Articles by Alex Ryder, Couple's counselling

My partner is constantly criticising me. What do I do?

If you are being regularly criticised in your relationship you might be feeling hurt, demoralised and downtrodden.

 

In fact, it is very likely you’ve distanced yourself from your partner by stonewalling, or being less loving towards them in order to help offset some of their hurtful comments.

When criticism is a regular occurrence in a relationship, the longevity of the relationship is immediately in question.

We know from numerous studies that criticism impacts couples negatively in terms of intimacy, connection and feelings of closeness. It also starts a cycle that results in defensiveness and stonewalling, followed by more criticism. So when criticism is present between a couple who have come for couples counselling, we immediately put strategies in place to limit criticism and rebuild the relationship.

Criticism might occur in a relationship for the following reasons:

  • One partner is experiencing self-criticism and/or feelings of inadequacy – which they then transfer or express towards the other person.
  • One partner hopes criticism will help change behaviours in the other. This never works.
  • It’s become such an entrenched habit that one or both partners don’t even fully realise the extent to which they’re doing it.

Criticism is almost always a shared problem in a relationship. Here are some strategies that we use in marriage counselling to help break the cycle of criticism.

  1. Engage – try to connect with your partner when they are communicating with you. Become involved with what they are saying. Put your phone or computer away for 5 minutes and engage with them.
  1. Delay your response – criticism hurts when it touches a soft spot and we then become defensive. Try to take a breath and delay your response. Avoid defensiveness by acknowledging your part in what is going on. You are at the very least responsible for your response. But try to take responsibility for all parts of your involvement in the issue.
  1. Review your behaviour – if you are consistently being criticised for the same thing, it is likely there is a valid reason. For the sake of the relationship it might be smart to consider changing that behaviour.
  1. Use an “I” statement – an “I” statement comments on your experience of your partner’s behaviour. It avoids criticism and defensiveness and helps break the cycle of criticism.
  • An example of an “I” statement might be: “I feel like you don’t respect me when you are late”. Notice that you are the subject of the statement.
  • The alternative of “You are always late. It is so rude” is likely to make the other person defensive and escalate the cycle of criticism.
  1. Recognise how you cope with criticism – are you distancing from your partner? Are you distracting yourself or checking out? Are you drinking more? These ways of coping will escalate the cycle of criticism. Try to recognise how you cope and reduce this by staying present, and talking to your partner about the impact of criticism.
  1. Top up your relationship capital – On average, it takes 5 loving comments or gestures to offset a single hurtful criticism[1]. So when criticism is present, it is crucial to top up your relationship.
    1. Tell your partner you appreciate them.
    2. Cook them a special dinner.
    3. Thank them when they do something around the house.
    4. Leave them a note to say you love them.
    5. Smile at them and laugh together.
    6. Tell your partner what you respect about them.
    7. Take them on a date.
  1. Don’t confuse opinions with facts – remember that your way is not necessarily better than your partner’s way. Most of your comments are your opinions, not facts. Let your partner know that you recognise this distinction.
  1. Notice your self-talk – If you find yourself constantly criticising yourself, then consider getting the support of a counsellor. Life does not need to involve constant suffering. When you suffer, your relationship will suffer.

You will need to work together with your partner or a couple’s counsellor to reduce criticism in your relationship. If you are being criticised, help your partner understand the feelings it evokes and how hurtful it is. Do not blame them or become defensive.

If you find yourself criticising your partner it is important you try particularly hard to top up the relationship by acknowledging the things you appreciate in your partner. This is crucial because many people are unaware of how much they criticise. There needs to be mindfulness work around the criticism to stop it, and extra effort to top up the relationship.

If constant, damaging criticism is present in your relationship, Sydney Couple and Family Specialists can help. You’ll learn skills and strategies, in a supported way, to help you break the criticism cycle and get back to a healthier, loving place together.

Contact Sydney Couples and Family Specialists on 02 8968 9397.

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[1] Gottman, J. M. (1993). A theory of marital dissolution and stability. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 57–75.

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