No one likes everything about their partner. Over time, even in the best relationships, you or your partner might become annoyed with one another. Most people get past this by not giving these little quirks too much power in our lives, and letting them go. However, when if you or your spouse are an overly critical partner, this might be a red flag.
Gottman’s “Four Horseman of Divorce” states that criticism is often the first indicator that a marriage is on the rocks. When you criticize your partner, you are implying it is something wrong with them. Criticism fails as an effective communication method because it makes both parties feel devalued. This is a dangerous pattern to fall into because neither person feels heard. Furthermore, one or both people may begin to feel bad about themselves in the presence of the other.
The Problem With Being Overly Critical
People use criticism to change or control someone else’s behavior. This form of communication is easy because it’s quick and direct; however, it damages the relationship in the long term. Criticism is most destructive when it is:
- About a personality or character, rather than a behavior
- Filled with blame
- Not focused on improvement
- Based on only one “right way” to do things
Often criticism starts relatively harmlessly in a relationship and escalates over time. Escalation can trigger the downward spiral towards resentment. The criticized person feels controlled, which causes them to pull away and shut down. The critical partner feels frustrated and steps up the criticism, creating a vicious cycle.
Identifying the Signs of a Critical Spouse
When people feel a lack of control in other areas of their life, they may feel driven to control things in their relationship. Being overly controlling and critical is not only bad for your relationship, but also your physical and mental health. The most obvious signs of an overly critical partner are:
- Constantly picking fights over things you didn’t do correctly
- Rarely complements you, or it feels forced
- Offended when you don’t do what they want
- Often feel micromanaged by your partner
- Your partner doesn’t trust you to do even simple tasks correctly
Everyone’s reason for being overly critical is different, but the core of the issue revolves around a struggle to maintain control. Often these people have been criticized as children, so they have learned to relate to others by focusing on flaws.
How to Stop Being Overly Critical
The most important thing to stop being so critical is to make sure you give feedback, rather than criticism. Critical people often believe that they are merely giving others helpful feedback. However, there are key differences between feedback and criticism.
- Criticism devalues: I guess you’re not smart enough to do this.
- Feedback encourages: I know you are dealing with a lot, but I know we can do this together.
- Criticism is coercive: You’re going to do it my way or else I … (will punish you in some way).
- Feedback is not coercive: I know we can find a solution together.
Feedback falls into one of four categories:
Positive General Feedback
Feedback like this is abstract, and although it makes us feel good, it is usually not very constructive. An example of positive general feedback would be “You’re a good person.” Positive general feedback does not refer to how someone is a good person, just that they are. Feedback like this can even be harmful because it places people into boxes, in which they might fear doing anything that might make them seem like not a good person.
Positive Specific Feedback
Positive Specific Feedback is a more valuable way to encourage certain behaviors. An example might be, “You handled that situation really well.” Positive specific feedback points to a behavior rather than an abstract or vague character trait. Also, there is no expectation that the other person behaves like this all the time.
Negative General Feedback
Negative General Feedback is the least constructive form of feedback. It does not offer specific behaviors that can be changed and only serve to invalidate the other person. An example of general negative feedback might be, “You’re being terrible.”
Negative Specific Feedback
Negative Specific Feedback is most useful when trying to change behavior. This kind of feedback indicates something you do not want to continue and explicitly names it.
Change Takes Time and Practice
If you and your partner have fallen into a cycle of criticism, it can be challenging to break because even feedback can feel like criticism if you are accustomed to it. Working to control your emotional reaction to your partner can help you form better communication patterns. With time and practice, you will learn to overcome the cycle of criticism that breeds resentment.
Other Ways to Deal with an Overly Critical Partner
If nothing else works, you might consider seeking out professional counseling services to help. Going to therapy might feel extreme, but a marriage is much easier to save when things start going wrong at the beginning, rather than waiting too long to intervene. There are a number of options, starting with couples counseling.
Couples counseling (not just for those who are married) is a good place to begin. Many couples seek out counseling to improve their relationship or to deal with a specific issue. During counseling, you’ll learn and practice better communication patterns. You will likely realize that your critical partner’s intent is likely positive, but being delivered in a destructive way. Couples counseling allows you and your partner to learn to communicate better going forwards. If you want to explore couples counseling, but are worried about the cost, check out this post about How to Find Cheap Couples Counseling near you.
Mental Health Counseling
Another option you might explore is mental health counseling – for you or your spouse. The goal here is to uncover any underlying conditions that might be informing certain behaviors. Your partner may be struggling with something unknown to you – such as anxiety, depression, or anger management. If your partner is open to it, discuss what kind of therapy to seek out. Be clear you are supportive of whatever your partner decides to do. Check out this article for more information to Help Him Start Therapy.
Post-Traumatic Stress Therapy
An unfortunate reality is that many people struggle with unprocessed trauma that affects their everyday lives. Your partner’s hypercritical behavior might have nothing to do with you, and instead is a response to a traumatic event. Post-traumatic stress therapy aims to understand how traumatic experiences impact behavioral, emotional, and physical well-being. In trauma-focused therapy, your partner can work on identifying their triggers and developing healthier coping skills. Follow this link for more information about how trauma can affect your relationship.
Having an overly critical partner weighs down a relationship and can lead to its untimely end if not kept in check. Too much criticism in a relationship is damaging because it is not focused on improvement. When people feel out of control in their lives, sometimes they feel driven to control varying aspects of their relationship. Identifying the source of the hypercritical behavior is important to resolve the issues.
Learning to offer feedback instead is key because feedback values your partner, while criticism devalues them. Practicing the different kinds of feedback will help you develop better communication patterns. If you feel like you can’t learn to do this on your own, consider seeking a counselor who can help. Depending on the source of this negative behavior, it might be helpful to consider couples counseling, mental health counseling, or even post-traumatic stress therapy.
Family Strategies Counseling & Mediation is a therapy office serving the Chicagoland Area. We offer couples counseling, individual and family therapy to the Chicago south suburbs. Our therapists are skilled at working with those who are struggling to process traumatic events. Give our office a call at (708) 798-5433 or email us a info@Family-Strategy.com for appointment details.