Everyone hates to be criticized. Yet, for some reason, partners feel licensed to criticize one another in ways they would not dream of with friends or colleagues. Does this mean that the old adage “intimacy breeds contempt” is true or at least can shed some light on why this happens? Most of us find that the closer we are to someone, the more we see their flaws and idiosyncrasies, and with time we get annoyed and our patience wears thin and self-restraint weakens. For example, we may find our friend, the absent minded professor endearing, but if he were our partner, no doubt his forgetfulness would have inconvenienced or even hurt us over time, and we would be tempted to lay into him about it.
If unaddressed, living with a highly critical and/or judgmental person can be one of the most detrimental relationship dynamics. Unhealthy criticism undercuts the basic cornerstones of good relationships: safety, acceptance, and approval. Regular criticism drains the vitality and spontaneity from a relationship.
What happens when a person is criticized on a regular basis? He or she runs for cover. To survive psychically, the judged partner usually crawls under a shell of self-protection. Some develop an intensely defensive personality to shield themselves from the harsh lash of the critical partner. Others hide their “authentic selves” as a protective mechanism, letting out only the part stamped “partner approved”. They may feel the need to shrink their personality to avoid criticism which can result in loss of self.
Another tactic is called “distancing” when a partner surrounds him/herself with a safe buffer zone from which he/she responds as if from afar in a polite way. Friends, work, children, exercise, social media, television, books and newspapers can serve as buffers. So can withdrawing and becoming emotionally unavailable. The partner preserves him/her “self” by building a wall to keep the critical partner away.
Another common outcome of the highly critical relationship is substance abuse. To survive emotionally, the criticized partner numbs the pain of involvement with his/her partner. Substance abuse as a coping mechanism usually leads to further deterioration of the relationship as well as a host of other serious problems.
Most of what we know about relationships, we have learned unconsciously at a very young age from our families. If we had a critical parent, we might be critical as well, or coupled with a critical person. Perhaps we employ the common survival tactics described here. Unfortunately, our early history and learned behaviors often do not encourage happy, healthy relationships.
The good news: human beings are intelligent and malleable. With knowledge and awareness, we can change and adapt.
Here’s a simple way to get started on the road to change:
For one week observe the interaction between you and your partner. Ask yourself the following questions:
-Is one of you highly critical?
-Does the critical partner complain of lack of closeness or attention?
-Does the criticized partner act remote and distant or find excuses to disengage?
-How frequent are the criticisms? Are they “justified” or petty attempts to control, demean, or change what you don’t like about your partner?
-Is the critical partner selective about criticism, choosing only what affects them and is important?
At the end of the week, if you are the “critical” partner, decide to stop your criticism. Count to 10, breathe, bite your tongue, do whatever you need to do to stop. Work at accepting your partner, even his/her annoying traits, harmless bad habits, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. You will not change your partner. I repeat, You will not change your partner. Make this your new mantra. Observe any behavior changes in your partner. Is he/she more present, lively, open or spontaneous? Does he/she interact with you more and seem more relaxed?
If you are the “criticized” partner, become aware of your coping strategy. Do you withdraw, distance, drink, work late, disappear into the TV screen? Decide to stop coping and object each time your partner criticizes you. Be brave, summon the courage, and be firm. Say words to the effect, “…my feelings get hurt when you criticize me about X or Y. I feel that you don’t even like me.” Stand up to your partner each time you hear criticism. Tell him/her how badly it makes you feel. Say with conviction: I can no longer tolerate criticism from you. Be calm and intentional. Be persistent! Everyone deserves to live in a criticism-free environment even those of us who are not perfect.
If you are struggling with your relationship, and ready to create lasting change, our intensive couples marriage retreat might be the right choice for you.