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Is Criticism Killing Your Relationship?

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Is Criticism Killing Your Relationship?


Why can’t you do this right? Why did you not do this? Why do you always/never do something? Criticism in relationships occurs when we focus on our partner's flaws and pass judgment. It is expressed through disapproving, critiquing, correcting, blaming, nitpicking, or fixing. Constant criticism is not constructive, encouraging, or inspiring.


First, Let’s review some examples of what criticism looks like in relationships. 


Kayla and Chris were running late to a dinner party. “Why can’t you ever be on time?” Kayla questioned Chris. I’m so tired of always being late for everything, why didn’t you get ready when I asked you? Chris stayed silent as he drove the car. “No, don’t take that road. Take the other road; it’s faster.” Kayla said, pointing at the road she wanted Chris to take. “You must not mind being rude to everyone, Chris, because that’s how It comes off when you’re always late.”


Let’s look at another example of how criticism can play out in a relationship. 


“This food is the absolute worst for you. You are always eating complete junk and then complaining about how you feel after”, Rob said to his GF Julie. “Why didn’t you grab an apple instead of potato chips?” Julie shrugged as she ate her chips. Her nonchalance only aggravated Rob more. You’re the one who asked me to help you be healthy, and how can I help you when you never get off that couch and always eat like crap. 


Ouch, that hurts! Alright…


Let’s look at some common one-liner criticism that couples often tell each other 

  • You never ask me about my day anymore. It’s obvious you don’t care.

  • You never initiate sex anymore; we are headed toward a sexless marriage. 

  • You’re so selfish; it’s always about you. 

  • No, don’t do it like that! Why would you do it that way? This way is better. 

  • Why do you have those pics up on Instagram? You’re just hungry for attention. 

  • Ha, that’s a joke! You’re not making nearly enough money to support a family. 

  • All you do is work; you never spend time with me anymore. 

  • All you want to do is party and act like you’re single. You’re not meant to be in a relationship. 


Did any of these statements help your relationship improve, help you focus on the problem, or add any benefit to the relationship or person you’re speaking to? Not at all; if anything, it just brought you ten steps back, and more than likely, your partner decided to ignore you even further. 


These are all examples of being critical of your partner. Can you find any repeating patterns in the examples we went through? In each statement or question, one partner is attacking or blaming the other person, thus making them the sole contributor to the issue. Why do we do this to the people we deeply love and care about? Well, the people closest to us can hurt us the most, and we often resort to criticism as a form of self-protection. It’s much easier to attack our partner by telling them they are the issue rather than dropping into vulnerability and saying, “My needs aren’t being met; can you help me.” Also, if you grew up with hyper-critical parents, who were doing their best to raise you but didn’t have tools to offer advice and complaints in a way that didn’t personally attack your character, you most likely picked up the pattern as a child. And if you were overly criticized or nitpicked as a child, you most likely are sensitive to it as an adult. You have built defense mechanisms to stop perceived negative judgments from getting too close to your sense of self, or maybe you take it very personally and are highly triggered by them, which sends you into a downward spiral. 


Negative judgments we receive as adults can automatically remind us of the inadequacies we so keenly felt when criticized as a child; this is why it causes so much emotional distress for some. Criticism from the ones we trust and love can drop us back into helpless child mode and make us feel like we’re not enough. No matter how hard we try, we can’t escape not being enough, whether it was to our parents when we were children or our partner as an adult. 


Our critical side comes out in heated moments of frustration and anger and can often be a stress response, therefore, making it a challenging habit to break. However, after you discover the harm that it causes your partner, this may be the motivation you need to reconsider. Criticism beats your partner’s self-esteem and self-worth down. The critical words cut deep and are not easily forgotten or forgiven. It’s like if you took an arbitrary bat and used your partner’s self-esteem as a piñata. Except for there’s no candy surprise in the middle, just more pain. Criticism can make your partner question their value as a person, shake their confidence to the core, and eventually make them feel like they can’t do anything right. Being critical of your partner will erode trust. They will, at some point, begin to fight back against the negative words and images that you portray them as and build a wall for protection and distance. Frequent criticism feels like a betrayal because it violates the belief that your partner is safe in the relationship. It belittles your partner while making you seem superior, which causes a power imbalance in the relationship. And lastly, it’s not effective in getting your partner to change. Quite the opposite, they’ll either hide what they’re doing or throw their guard up because criticism triggers defensiveness, and nobody is open to listening when they feel like they’re being attacked. 


Lastly, suppose you frequently lash out and criticize your partner no matter what they do (for how they dress, their sex drive, their job, their family and friends, or an aspect of their personality like their sensitivity, for example). In that case, it could be a sign of emotional abuse.


Criticizing is an interesting habit because it may not appear to be a problem with anyone else but your partner. The closer we are to a person, the more we see their flaws and weaknesses, especially when we live with our partner or spend most of our free time with them. 


Over time we get annoyed, our patience wears thin, and our self-restraint weakens. We pick up on things our partners do because we are consistently there, watching, observing, benefiting, or being inconvenienced by them. For example, your tipsy gregarious friend is super fun to be around when you’re out, but you see the worried look in his partner’s eyes, and you hear her asking him not to get too drunk this time. She is mainly the one who is inconvenienced and feels responsible for taking care of him when you go home; therefore, you don’t feel the need to criticize, even though you’ve noticed some off-putting behavior. You can just let go and let God. We can usually keep our adverse reactions and criticism in check with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and others. We don’t see them every day, can take a break until our irritation wears off, or their behavior doesn’t affect us personally. But those with criticism in relationships often do not give their partner similar restraint and respect. Because they're worn down, resentful, hurt, and criticism has snuck its way into becoming a bad communication habit in the relationship. This concept has confused me in the past when I’ve been called out for being critical of my partner. My defense would be that nobody else, my friends or family, would say that about me, so you must be viewing me incorrectly. Now, I know that, of course, they don’t see it; they aren’t there all the time like a partner would be. Therefore they wouldn’t see the same habits as a partner would. So, just because other people don’t see what your partner does, doesn’t invalidate how your partner is feeling. 


So, where did you go wrong? When did criticism creep into your relationship, and why has your relationship suddenly become a war zone, a battlefield of who is the most right, or who is the one at blame? We love our partners, so what clicks inside us to suddenly start verbally attacking our partners? Unfortunately, our brains are wired with a negative bias, meaning out of all the things going right in the relationship, we put more weight on things that are not. Think about the news; they don’t talk about all the pleasant things happening in the world; no, they focus on the bad stuff because they know how addicting it is for the human mind. When there is no problem, as humans, we have a knack for creating one or narrowing in on the imperfections rather than scoping at and seeing our partners as whole people. The brain’s wired first and foremost for war rather than love. Its primary function is to ensure we survive as individuals and as a species, and it is very, very good at this. We can change this in our relationship by choosing to create new neural pathways, laying our ego aside, and choosing to love instead of war within the relationship. After all, underneath criticism is a real vulnerability, a softer underbelly, a scared child wishing to have their needs fulfilled but without a gentle technique on how to do it.


For a long time, I struggled with this concept of criticism. I didn’t understand how I could voice a concern without being critical, so then I wouldn’t voice any concerns, but energy has to go somewhere, and then I would come out as passive-aggressive. My point is there is no way around learning how to voice a concern in a manner that allows you to own your feelings and speak about what needs aren’t being met. This is something we all have to learn or re-learn in order to be in a healthy relationship. Because our partners aren’t going to be perfect all the time, and neither are we. 


So how do we voice a concern or “complain,” and how is that different than criticizing?


  1. Express how you feel

    1. Begin with I feel (emotion), 

    2. Stay away from “You” statements

    3. Stay away from generalizing by using “always” or “never”

    4. Stay away from “You don’t”

  2. About a specific situation

    1. Be specific about the situation and the behavior that caused you to feel discomfort

  3. Create a positive action step on how your partner can solve your need. 



Let’s go through some examples of criticism vs. complaint. 


Remember, criticism is about placing judgment + shame on another person. You are picking at their character, not the real issue. 


Criticism = All you do is sit on your phone and scroll

Complaint = I feel disconnected from you when you are on your phone. I need us to make time for each other. 


Criticism = You never pay attention to me anymore.

Complaint = I feel ignored when I come home, and you’re focused on video games. I would like to schedule some one-on-one dates together. 


Criticism = You’re a workaholic; you’ve stopped caring about the relationship. 

Complaint = I feel unloved when I have to be alone so much when you work late at night. I would like to create intentional time to connect.


Criticism = The world revolves around you. You always have to win every argument. 

Complaint = I feel upset when you interrupt me during arguments. Can you give me space to express myself and actively listen? 


Criticism = You never help with anything. 

Complaint = I’m overwhelmed in this current environment. I need your help. 


Criticism = It’s always about what you want to do. 

Complaint = I feel voiceless when you don’t ask my opinion. I need to have a voice in this partnership. 


Instead of you don’t statements: 


Couples who are satisfied with their relationships don’t lack things to complain about. They’ve discovered how to complain without criticizing, keep their issues with each other in perspective and offer solutions to the issue at hand. 


Remember, it’s easy to criticize; it’s much more thoughtful to tell your partner how you’re feeling and what you desire from them. “Your criticism is a wish disguised,” Brittle wrote in a blog post. “It’s a negative expression of a real need. What if you took responsibility for what you really desire for the relationship? What if you owned the wish and committed to articulating it as a positive hope?” Focus on what you want from your partner instead of what you don’t want. Be respectful with your requests. As they say: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. 


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