Constant Criticism: How It Erodes Marital Satisfaction and How to Cope

                     "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."

                   "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."

The old childhood playground taunt might have been true, but not when they apply to committed relationships. Words can stab like a knife, and constant criticism can feel like an emotional massacre. Lamentably, too often, spouses and committed partners feel free to relate to each other that way. Why would anyone subject their loved one to such treatment?

When you’re close to someone, you have a front row seat to all their personality quirks, deep-seated problems, and recurring mistakes. With time, self-restraint may wear thin and, before you know it, one or both of you show your annoyance more freely . . .  and more frequently.

What once evoked a mild grumble now elicits sneering, sarcasm, put-downs, and verbal attacks. In turn, repeated chronic criticism and contempt makes the receiver become hyper- vigilant and self-defensive.

They may retaliate and lash out, respond with passive-aggressive behavior, or simply withdraw.

Constant criticism undermines what we want from our closest relationships - acceptance, approval, trust, and safety – the foundation of a healthy connection. Hence, ongoing criticism can be one of the most damaging patterns in relationship dynamics.

So, what do you do when you have a partner who is hard to please? How can you cope?

Clearly, you don’t have control over your partner. 

You do, however, have control over yourself. Therefore, you possess the power to change the destructive pattern.

Start by untangling the two main issues: the criticism at hand and the frequency with which it occurs.

Coping With the Immediate Incident of Criticism

Be patient and go through the following steps repeatedly, every time you receive criticism from your partner:

  • Acknowledge the criticism - Instead of responding with defensiveness and lashing back, take a deep breath. Just acknowledge what you hear your partner say. You don't have to agree.

Criticism is frequently characterized by the words "always" and "never."  You might explore with your spouse whether this is really what they meant or is it a more specific complaint.

  • Consider the statement in perspective – Make sure the comment was aimed at you and you understood it correctly. If there’s any doubt, ask your partner to clarify what they meant. But refrain from doing so in an accusatory tone. Try to take an attitude of curiosity.

 

  • Don’t take it personally – Even when it stings, try to see it for what it is. A critical remark has often more to do with your partner’s own problems and feelings than with you. 

In his research, John Gottman and his colleagues have identified two sources of chronic criticism.

The first is self-doubt and self-criticism that is projected onto one's spouse or partner.  

The second is having an emotionally unresponsive partner.  They resort to criticism in an attempt to get a response of some kind, even if it's negative.  You might need to question yourself in this regard. 

 

  • Seek to discern the underlying need – Don’t join in the negativity. Stay calm and clear-minded. Hear more than what has been said, even if it is well hidden. Then you can actually speak to the need or complaint, not merely react to the criticism.

The criticism may actually be hiding an emotional bid for connection or affection.  

 

  • Decide to accept or reject the comment –  Now choose how to respond. If the statement had merit, you can accept the criticism and perhaps even ask how you can better meet your partner’s needs. If it has no merit, you get to reject it.

By consistently adopting this process, you can demonstrate your willingness to consider feedback. You can actually move past feeling that this is some personal battle – your partner vs you.

 

Coping With the Frequency and Effects of Criticism

Once you start dealing with the incidents of criticism effectively and begin to see positive results, you can address the frequency of the problem.

  • Confront the frequency – Make sure you choose a moment when you’re both in a calm and peaceful state. Approach your partner and state that you would ike to talk about something that’s important to you.

Point out that you have worked very hard on not reacting negatively when they criticize you. Tell them that you don’t mind taking some advice, but also ask them to consider how often this happens. Suggest that perhaps it’s time for them to be more positive and balanced as well.

  • Confront the effects – While you communicate with your partner, make them aware of the effect their constant comments has on you. Tell them that your feelings get hurt when they criticize you all the time. Give them specific examples and point out that it makes you feel like they don’t even like you. 

Allow them to hear and understand the emotional pain they cause you. State with calm and intentional clarity that you can no longer tolerate this behavior from them.

It won’t be easy talking about this issue, but if you start the conversation off positively, it will be easier to continue in the same manner. And, if you can show that you have been working on your end of the problem, it will also make it easier for your partner to start working on their part

Above all, be consistent and persistent – but always tactful and loving.