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Judgment is the ultimate relationship destroyer. It is the key to creating a rift so wide that the relationship issues might get to the point of unresolvable.

Once you reach that stage, there’s no turning back. This episode lays out some key factors in helping the judgmental person become self-aware and change their behavior before they completely destroy the relationship.

Transcription follows

I talk a lot about the difficulties we have in relationships and one of the difficulties can be something I’m going to talk about today, which is judgment.

In most of my relationships, I was a very judgmental person. In fact, I wrote an article about it where I talk about judgment being the “ultimate relationship destroyer”. It sounds like a movie title but those words were really true: Every single romantic relationship in my life up until the one I am in now suffered from my judgments.

In my early 40s, I started realizing maybe I have a problem and that maybe I’m the common denominator for all the breakups that are happening in my life. I decided that maybe it was something I need to look at. So I decided to.

It was around the time my wife and I were getting separated in hopes of taking some time apart so we could work on ourselves, then come back together as better people.  We both agreed that would be best at the time.

After we separated, I was able to reflect on what I was doing and realize that my high judgment of her was really affecting us. It was causing a huge rift. I would come home and, if she was not doing something that I wanted her to do, or doing something that I didn’t want her to do, I would be a jerk. I wouldn’t even be outwardly a jerk; I would give her the silent treatment.

The silent treatment can be just as awful as being yelled at, if not worse sometimes. At least when you’re being yelled at, it’s on the table; you can work with it, you can hear the words that the other person is saying and work with those words.

But silence is interpretable. It’s one of those things where you have no understanding of what’s going on in the other person and they’re withdrawing connection, they’re withdrawing love, they’re withdrawing any type of feedback. They’re just checked out – not from the world – but from you. They’re checked out from you.

When you’re connected and intimate with someone for a good period of time, that disconnect can feel like someone ripping your heart out. You can think “What did I do wrong? What am I doing to cause this?” and then you will feel guilty.

Often, the silent treatment makes you feel guilty when it happens to you because you think you caused it, you think you wounded them and they’re in some form of protection now from you. When you give someone the silent treatment, or someone gives it to you, it can be just as bad as some of the other things I talk about.

The silent treatment is an awful feeling, and I’m not talking about processing time. You can have processing time to figure out what just happened – “Why do we just argue about that, and why am I so angry about it?” – but the silent treatment in the way I’m talking about it is when there seems to be an intentional withdrawing of love and affection and connection and attention so that the other person understands how hurtful they’re being.

They may not be being hurtful, the person doing the silent treatment may just do it as a control device. It usually is a control device or control mechanism. They usually do it to control you in some way. I hate to say that if you’re the person that does the silent treatment, there’s something that you want to change about the person you’re doing it with so that they understand what they did to you, even if they didn’t really do anything.

Sometimes the silent treatment is used to continue controlling the other person. If you’re doing the silent treatment, you know if they’re in that guilty, feeling bad about what they did state because of your silent treatment because you understand the response to the stimulus – you present the stimulus of silence, they present the response of “Oh, I feel bad, please come back.”

The person doing the silent treatment understands the results, and realizes, “Hey, I have a little bit of power here, I have a little bit of control here. If they’re feeling bad, maybe they’ll see what they’re doing and change their ways.” There’s a little bit of association with judgment because judgment happens when you want someone to change from who they are into who you want them to be.

It’s very similar when you’re silent, it’s almost a silent judgment – “I want them to change from who they are into who I want them to be” but judgment goes a little further because what’ll happen when you’re in a judgmental state is that you are imposing your values, your standards onto the other person because you don’t want to or just can’t accept who they are. What that means is, if your partner or whoever does something that you don’t like, and you want them to change, there are several ways to respond to that.

Let’s just say that your partner started going out more, meeting friends more. Maybe they do it one more night a week and it starts to bother you because it’s taking some time away from you. Or maybe you’ll appreciate that maybe having them away is a good thing, but let’s just say they’re doing something that bothers you. There are several ways to approach it.

One of the healthy ways to approach it could be “Hey, when you’re gone all these nights, I feel like we don’t have enough time together, I would like to spend more time with you. I don’t want to take your time away from your friends and stuff like that but I realize there’s not enough balance here. I’m not getting enough of you, I want more of you and I would love to be with you more so I would like to arrange some date nights for us.” That could be a healthy response and it could lead to a healthy conversation.

But what happens when you don’t feel like being that direct? This is what happens, right? We’re in a relationship and instead of being direct and expressing a need that we have – “I would like more time with you. I feel like we don’t have enough balance in our relationship and I would like to kind of even things out and then spend a little bit more time with you, but also not take away from what you’re going through now. So I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get more time together. What do you think about that?”

That’s one good way to approach it because it’s direct and it gives the other person an opportunity to respond as opposed to, “I can’t believe you’re going out again. What do you think you’re doing? What about this? What about my needs? What about that?” You could approach it that way too which I don’t think is a very productive response.

In many relationships, it can get that way all the time. Instead of having a normal, productive conversation on something, it gets to the point really quick of “Oh, really, why are you doing that?” or maybe more passive-aggressive, like, “Oh, you’re going out again…” because there’s some underlying anger in there or upset of some sort and so the other person has to fill in the blanks.

This is good to think about – “What am I doing to cause my partner to fill in the blanks?” If I say something direct, it’s hard for them to fill in the blanks, they’re hearing all the gaps filled, and they’re hearing all the connectors that are important: the connector of how you feel, the connector of why you feel that way, and what you think could be better, and what you’d like as a result of this conversation.

You’re filling in all the gaps that are usually present in things like the silent treatment – that’s the one long gap – or judgment, where you’re just mad that they’re doing something, so you say something judgmental like, “You shouldn’t hang out with that person, they’re a bad influence on you.” That’s a personal opinion and that may be true but it’s also a judgment to make them think differently. This is where we’re getting into the gray area of wanting to control the other person – “I want to make you think differently so that you don’t do the behavior that I don’t like.”

I did this so much in my marriage. There was a lot of manipulation, a lot that I didn’t even realize was harmful or bad. I just did it naturally, it was something I always did. I just wanted her to feel differently about eating junk food and so I would paint different pictures about how certain foods were bad for her.

Instead of saying directly, “Hey, when you do that, I fear this, I fear that you’re so addicted that you’re using food instead of connection with me for emotional support, I feel that you’re so addicted, that I think you’re going to gain a lot of weight and I’m not going to be attracted to you anymore” even though that was shallow and might have been a hurtful thing to say if I said it but it would have been direct at the time. That’s how I felt.

I’m not even saying that that was the right thing to say either, but I was still so indirect with my words and my comments and the looks I gave because all I wanted to do was have her come to the realization that she was hurting me.

I thought, ‘If she realized that she was hurting me, then she would change because she loves me.’ This is where emotional abuse really takes the lead. Once you are in the space of wanting to change someone in a way to make them feel bad about themselves, and they feel so bad that they’re hurting you and they will change because of that, instead of changing for themselves, now you have a repetitive pattern that usually continues in the relationship that is very hard to get out of.

Because once it happens, you have an open-door policy of it happening over and over again. What I mean by that is once you get the silent treatment the first time and it’s not addressed, then it is used as an emotional weapon over and over again, and you can just pull it out anytime you want or they can just pull it out anytime they want:

“Oh, it’s time to use the silent treatment because I want the other person to feel bad and I want to control their behavior and I want them to do something different, so here’s the silent treatment. Okay, there’s the stimulus, where’s the response? There’s the response – they’re changing, they’re feeling bad, they’re wanting more love from me, they’re wanting me to connect with them. That’s what I want. So slowly, I’ll come back, and we’ll connect.”

This creates dysfunction. This creates a repetitive cycle that happens over and over again. You end up believing ‘in order to get love, I have to be this way.’ A lot of us do these things in relationships – in any relationship, romantic, platonic friendships, family – we can make someone feel bad so that they’ll change their behavior but we may not be direct about what we want. It’s that indirect, passive-aggressive, sometimes silent treatment, or judgment that really puts the relationship in the dysfunctional space that causes problems.

The problems only get worse, even if the behavior never amplifies or increases. It’s always like, “Okay, once a month it happens,” you think that’s not a big deal. The problem is the last time it happened, trust eroded, love eroded, connection, intimacy all eroded a little bit the last time you did it and the last time before that, and the last time before that. It usually doesn’t rebuild because they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, or you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop so what you do is stay at this low level, sometimes higher level of protection, so that when you’re pushed off the cliff again, the cliff isn’t so high.

“If I take off my emotional armor, then it’s like being on a high cliff. Because once they push me, it’s going to hurt more. And if I keep my emotional armor on, I’m only going to climb up the cliff a few feet. That way, if they push me, there’s not far to fall.”

I don’t know if that’s a good analogy, but it’s the one I use. It’s the idea that it’s easier to deal with emotional stress, emotional pain if you don’t leave yourself open to attack, and full vulnerability. I believe that when you’re in a loving, healthy relationship, that 100% trust and faith and love in each other is what creates the unbreakable bond. When you can create an unbreakable bond, then there is no need to worry about someone judging you or withdrawing their love, or giving you that dirty look. You have the freedom to connect.

You don’t have to worry in the back of your mind that they’re going to one day do it again as they did it before. But when you do have that worry in the back of your mind, when there is that fear that the other shoe is going to drop, that the judgments are going to come up, that the silent treatment’s going to come up, any type of the emotionally abusive behavior that I talked about is going to come out, then you wear your emotional armor, you put that protection on. When you have that protection on, you feel safer, but not so close.

You feel safer inside so that you’re not hurt as much as you could be if you weren’t wearing it the next time something bad happens. So you wear that armor all the time and you can’t be close to the person.

I bring that up because that’s how it was in my marriage. My wife, year after year, because of my continuous pattern of judging, silent treatment, and other subtle behaviors that I did to make her feel bad, to make her feel guilty, to make her believe that she was hurting me.

It was hurting her to the point where she couldn’t be as close as she wanted to be because she realized that “Every time I get close, there’s a point where he’s going to withdraw or judge me and that hurts too much. So guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to put my emotional armor on and I’m not going to be as close or intimate with him and I’m also going to rely on other means to feel safe and warm and loved.”

For her, that was food. When I was with her, she was an emotional eater and that’s what she did. The worse I got, the worse she ate. Not only were my judgments about her emotional eating causing her to distance from me, but it was also exacerbating her emotional eating. She already knew she had a problem with emotional eating, she didn’t need me breathing down her neck about it at all. My behavior is what led to her distancing herself from me and which led to our eventual divorce.

When we separated, like I was saying earlier, that was the moment I realized, “Wait a minute, I am constantly judging her. I’m constantly withdrawing.” I finally had moments of reflection because we weren’t living together and we weren’t in each other’s space all the time. I was not influencing her thoughts, she was not influencing my thoughts. I had an opportunity to be with myself.

This is why sometimes I like to say separation is a good thing. Separation to help yourself grow out of bad behaviors, out of bad habits, out of incorrect perceptions, out of mistranslation. You pull yourself out of that state, out of that environment, and you put yourself back into a space of “How do I want my partner or my friend or my family to really feel? Do I want them to be comfortable around me? Or do I want them to be under my control?” because I don’t think those two can be in the same sentence at the same time – “I want you to be under my control and comfortable.” I just don’t think that works.

Even kids get upset when they feel like they’re being controlled. They want freedom even though they might be too young to handle it. When we’re with people and we want to control them, we take away some of their freedom, or at least we give that impression.

When my wife left and went to live in California (I lived in Oregon for a while) we were continuing to chat for months. We were talking on the phone, we were talking through video chat, and we were getting along wonderfully. But there was a point where she finally had this realization that all the times that I pulled away or I judged, and that I was continuing to want her to be a certain way, to follow my rules, to follow my standards, to follow my values. She realized that every time I did that behavior, she pulled away. Her love for me eroded.

One day while apart, we were talking and she finally said, “Look, I don’t think I’m in love with you anymore” and that was devastating to hear because I was finally reflecting and starting to heal. I was starting to understand what my behavior was doing and all this outward criticism toward her was a way for me to avoid internal healing that I needed to do, focusing on what I really wanted in life instead of controlling other people to give me what I wanted in life.

So when she said “I don’t think I’m in love with you anymore,” I said “Yeah, but let’s figure this out. Let’s go to therapy, let’s do something about it.” She said, “I’m just not there.”

I said, “So what does that mean?” She said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what it means.”

“Does that mean you want a divorce?” and she goes “Well, I don’t know.”

I finally said, “Well, is there a chance that we could work on this, that we could go to therapy, and that you could have feelings for me again?” She thought about it and finally said “No.”

I said, “Well, I guess that means divorce” and so, that was devastating.

I had a miserable time after that but I chose to really use that experience as a major stepping stone in my life toward healing because sometimes you can have an experience like this and it can devastate you and you can think “Oh, my life’s over. No more happiness, I’m unlovable, I’m unworthy.”

You can go in that direction, I absolutely get that. That’s where I went in my 20s with my first girlfriend. I was unlovable, I was never going to find happiness again and without her life is meaningless.

When we go in the other direction and decide to take responsibility for our choices in life, we can reflect in a more productive way:

  • What can I learn from this?
  • What can I do differently?
  • How can I show up differently?
  • What do I need to heal in myself so that I don’t get into a relationship that I ruin again?

I started taking responsibility for my life so that I could create something better, instead of drowning in my own misery about how awful things were. I still grieved when I thought about it as the death of my relationship because when your relationship ends, it can feel like death.

The end of a relationship can feel like the death of a relationship because it’s part of your identity that’s dying too. It’s no longer “We are doing something together.”

It’s no longer “her and I”, or “him and I”. It’s no longer us, so that part of you disappears. That part of you goes away and it’s like a part of your identity died. That part that you were so connected to, so attached to, when it’s not there, there is an empty space that it leaves behind.

That empty space, you don’t know what to put in it so you can either put your misery in there or you can put your choice to heal, your choice to grow, your choice to learn from this, and your choice to be responsible for some of the things that happened.

This doesn’t mean that you take responsibility for their behavior or for their actions. No, you take responsibility for your behavior and what you may have missed in your behavior – what red flags you may have missed, or signs that maybe you ignored.

You look at yourself because there’s a self-forgiveness process that has to happen. At the end of anything, sometimes there has to be self-forgiveness, even though the other person could have done everything wrong. I’ve had clients and listeners tell me, ‘My husband or wife cheated on me and he or she was so narcissistic and abusive. I was with him or her for 15 years’ and their partner did everything while the person who wrote to me tried to fix things, trying to make the relationship work, trying to conform, trying to adapt. And no matter what they did, it just got worse and worse and with betrayals and lies.

I look at that and say, “Yes, your partner did a lot of stuff but what did you do not to cause that stuff, not to cause them to cheat? Their lying or cheating is not your fault. That’s their fault. That’s what they’re doing.

But what did you do to keep yourself involved in a relationship that continued to hurt you, that continued to put you down, that continued to make you feel bad about yourself, continue to make you feel guilty?

What are you doing to yourself that keeps you in this situation, continually exposing yourself to this stuff?”

If I saw you at a toxic waste site, without a hazmat suit on or whatever they’re called, and you were walking around in toxic waste, I would tell you, “You need to get out of that toxic waste, it’s going to hurt you!” And if you said, “No, I think that if I just clean up this little area then I’ll have a nice space to feel good” I would look at you kind of funny, and other people would too. But you might have this perception that if you clean up this area, that everything will go well. Yet, you’re still being exposed to it.

Then let’s just say that you came to your senses one day, and you got out of the toxic waste and you went to the hospital and you got treatment, and you look back on your life and you say “Why did I stay in that toxic waste for so long? Why did I do that to myself?”

Do you know how many times I hear those words? There are two different scenarios where that question always comes up and doesn’t come up. The first scenario where it doesn’t come up is when someone’s in the situation when they’re with someone that is difficult, that is challenging, and the relationship is so hard.

What they’ll do is point the finger and say, “Why do you keep doing this to me? Why are you doing this to me? How could you do this to me?”

And then I hear from people that get out of some sort of toxic or abusive situation and their question is, “Why did I do this to myself?”

I think it’s so important to reverse this or at least take the question that when you get out of something toxic and you put that question into the relationship – “Why do I do this to me? Why do I do this to myself?”

There are people out there that may read this or listen to the show and say “Yes, that’s what I asked myself.” Then there are those that don’t.

There are those still pointing the finger asking “Why does this person do this to me?”

As long as you keep your finger pointed out there at the other person, this keeps you from doing anything for yourself. I am leading somewhere with this, it goes right back into judgment.

I said I was going to talk about judgment today. Judgment is the ultimate relationship destroyer. It is when you impose your values and your standards onto someone else because you want them to change.

If we are pointing the finger at someone else saying, “You shouldn’t do that, you should do this”… When you’re in that space, when you point at someone else and say those words, what it does is take your power away. It takes away your ability to improve yourself, to heal yourself, to grow inside.

As soon as you make someone else responsible for your happiness, your healing, and your feeling of love and connection, you release the ability to heal, help yourself and love yourself, and be free of the self-imposed chains that bind you to outcomes that are out of your control.

You cannot change anyone.

I could not change my wife, I could only make her unhappy. And every time I judged her, she became even more unhappy. Eventually, she started getting depressed. And when we separated, and she started finding herself and getting that zest for life again.

She realized, “Wow when I’m with you, I feel oppressed. I feel like I can’t be myself. But when I’m alone, I feel like I can be myself and I’m happier and I’m losing weight and I’m not emotionally eating. The way you treated me made me feel inferior, unlovable, unworthy, and never up to your standards.”

What got me out of judgment, what took me from this place of being an emotionally abusive person and onto a path of healing was the realization that instead of pointing my finger at someone else and telling them that they need to change for me, I need to be really clear on what I want for myself and walk the path that honors me.

There’s a big difference there. I’m in control of one of those things. I am in control of the path that I walk because the question that came up for me while I was going through my healing process, while I was going through my divorce was: “If she never stopped doing the things that I continue to judge her for, could I stay in this relationship? Could I stay married and be okay with it?”

My answer at that time was ‘no’ but then I went one further and said, “Okay, so you can’t accept it. If you can’t accept it, then what are you going to do about it?” and I didn’t want to continue judging her because I’m healing from that. I don’t want to go right back to that so my second thought was, “Well, I should leave her”

When that thought came to mind, I had another realization that blew me away. I thought, “What? Leave her? I don’t leave people! I always stay with them, because I want it to work out, and their love for me makes me happy, and being with them makes me happy so I can’t do that.”

So I had a dilemma. I had to ask myself “If you can’t accept who she is, then aren’t you the problem? Isn’t your lack of being able to accept who that person is the problem?”

I thought, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense because she should change. It’s healthy for her” and then my old judgments kicked back in and I had to reel myself back and tell myself “Wait, wait, wait. So you admit that you can’t accept her for who she is? Why did you marry her? Why did you ever connect with her in the first place if you can’t accept who she is? Does your definition of marriage include controlling the other person so that you’re happy and they’re not?”

I didn’t think control would make them unhappy, I thought it would make them a better person and make the relationship better too.

No. When you control someone else, it takes away their freedom, it takes away their happiness, it takes away their love, it takes away their connection, and it takes away their joy in life. When you take away someone’s joy, guess what? You don’t have a relationship anymore, you have someone that just follows the rules. If they’re just following the rules, it’s no longer a relationship, it’s no longer a partnership, it’s no longer equal.

If you are making the rules, or they’re making the rules, and you feel like you just have to follow them, just to get by, you’ll corrode love like rust. It will just be eaten away… it’ll go away.

The path out of judgment for me was looking at my behavior and every time I wanted her to change something about herself, was to instead turn that finger around, point it at myself and say, “If you don’t want someone in your life that does that, then you need to make the right choices for you, instead of trying to change them.”

I didn’t like that. I didn’t like saying that to myself. But that’s the truth. If I don’t like her behavior, then I need to change me to either accept her behavior with love or walk away.

It was scary to say that because I didn’t want to walk away and I didn’t want to accept it. I finally came to a peace in my mind of, “Yeah, I will accept it” and through all this thinking and contemplating and reflecting and trying to get through my years and years of judgmental thought processes, I came to the conclusion that I would accept her and I would stop trying to control her and stop trying to make her who I wanted her to be because I finally reached a deeper part of myself and a deeper part of love and connection, and wanted that in my life more than anything.

It became more prevalent, it became the bigger vision that I had that it was better to have someone that loved me unconditionally and that did all the things that she did and her sense of humor and so many other wonderful things, I finally came to that conclusion that this eating issue was not my issue at all, it was her issue. And if I didn’t like it, that’s my problem, not hers.

If I don’t like something that she’s doing, I can either accept it or walk away from it but it’s my responsibility. It’s my job to do it. It’s not her job to change for me. It’s either me that I need to control, or I just need to walk away and realize that this relationship is not for me.

At the time I chose to stay and accept, and she saw the changes. She saw everything happening inside of me and she loved what she was seeing in me. This was the person that she’d always wanted.

But the love was gone. The love was destroyed. And the trust was gone. She couldn’t trust that I wouldn’t someday revert back to who I was, because she didn’t have enough exposure to this new person I became and by the time she saw the new me, it was too late.

She’d been pushed too far and she was never going to remove that emotional armor around me again. She’d fallen way too many times off of way too many high cliffs and she didn’t deserve that treatment.

And she was right to leave! Because if she had stayed, I would have kept going. I wouldn’t have had time to reflect, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity, I wouldn’t have had the space to realize what I was doing and how damaging it was.

I don’t like to share this with you – that person that I was – because I was definitely not proud of him. I was definitely not proud of myself, but after the healing and the learning and growing and realizing that I was responsible for all these relationships being destroyed, I’m so happy that I’ve graduated from the school of dysfunction, at least in that area of my life.

I’m happy that I can share with you my experience of going through this so that you don’t fall into the same category because I have people from both sides of the fence writing to me, saying “Paul, I’m the abusive one, I’m the one who’s judging. I’m the one who’s controlling, I want to change that about me.”

I get that, I was there.

Then I have people on the other side telling me, “I’m being judged, I’m being controlled no matter what I do, it’s not good enough.”

I get it. I get both sides, and both sides do deserve a chance most of the time. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, they’ve gone way too far but there can only be a chance if the other person really feels bad about their behavior. If you are being judgmental or controlling and you feel bad about it, then maybe you do deserve a chance to change things around.

But it involves pointing the finger back at yourself. You know what they say, if you’re pointing one finger at someone else, you got three fingers pointing back at you and that’s where your focus needs to be. If you find yourself judging someone else because you want them to change, you need to look inward and figure out, “What do I need to change about myself in order to either A) accept who they are or B) honor myself and get away from who they are?”

There might be a C in there too but this is kind of where I’m going today is: You have to take responsibility. You have to put yourself in the space of “They are not doing this to me. I am doing this to me. They may be doing bad behavior but I continue to sweep up the toxic waste hoping I don’t get burned.”

It’s difficult, I realize sometimes you can’t get out of situations like this. Sometimes you feel very stuck. But I tell you what happens when you come to a place of accepting that’s who they are and you can’t change them:

You stop fighting it.

At least you stop resisting it. You stop being surprised when they do something bad.

And when you’re out of that space of always hoping they’ll be better, you get yourself into the space of “Well, that’s who they are and I shouldn’t expect anything more.”

When you get into that space, you reach clarity. You take out the fog and now you can take steps for yourself because you’re no longer focused on them. You’re no longer hoping they’ll change. Now you can focus on yourself and start healing.

If you’re the manipulative one or the emotionally abusive one or the judgmental one, it’s the exact same answer:

Stop focusing on them, focus on yourself so that you can start healing.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Paul Colaianni is a Behavior and Relationship Coach, and the host of The Overwhelmed Brain and Love and Abuse podcasts.

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