How do you deal with an overly critical spouse and what does one look like? Arguably, one of the greatest examples comes from the 1970’s sitcom, All in the Family.
Poor Edith Bunker never had a chance against her bigoted, judgmental, and critical husband, Archie, but fortunately for Edith, Archie was just fictional. Unfortunately, many others are not so lucky, as they deal day in and day out with their own, real life Archie Bunkers.
What It Means When Your Spouse is Hypercritical
Criticism refers to an overzealous inclination to relentlessly nitpick and pass judgment onto others. Criticism threatens self-esteem, self-confidence, and an overall sense of well being, but is especially menacing when it occurs within a marriage.
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.
Marriage is a universal symbol of unconditional love, unwavering support, and wholehearted acceptance.
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. When a spouse is consistently hypercritical, it points to significant fractures within the relationship.
Hypercriticism in Marriage Explained: The Toll it Takes On Your Marriage
Hypercriticism is unwarranted, malicious, and portrayed in the majority of a couple’s interactions. Hypercriticism targets inherent personality characteristics instead of situational behaviors, thus blaming the person for who they are rather than what they are doing.
Hypercriticism is not solution focused and instead, disparaging and narrow minded. Hypercriticism usually begins on a small scale and progressively escalates as time progresses.
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.
Hypercritical spouses use their criticism and reactivity as a defense mechanism, especially when they feel threatened or devalued themselves.
Critical individuals often have a history of being criticized themselves in early childhood, which eventually incorporates into their budding self-concept and sense of identity. Critical spouses are often just as hard on themselves as they are on their partners, but are coercive and seek control.
Individuals can be hypercritical for several reasons, as it can be a learned mechanism for coping with distress, a perfunctory reaction to anticipated rejection, or a misinterpretation of being attacked by their spouse.
3 Ways to Cope With a Critical Spouse
When Archie Bunker told Edith to “dummy up” or to “stifle yourself”, Edith coped by being quiet and nonreactive.
When Archie was judgmental towards others, Edith attempted to reprimand him, although never censured him when judgment was directed towards her.
When Archie would call Edith a “dingbat” for her flighty and simple ways, Edith would not curse or fire back at him.
In the entire series, Edith only snapped back at Archie a handful of times and remained fiercely loyal. Although fictional, it is interesting to consider Edith Bunker’s mechanism of coping for self-preservation and for the sake of her marriage.
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 spouse, 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.
Edith Bunker was always portrayed as flighty and undereducated, but also jovial and loving. How did she stay so positive, loyal, and cheerful when her partner was constantly referring to her as a “dingbat?” How do real life spouses cope with a critical spouse in an effort to save themselves along with their marriage?
Way #1: Gain Understanding of Why Your Spouse is So Critical
It is difficult to address what we do not understand and important to gain insight and understanding into why your spouse is the way that they are.
What caused your spouse to be so critical? Were they born with the inherent tendency to be controlling? Was it something that they were exposed to during childhood? Was it something that became ingrained from romantic relationships along the way?
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 rejection of the self.
A child that is consistently criticized will begin to equate themselves as 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.
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.
Way #2: Gain Insight Into How Your Spouse’s Criticism Impacts You
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, or 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.
How to Persevere Through Constant Criticism
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, 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.
Way #3: 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 the criticism. Instead, individuals react by either going back at their partner, or by retreating away from them.
Gottman describes contempt as the process where individuals ridicule and berate each other, often leading into 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.
How to Communicate to a Critical Husband or Wife
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. 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. For Edith Bunker, it would be at this point that she would walk away when Archie calls her a “dingbat.”
If the relationship is already in trouble, improving communication on your own might be difficult, especially if the criticism has been going on for quite some time. You might be at the point where you are unsure of how to improve communication, or you may be in the place where you do not have the energy to do so.
Couples Counseling and Therapy
Couples counseling can be extremely helpful in assisting a couple to improve negative communication patterns, as a neutral third party can identify issues and assist a couple in working through them.
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 understanding of how they became critical along with added support on how to stop and the criticized may need help in forgiving, healing, and moving forward.
Wrapping Up An Overly Critical Spouse
Archie and Edith Bunker were fictional characters that played out the dynamics of a hypercritical partner for all of America to see. Or so we thought… Norman Lear later admitted that Archie Bunker was actually a representation of his real-life father, Herman Lear and that relationship dynamics on the show were an actual portrayal of how his father treated his mother.
The character of Edith Bunker was not based on his real-life mother, who was also highly critical, but perhaps was the type of mother that Lear secretly desired. Possibly, Lear envisioned a matriarch that was more jovial, wise, and easygoing.
Dealing with real life Archie Bunkers can be extremely challenging and destructive to any marriage. The best way to cope with hypercritical spouses is to understand them, to understand yourself, and to improve the communication between you.
It can be speculated that All in the Family was an outlet that Norman Lear utilized to improve and understand him. In addition to being an America classic, this sitcom can also be thought of as a real-life example of how Norman Lear took the pain of growing up in a critical household and re-shaped it into a success story.