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How to Effectively Deal with Criticism from Your Spouse

Effective responding minimizes or stops criticism without making your relationship worse.

criticism and the neediness cycle
Criticism and complaining are part of the neediness cycle. You can be the one to end this cycle.

Criticism damages more relationships than any other single behavior. It is at the top of the list for needy behaviors. It causes people to fall out of love and contributes to driving spouses to seek validation outside of their marriages.

Criticism is normal in the sense that most people do it. It is unhealthy though. As a Christian I’ve never striven to do what most people do, but rather what God tells me is good to do. Each person needs to choose whether they want to be like most people or they want to do what is good.

But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, . . . But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15, NIV)

What most people say is good to do when you are criticized is to tell your spouse how it makes you feel. That teaching is wrong. In fact, telling your spouse how his or her criticism makes you feel will result in even more criticism. You can know that just by the results you will get if you do it. Try it and see. Experience is a great teacher for those with the wisdom to learn from it.

If you want to be good at relationships, you have to learn to look at the results of what you are doing and stop going by what people say you should do. Successful people never follow the majority. This is because the majority of people are not successful and spend their lives wishing they did as well as the minority.

The only thing you need to be concerned with is whether the way you are dealing with your spouse’s criticism is making things better or worse.

Learn and do what I tell you today. Then look at the results. Do the same for what other people teach. Follow the same successful methods repeatedly while discarding the unsuccessful methods and you will become good at relationships. Get out of the trap of thinking if something makes sense, it must be sensible. The Bible and experience are the only ways you can ever be sure of what is true.

To continue to use the same faulty method because it makes sense is in itself senseless. Every crazy person thinks what they do makes sense.

Modern counseling methods are based on the assumption that people are basically loving, logical, and secure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your spouse is likely insecure and self-focused, prone to defensiveness, and not very open to learning better ways of doing things. If it were not so, you would not be here.

Instead of sharing our needs and talking about problems, which brings conflict because of the very nature of people, we need to behave in a way that our spouse will enjoy us and use good boundaries so that our spouse will respect us. It is the same with raising children. It is the same with having friends. It is the same with getting along with coworkers. It is the same for every relationship.

The principles of good relationships don’t take a year of counseling to learn, so you won’t find many counselors teaching them.

Let a coach teach you how to deal with criticism in just five minutes. You don’t need to buy a thing or sign up. It’s right here, right now.

What is criticism?

Simply put, criticism is letting someone know that you don’t like something about them. This can be communicated with words, facial expressions, tone of voice, and even with silence.

People who promote criticism say it a different way. They make the poison seem sweet. They say,

  1. You need to be open and honest.
  2. You need to be assertive.
  3. You need to tell your spouse what you don’t like so he or she will behave better.

These are false teachings. False teachings sound good, but are destructive. Try it and see.

As a person who receives such negative and assertive honesty from your spouse, you know that criticism actually makes you not feel good enough for your spouse, and creates more distance in your relationship. Openness and honesty never builds relationships when expressing disapproval of someone else.

Be loving and honest, rather than open and honest, if you want to build your relationships.

Examples of criticism:

I don’t like it when I send you a text message and it takes you a long time to respond.

I don’t like it when you come home late without calling.

In these examples, the criticism is very easily identified by the words “I don’t like it,” however the same critical messages could be conveyed as questions:

Why does it take you a long time to respond to my text messages?

Why don’t you ever call and let me know when you will be coming home late?

No one likes receiving criticism. Even when the other person changes to accommodate the person who is critical, it still causes emotional distancing. If you receive such messages from your spouse, then you know that it never feels good, even if your spouse is right to not like what you do.

Rather than motivating you to respond to text messages more quickly, or to call when you are going to be late, these messages are likely to make you feel defensive and pressured. You feel like your spouse is telling you that something is wrong with you, that you are bad, and that some part of you is not acceptable–not good enough. Those messages hurt.

Another way to be criticized

There is another way your spouse may be criticizing you. That is when he or she gives you unsolicited advice such as:

If you would do it this way rather than that, you will have more success.

I think you should talk to my mother like this, rather than your usual way.

These messages, especially if they occur frequently, will give you the same feelings as the “I don’t like” messages. Your spouse has identified something in you that he or she doesn’t feel is quite good enough and needs to be improved.

Your spouse’s motivations in criticizing you

Although criticism is almost always harmful, most people do not criticize with the intention of making their relationships worse.

They are either trying to:

  1. Express their desire for a certain change in behavior that they think will improve the relationship, or
  2. expressing a need that they have, or
  3. trying to help you to have more success, or
  4. trying to feel in control.

None of those motivations are wrong. However, good motivations don’t justify bad behavior. If I didn’t mean to break your window, your window is still broken. If I didn’t mean to break your kitchen window, and then your bedroom windows, and then your bathroom window, and then your living room windows, they are still broken.

Criticism is like repeatedly smashing someone’s windows expecting a better relationship.

Behavior which is rewarded becomes stronger. This explains almost all of human behavior. If your spouse is criticizing you regularly, most likely he or she has been rewarded for that behavior–either by you or by partners in the past.

Giving in to criticism rewards criticism

If you respond to criticism by making the change your spouse wants, it becomes a very effective way for your spouse to change you. The more you give in, the more your spouse will be rewarded, and the more you will be criticized. You will never be able to make enough changes so that your spouse no longer criticizes you.

People pleasers often have very critical spouses and don’t even realize that they trained their spouses to be critical.

Explaining your actions rewards criticism

Giving unwanted explanations is another common needy behavior. There are several reasons why explanations are not helpful. In regard to criticism, explaining is not helpful because it is reactive. Your spouse has been able to provoke a reaction from you. The reward your spouse feels from this is power.

Power is a primary reinforcer and explains why many people do the destructive things they do.

Explanations very frequently lead to conflict, which further damages relationships. Here is a little example:

Spouse: I don’t like it when you take a long time to respond to my cell phone messages.

You: Sometimes, I can’t respond right away because I am in the middle of something important.

Spouse: So, I’m not important?

You: I didn’t say that….

You can guess how the argument continues from there. Explanation amplified the original criticism and turned it into a conflict. Conflicts make people feel powerful as they hurt each other with their behavior. But conflict always causes some damage that can’t be fixed. When the damage is big enough, the relationship ends.

Differences are inevitable in relationships, but conflict isn’t. It needs to be minimized with effective skills while the relationship is actively promoted.

Criticizing back rewards criticism

Criticizing back is reactive and will give your spouse a sense of power just like defending does.

Effectively responding to criticism

Effective responding in relationships has two aims:

  1. To end damaging behavior, and
  2. to build the relationship.

You will never build a relationship by arguing. That’s like trying to build a house with dynamite. Nor will you build a relationship by criticizing your spouse for criticizing you. Relationships are built though similarity and validation. Arguing creates differences; agreement and empathy create similarity. Empathy is usually the best way to deal with criticism.

Empathy is a type of validation in which you make the other person feel right about their feelings or reactions in a situation.

Many people resist empathizing because they think they will need to change if they do. That is not true.

Example:

Spouse: I don’t like it when you take a long time to respond to my cell phone messages.

You: Yeah, I think most people don’t like that.

Notice that this is a non-reactive response and so does not reward the criticism. When empathizing with a needy behavior like criticism,

  • DO NOT apologize,
  • DO NOT explain,
  • DO NOT promise to do better,
  • DO NOT make requests, and
  • DO NOT jump to action

These are all reactive behaviors and will reward your spouse for criticizing you. If you do any of these behaviors, your spouse will criticize you more and more.

Notice that this does not prevent you from making the changes your spouse wants. If your spouse has a valid point, work on changing your behavior. Don’t promise to–just do it. But not at the time you are criticized.

Another example:

Spouse: I don’t like it when you come home late without calling.

You: I really wouldn’t like that either, if I were you.

One more:

Spouse: I don’t like your hair style.

You: Yeah, a lot of people don’t like this style.

Be sure not to add any buts and turn the criticism into an argument. That would be very rewarding for your spouse who would be rewarded with power for provoking you.

People who can’t handle criticism are those who can’t admit to any personal faults or can’t stand it if others don’t agree with them.

My expectation is that my wife will not like some of the things I do and some things about me. Because it is my job to love her rather than to please her, our differences are okay with me.

If we did a good job selecting a mate, we chose someone very similar to us. Regardless of how well we did however, it’s never possible to have a mate who is identical.

A simpler method that sometimes works

There is another way to deal with criticism that I want to share with you. I don’t like it as much as the previous method because it is reactive. But if you have a hard time staying calm enough to agree or empathize it might be a method that works better for you.

Walking away when criticized

Your spouse may not like it if you walk away when criticized. In such cases it is an effective boundary when used consistently. However, some spouses will feel a sense of power by upsetting you. And, some spouses criticize to intentionally create distance in the relationship.

If you use this method consistently for a week or more and do not see a reduction in criticism, then you will need to use the non-reactive method.

Change never feels natural

Whenever making any kind of behavioral change, it won’t feel natural. You will still have a great deal of desire to continue reactive responding. You have to make yourself make this change repeatedly. When you first make it, your spouse will criticize you more. This is your spouse’s attempt to make you return to your previous behavior which gave him or her a sense of power. 

Your spouse may even say that he or she does not like you agreeing or empathizing. When you hear that, you know you are on the right track and that the criticism will stop if you can continue to validate in this way. Remember, if your spouse likes your response it is rewarding. Most of the time people continue to do bad things, it is because there is a payoff for them. Don’t be the one that provides the payoff.

How you are treated by your spouse is largely under your control for recurring behaviors. How you respond to your spouse is certainly under your control. The better you become at loving, attracting, and using good boundaries, the better your relationship will become. If you would like to work with me on these skills to effectively respond to a difficult spouse, I would be glad to help.

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