Effectively Dealing with Criticism from Your Spouse

Is the way you are responding to your spouse’s criticism building your relationship or is it actually encouraging your spouse to criticize you more?

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

Criticism is by far the most destructive behavior that can happen in our relationships. It is one of the eight deadly needy behaviors that make relationships deteriorate by causing people to fall out of love. It also contributes to the temptation to have an affair for the person criticized since they are getting rejection rather than validation from their spouse. However, handled correctly, criticism from your spouse can also be an opportunity for building your relationship.

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 the cold shoulder treatment.

Examples:

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,” 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?

How this makes you feel

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 and that some part of you is not acceptable–not good enough–for him or her.  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 would 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, 
  2. expressing a need that they have, or
  3. trying to help you to have more success, or
  4. trying to provoke you.

The problem with criticism

Because criticism will make you feel unloved and not good enough, it will not stimulate the changes that your spouse wants. Even if you do make the changes that your spouse is wanting, you are more likely to feel resentful rather than appreciative. It can seem that your spouse only notices problems with you, especially if you mainly hear criticism and very few good comments about what he or she likes about you.

Giving in to criticism is destructive

If you respond to criticism by making the change your spouse wants, it likely to lead to even more criticism as your spouse will be rewarded by your making this change. If you have tried to reduce criticism by making such changes, you will likely feel that your spouse is always finding things that you need to change.  That you are just not good enough for him or her and never will be. If you have lived with this for years, it may be very easy for you to become attracted to anyone who make you feel like he or she likes you as you are. Emotional affairs often start that way.

Defending yourself or attacking your criticizing spouse is also destructive

If you respond to criticism by explaining why you do the things the way you do, that is not likely to end the criticism.  All it will do is to increase conflict with your spouse.  You will be putting your need to do things your way against his or her need for you to change:

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

You: Often 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….

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. 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. If you can find something to agree with about your spouse’s criticism, you will promote connection. At the same time, however, you want to avoid making the change that your spouse is wanting because that would just encourage your spouse to criticize you more:

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

You: Too often it does take me over an hour to get back to you.

No further explanation is necessary unless your spouse asks for one.  Explaining before you are asked is another needy behavior that does more harm than good and is not likely to be well received by your spouse. Notice in the example that you are agreeing without apologizing or promising to make any changes.

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.

This example uses empathy rather than agreement to accomplish the same purpose–to validate your spouse (thus building connection) without apologizing or making promises to change (which would reward the behavior or criticizing).

Why this method of dealing with criticism works

Apologizing, promising, or even arguing with criticism gives your spouse more power. Power to change you or to provoke you. Power is a real concept in relationships and is a basic human need.  We all want to feel in control of our environment. We do things that make us feel more powerful and avoid things which make us feel less powerful. Power is good when it used to create and enhance.  It is bad when it is used to destroy and corrupt. When people feel ineffective in their ability to use power in a good way, they will use it in a bad way. A person who is stressed by their job may come home and criticize their spouse or kick the cat. They cope with their sense of powerlessness at work by using their power to provoke at home. If you can agree or empathize with the criticism, you will not be provoked. And by not apologizing or promising to change, you are not giving power to your spouse–not rewarding him or her for the inappropriate use of power.

Making necessary changes in the way you deal with criticism from your spouse

Whenever making any kind of behavioral change, it won’t feel natural.  You will still have a great deal of desire to continue to do whatever you are used to, whether that is counter-attacking or withdrawing. 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.

Your spouse may still have a point

If your spouse’s criticisms are legitimate, work on making the desired changes. However, don’t apologize or promise to work on the changes–just do it. The result of these combined actions will be to improve your relationship by reducing or eliminating your spouse’s criticism. It will also help you to make changes that are important for your relationship.

Many other ways to use agreement to end damaging behaviors in your relationship can be found in my book, Connecting through Yes!” which is available in paperback, Kindle, and audio formats.

 

 

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