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Critical Spouse, How to Deal with It

How do you deal with an overly critical spouse and what does one look like?

What is a Critical Husband or Wife?

Criticism refers to an overzealous inclination to relentlessly nitpick and pass judgment on others.

Criticism threatens:

  • self-esteem
  • self-confidence
  • sense of well-being

A hypercritical, or overly critical spouse, consistently focuses on what their spouse is doing wrong, is offensive and disrespectful, and seldom has anything positive to say.  Their criticism is difficult to ignore and is exuded in their tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions.

Critical spouses use their criticism and reactivity as a defense mechanism, especially when they feel threatened or devalued.

Also, critical individuals often have a history of being criticized in early childhood, which eventually incorporates into their budding self-concept and sense of identity.

Moreover, critical spouses are often just as hard on themselves as they are on their partners, but are coercive and seek control.

Reasons Why Your Spouse is Critical

Individuals can be critical for several reasons:

  • the learned mechanism for coping with distress
  • perfunctory reaction to anticipated rejection
  • misinterpretation of being attacked by their spouse

Childhood

An individual can become well-versed in critical language if they grew up in a judgmental and disparaging childhood environment, or if they still shoulder heavy burdens of anger and resentment from that tenuous time period.

Criticism can be devastating for a child, as they do not have the cognitive or developmental ability to distinguish criticism of their behaviors from the rejection of the self.

A child that is consistently criticized will begin to equate themselves to a bad person and will begin to self-criticize, thus causing pain to themself before anyone else can do so.  Additionally, criticized children have no choice but to remain emotionally attached to the very caregivers that criticize them, as it is their only mechanism for survival.

As time goes on, the child begins to imitate what they have grown up with, as it is all that they know, and in addition to criticizing themselves, they begin to criticize others.

Past Relationships

An individual can also display unfavorable behavior if they were hurt in past relationships in an effort to protect them from further hurt.  In an uncontrollable world, spouses may criticize to control something tangible in their lives, which is obviously severely misdirected.  If they have control, they feel empowered.

When speaking about criticism, Irish poet, Oscar Wilde stated, “Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography.”

The fact of the matter is that a spouse’s criticism has more to do with their own unhappiness then with any discontent that their spouse might be causing them.

If you can gain insight into why and how your spouse became so critical, you will be better able to develop empathy and understanding of their issues and behaviors.

 Ways to Deal with a Critical Spouse

Wife Being Criticized by Husband

John Gottman, a leading researcher on marital relationships, found that criticism is a major forecaster for divorce and marriage volatility.  Gottman’s research found that criticism forecasts divorce with over 90% accuracy.

When individuals are criticized by their spouses, they either attempt to stand up for themselves or create physical distance between them.

Individuals will either hurl criticisms like tiny grenades or hide behind a ten-foot emotional wall. Even if one can manage to somehow ignore their partner’s criticisms, there is a tendency to allow criticism to quietly seep in, dismantling their self-esteem one piece at a time.

How Criticism Effects Marriage

Marriage is a universal symbol of unconditional love, unwavering support, and wholehearted acceptance.

Nevertheless, criticism is paradoxical to the very foundation of what marriage represents, as spouses are tearing each other apart instead of showing patience, judging instead of understanding, and are insolent instead of kind.

The criticized spouse often feels increasingly resentful, angry, and restricted, while the critical partner begins to feel threatened and immediately attempts to exert more control through criticism and blame.  Hypercriticism is never functional and only forces acquiescence and diminishment.

It is important to engage in self-reflection and maintain a close connection with how you are feeling.  Being criticized is like being beaten into the ground with a giant hammer, relentlessly striking you again and again into submission.  You try to remain positive and do your very best, only to be berated and picked apart at every turn.

This can be embarrassing, especially if it is done in front of your children or in front of other friends and family members.

The Connection Between Critical Spouses and Mental Health

Although difficult, a strong focus needs to center around your own self-esteem and confidence.  Now that you have some understanding of how and why your spouse became so critical, it should be easier to keep in mind that this has everything to do with them and less to do with you.

It is often said that we inflict the worst of ourselves onto the ones that we love the most.  It is challenging to be the one who is constantly fielding their spouse’s “worst”, but take comfort in the fact that the issue is not about how you take care of the kids, your appearance, or the way that the dinner came out.

When broken down to its most basic form, criticism is merely a destructive communication pattern. In order to preserve your self-esteem and confidence, you must maintain a strong sense of self.

6 Ways to Deal with Critical Spouse

Although difficult, a strong focus needs to center around your own self-esteem and confidence.  Now that you have some understanding of how and why your spouse became so critical, it should be easier to keep in mind that this has everything to do with them and less to do with you.

It is often said that we inflict the worst of ourselves onto the ones that we love the most.  It is challenging to be the one who is constantly fielding their spouse’s “worst”, but take comfort in the fact that the issue is not about how you take care of the kids, your appearance, or the way that the dinner came out.

When broken down to its most basic form, criticism is merely a destructive communication pattern. In order to preserve your self-esteem and confidence, you must maintain a strong sense of self.

1. Improve Communication With Your Spouse

John Gottman refers to criticism as the first of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, a metaphor for destructive communication styles in relationships.  Gottman states that criticism is the first and least destructive of the four horsemen, but stipulates that it can escalate into the last three, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Instead of talking things out in an assertive and productive manner, an individual chooses to express their viewpoint by berating their partner with criticism.

As you probably have guessed, criticism never works, as the one being criticized cannot hear the viewpoint, as it is cloaked and veiled under criticism.  Instead, individuals react by either going back to their partner or by retreating away from them.

Gottman describes contempt as the process where individuals ridicule and berate each other, often leading to stonewalling behaviors.  Furthermore, Gottman discussed how criticism can lead right into defensiveness, as individuals immediately become defensive while under attack and retaliate by reversing blame onto their partner.

Improving communication and enduring the process will take a lot of self-restraint and awareness.  However, instead of responding to criticism and perpetuating the cycle, take a deep breath and respond assertively.

Inform your partner that the statement is hurtful and take responsibility for your actions if you are at fault.  Try to uncover your partner’s message by looking past the criticism and acknowledge their feelings.  Stay calm, avoid screaming matches, and above all else stay respectful.  Attempt to have empathy and understanding, which may assist you in overlooking “minor” infractions.

Expect your partner to deny their critical behavior, as a hypercritical spouse is often unaware of their tendencies.  During the conversation, set strong and consistent boundaries with your spouse of what you will and will not tolerate and make them understand what the consequences will be when boundaries are violated.

For example, a consequence can be that you will immediately walk away and disengage from the conversation if your spouse begins to curse or berate you.

2. Take Charge of Your Response to Your Husband’s or Wive’s Constant Criticism

You may opt to ignore your husband/ wife if they criticize you in front of family members or in a public area where others may hear and see you. Although confrontation is essential and valuable, it must occur at the appropriate time and place.

If your significant other reprimands you in public, it is essential that you discuss what led them to do so. Is it likely that you are overreacting or that your partner is not as critical as you believe? When your critical husband makes an unintentional comment, you can often misinterpret it as constant criticism.

If your partner has publicly criticized you, it’s best to wait to discuss the issue. You may say, ” When you lectured me in the presence of your parents, I felt humiliated and angry. To avoid awkward silences the next time, I’d appreciate it if you could just bring it up with me in advance?”

3. Find Out What Changes Your Critical Husband or Wife Could Make

This is not an appropriate technique to handle a critical partner in an abusive marriage where there’s emotional abuse. However, if you and he have just recently married, you may still get acclimated to how the other person lives and works.

When my partner criticizes your actions, you may sometimes ask how they would handle the matter differently. There are no fast cures or tried-and-true strategies for dealing with a critical husband! Learning to be a married couple entails figuring out the best ways to communicate and get along with your spouse, alongside healthy boundaries.

You must take precautionary actions if they are unreasonable, show emotional abuse, or demanding since you could be in an abusive marriage. Take care of yourself since you deserve love, and it will boost your self-esteem. If you’re in an abusive marriage, seek help to get you out of the misery.

4. Seek Social Support

Your self-confidence and the amount of social support you get are highly connected. When it comes to social support, your spouse is usually (or should be) your primary source. If this isn’t the case, having many trustworthy friends and family members may assist in compensating.

Even if your partner is undermining your self-confidence and self-esteem, having a large number of others appreciate and support you may offer you greater confidence. This serves as a reminder to select enriching connections over harmful ones. The best kinds of relationships are the ones that strengthen you.

Continue to strengthen your core by doing things that you love and that make you feel good.

Have coffee with an old friend, read a book, go to the gym.  Journal your thoughts and feelings, listen to music that you love and dance.  Try new things that interest you and continue to engage in activities that you are good at.  Seek solace in the support of good friends and close family members.

Avoid isolating behaviors and take time for yourself when you need it.  Spend time with your spouse by doing positive and light-hearted activities.

5. Set Healthy Boundaries for What You Will Tolerate

If your spouse is being really offensive and showing emotional abuse through constant criticism, it is OK to leave until they have cooled down. Then you may revisit the topic. Because power is essential to them, granting the critical partner responsibility over certain. However, not all parts of the relationship are acceptable. But you must be quite precise here and set healthy boundaries!

Regardless of your husband’s motivations, you must avoid seeing their evaluations as true appraisals of your value. In other words, don’t take your spouse’s constant criticism personally, and have self-confidence. If you let their ideas impact how you view yourself, you will get low self-esteem.

 6. Get Couples Counseling and Therapy

Couple at Marriage Counseling

Couples counseling can be extremely helpful in assisting a couple to improve negative communication patterns.

Furthermore, a couple’s therapist can identify when individual therapy might be needed for either, or for both parties.  The criticizer may need assistance in gaining an understanding of how they became critical. Also, with added support on how to stop and the criticized may need help in forgiving, healing, and moving forward.

Photo of author

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS is a Licensed Professional Counselor in New Jersey, a Nationally Certified Counselor, an Approved Clinical Supervisor, and a mental health freelance writer. Tracy has fourteen years of clinical and supervisory experience in a variety of mental health settings and levels of care.

9 thoughts on “Critical Spouse, How to Deal with It”

  1. If they only knew the resentment they cause. I’m saving for my divorce at the moment because after 11 years of trying to be perfect, it appears I’m worse than in the beginning. I’m sure she will have plenty to complain about soon but I won’t be there to listen.

  2. Thank you for writing this article. My wife left me 2 months ago and I’m learning more about myself and my destructive behaviors since she left. I may be unable to save my marriage but I’m on a journey now to be a better person in general. Even if I can’t win her back I want to be the type of person she would never want to leave. The worst part is that I was so self-delusional that I did not know or believe I was this way. It took her leaving and being alone with myself to see it.

  3. I am in counseling now because I have a critical husband.He refuses to take any part in counseling and will not discuss anything with me. I feel stuck. I just don’t care as I did.

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