Early on in my career as a couples therapist, I saw countless couples who would come into my office, sit on my couch, and launch in to attacks against one another. These early days highlighted that I did not know what to do with a couple who was instantly and constantly judging each other. I read some books and found some resources that were quite helpful. These efforts culminated when I found another professional offering a class on an approach to help couples to practice relating to each other based on a non-judgmental stance. It was helpful for me as a professional, but also in my own marriage.
There’s rarely a worse experience in a relationship than to feel judged by someone we deeply care about. Judgements are those beliefs about another person that suggest they are only out for themselves. Our judgements show up in our need to label things or people as good/bad, right/wrong, and worthless/worthwhile.
However, there are some benefits of judgements in life. They allow us to make quick decisions by creating manageable categories for people or objects. Our preferences can often be explained by our judgements. When dealing with inanimate objects, judgements are a well developed tool. The problem with judgements is when they are directed towards people, especially those closest to us.
Relationships cannot thrive when one or both parties are fluent in judging. When we judge, we are building our case against the other person and cease observing objectively. This posture often comes from our need to be safe. Because of this need, we will seek out threats and dangerous situations that are not safe. In close relationships, the other person can easily be seen as a threat because they are not as concerned with my safety as they are with their own.
Approaching someone with a posture of compassion takes practice, intentionality, and a great degree of selflessness. This approach will also provide the greatest hope of providing intimacy, connection, and relational safety. It is also the scariest. Compassion first requires that we are aware of our own judgements.
Once aware of a judgmental stance, ask yourself these questions:
- “What is the desired outcome of this situation?”
- “Is my judgmental posture helping or hurting me?”
- “If I were in his/her shoes, how would I feel about these judgements?”
The reality is that none of us know exactly what is happening in the others head. We can assume what their implications, motivations, and insinuations are in the statements they make, but ultimately we have to trust that they will tell us the truth. If we don’t trust that the other person is being forthright, we are going to be prone to judge.
Here are some steps to practice approaching your partner with a nonjudgmental posture. Instead of saying aloud or internally, “you just want…,” or, “you’re really saying this…,” exchange these judgmental statements with statements of preference such as, “I like,” or, “I hope,” or, “I wish.” Speak about yourself, not the other person. Ask clarifying questions that help you to see reality from the others’ perspective.
Practice letting what is, be what it is. Let the facts be the facts, don’t add emotions on top of the facts to create something bigger. For example, if a husband hears his wife say “you’re a failure!” when she reminded him for the 3rd time to take out the trash, the husband needs to tend to the reality of the situation. Take the trash out and then ask questions about her statements towards him to confirm what he heard. It might sound something like this: “When you said, ‘John, for the last time, take out the trash!’ I heard you say that I am a failure of a husband. Is that what you meant?” The wife can then clarify. Assuming that he is a failure will not do either of them any good.
Approaching others with a spirit of openness is a risky, but rewarding stance. Conversely, if we approach others with a spirit of judgment, it’s likely that we will be creating plenty of reasons for why the relationship will ultimately fail. It’s impossible to build connections when there is a fear of unnecessary judgments.