You might be too critical of your spouse and not know it. You probably think you’re providing “feedback,” or “constructive criticism.” But from your spouse’s point of view, you’re too negative.
Criticism often creeps into marriages unnoticed at first. It’s likely to have been present before a couple’s wedding day. It escaped notice because it hid in the shadows of the couple’s infatuation with each other’s positive attributes. As couples settle in and begin to notice each other’s less admirable traits, then criticism seems to appear from out of nowhere.
Criticism is often offered with good intentions but seldom received that way. Husbands and wives often criticize each other, but not equally. Two-thirds of all men feel criticized by their women, compared to one-half of all women who feel criticized by their men. That’s a finding from The Normal Bar survey, conducted of 100,000 people around the world.
Jimmy and Tina Stark (not their real names) of Portland, Oregon, began to experience problems with criticism during their first year of marriage. Tina thought she was helping Jimmy be a better person by pointing out his mistakes, failures, and things she thought he could improve.
For example, Jimmy had accidentally overdrawn their joint checking account. After that, Tina reminded him of his mistake near the end of each month. “Don’t forget to check the balance,” she’d say. “You don’t want to get us in trouble with the bank again.”
When Jimmy said he needed to lose a few pounds around his waist, Tina thought he’d welcome her comments on the fat content of his food choices. “You shouldn’t eat that blueberry muffin,” she said. “It has 32 grams of fat that will add inches to your tummy.”
The tipping point came one day as Tina sorted through the day’s mail on the kitchen counter. “Your hunting magazine arrived. Yesterday it was your golf magazine. The day before that, it was something else. You don’t need all these magazines, Jimmy. You don’t read them. They just pile up and gather dust on your nightstand. You need to decide which ones you’re going to read and unsubscribe from the rest. It’s such a waste of money.”
Jimmy sat up in his recliner. He’d been relaxing after a stressful day at work where he’d started a new project with a tight turnaround time. Tina could see his face contorted into an angry frown. “Tina, just shut up!” Jimmy shouted. “Do you realize that almost everything you say to me is a negative commentary on something I do? You’re too critical! I’m tired of it! What’s wrong with you?”
Tina broke into tears. She hadn’t realized the effect her comments had been having on Jimmy. She apologized and promised to be better. Tina tried for several weeks to offer her feedback in a way that Jimmy would welcome it. But as Tina tried to do better she discovered she didn’t know how.
After Jimmy had a few more angry blow-ups in response to her comments, they decided they needed help. Together they visited a marriage counselor for six weeks to learn how to communicate more effectively.
If criticism isn’t reigned in and replaced with more effective ways of communicating, It can erode marital satisfaction until a couple would rather be anywhere else but with each other. It can also spark defensiveness and contempt, like that expressed by Jimmy’s angry reactions. These are also poisonous ingredients to a relationship.
From their counselor, Tina and Jimmy learned how to use soft start-ups in place of harsh criticisms to express their concerns to each other. A soft start-up expresses curiosity by asking questions instead of accusing or expresses how one feels emotionally about a situation or issue.
Sometimes, a repair attempt is just saying, “Let’s try again.”
They also learned how to use repair attempts to avoid blowing up at each other. If one spouse responds positively to the other’s repair attempts, it lowers tension that arises during disagreements. Repair attempts are like pressing the reset button on a conversation, such as by a humorous remark, a positive comment, or a warm touch.
Sometimes, a repair attempt is just saying, “Let’s try again,” like taking a mulligan in golf.
If you’re wondering whether you’re too critical of your spouse, consider these signs as evidence that you might need to adjust your communication style:
- Your spouse says you’re too critical or makes complaints about your negative comments.
- Your spouse gets defensive or angry in response to your “feedback.”
- Your feedback includes phrases like “You should,” “You did,” “You always,” “You never.”
- You often ask, “Why didn’t you …” which is often used as an accusation, rather than to express genuine curiosity.
- Your comments focus on what’s wrong with your spouse or his behavior.
If after reading this list you suspect you’ve been too critical, consider offering a sincere apology to your spouse. Ask her how you could offer your feedback or advice in a way she’d appreciate. Don’t give up if you can’t work out a solution on your own, or with the help of a good book like John Gottman’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” Consider visiting with a good marriage counselor who can help you and your spouse learn better communication skills.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”