -- pointing out, for example, that you've been eating really poorly lately or taking your stress out on other people -- then you need to put down your dukes and take heed.

Unfortunately, I have yet to see the argument where the times to stand your ground, the times to apologize and the times for a little of both are all separately bundled and marked. But, as always, just knowing what to look for is the first step toward learning to see.

Dear Carolyn:

My younger sister just got engaged. I would be happy for her, except I really don't like her fiance. He is nice enough, but seems incredibly naive, simple and uninteresting. The term "country bumpkin" comes to mind. My sister is attractive, well educated with a professional degree, as well as being worldly, sophisticated, fun and outgoing.

Unfortunately, she lives in a city that is not ethnically diverse. I think she is settling because she fears she will find nobody else, as all of her friends are now married. When I watch them together, I can't help but feel sorry for her as she has to explain to him such things as "Why do they call this a quesadilla?" "Why do they call this Muenster cheese?" Where has this guy been living for the past 30 years? What do I do? I worry this will put a barrier between us.

Distraught

Smug intolerance will do that.

The difference between "simple and uninteresting" and worldly sophistication is? An education.

And the first step toward an education is? Asking questions.

Maybe he'll never grow. But I'd rather be with someone who asks questions than someone who flaunts knowledge, and I'd rather be with someone who needs educating on the intricacies of cheese than someone who needs educating on the basics of kindness. Read into that as you please, and leave your sister alone.

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