Initially, I was a little hesitant about this episode. Dealing with criticism? Sounded like it was going to be a real drain. But as we looked into the research we actually found a lot of hope, not only for you if you are on the receiving end of the criticism, but even for the critic as well.
I feel like I need to say right off the bat that we are not attempting to minimize the destructive potential of criticism in our episode today. In fact, it may even be worth checking out our mini-series on abuse as sometimes I have had women come to me just thinking their spouse is critical not realizing that there is a profound belief system in place that is fundamentally abusive.
On the flip side of that coin, there is a lot of plain misbehavior and bad attitude that gets labeled abuse that is really not abuse. And I think there is a difference between verbal abuse and emotional abuse. The first is using words to hurt someone which is something we have all done in our lives, and the second is a conscious or subconscious systematic attempt to undermine someone’s self-worth and dignity. Neither are acceptable but the latter is particularly damaging.
Today we are staying on the lighter end of the spectrum in the bad behavior category. So this is not particularly about abuse, but just about the critical rut that we or our spouse can get into and what to do about that if you’re on the receiving end.
Understanding Where the Criticism Comes From
I think the first step to creating some safe space around criticism is to actually take a step back and understand where criticism comes from. The nature of criticism is that it wants you to think there’s something wrong with you. But when you see or experience criticism I think it is worth considering where that may actually be coming from. So instead of focusing internally on yourself as the target, focus on the source.
Attribution: What is The Critic Actually Unhappy About?
Attribution is such an important piece in any marriage. The human mind naturally interprets things around it in line with its current mood and beliefs. If someone is happy, they are more likely to interpret things around them as being positive, and more likely to see positive things and ignore negative[i]. If they are unhappy, the reverse is true.
In marriage, this means that someone who is happy with their spouse and with the relationship will see lots of things to be happy about, and interpret what their spouse does in a positive way. But someone who is dissatisfied with the marriage will see more reasons to be unhappy, and interpret things in a more negative way, thus leading to negativity and criticism[ii].
The point here is to take a step back and ask yourself am I doing something upsetting or wrong or inconsiderate that I should genuinely be considering? Or are there other circumstances in our marriage or in our lives generally that are leading my spouse to be critical of me?
This is very nuanced to sort out. Let me give you a couple of examples. Your spouse may have lost his job and his dad is in the hospital with cancer and you’re receiving a lot of criticism. I’m not saying it’s OK for him to take that out on you, but you can at least make some space for your own mental well-being by acknowledging that this is about what is going on inside him emotionally and not actually about flaws in you. That’s a fairly clear example. We’ll talk about what to do in this kind of situation at the end of today’s show.
A tougher one to sort out is if the marriage is in distress. Typically both spouses have a role to play in a distressed marriage but if one spouse has poor conflict resolution skills s/he may try to correct the problem by pointing out all the perceived deficits in the other spouse. I know this may feel like a bit of a jump: but typically this is a desperate attempt to connect. The belief is that if these issues can be set aside by me pointing them out and you correcting them then we can be safe and be together. Not realizing that the way I’m trying to achieve that is driving you further from me.
Again, though, if you can look past the criticism to see the attempt to connect it may help create some room for yourself to choose to respond differently and break out of that cycle.
Mental health challenges such as symptoms of depression or anxiety can also affect the way people see and interpret the world around them. So a spouse who struggles with these issues (either diagnosed as having a mental health disorder or simply having some of the symptoms) may become highly critical due to seeing everything through a negative filter[iii].
As one example, a study in 2000[iv] found that negativity and criticism in marriage was consistently predicted by the critical spouse’s levels of anxiety.
Again, you can hold onto your own self-worth by just saying to yourself, “OK this is his anxiety speaking right now. I know Dave loves me and cherishes me.” I’m not saying you should go on to accept this kind of behavior but sometimes we just need to figure out how to hold onto ourselves while our spouse has a chance to figure out what is going on for him or her too.
Spouses may be overly critical due to having perfectionist values. Perfectionism often comes from being highly criticized or having high expectations placed on you as a child, and can also come from low self-esteem and fear of being judged/evaluated. These high standards placed on you can become your natural way of interacting with others. Having these perfectionist views about your spouse (requiring them to be perfect) will naturally lead to high levels of criticism[v].
Again, this is about recognizing that your spouse’s perfectionism is speaking. In that sense, the criticism is evidence of dysfunction within them and not within you. Recognizing this will help you hold onto your self-worth.
I hope that in us sharing these strategies you don’t become like teflon where nothing sticks. We still need to be able to receive feedback from our spouse. But this is just for those situations where there is very clearly a criticism problem going on.
The Right and Wrong Way to Citicize Your Spouse
On that note, our bonus worksheet this week is for a critical spouse. Often the reaction is, “Well, can I not say anything negative to my spouse? S/He can do whatever they want?” The answer is no: but you cannot continue the barrage of criticism either. That erodes a person’s self-esteem and has a variety of negative impacts. But if you want a way to give each other necessary feedback our bonus guide articulates the Gottman concept of a complaint versus a criticism. Very, very useful. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Impact of Criticism on Marriage
I want to briefly go over the impact that excessive or undue criticism has on marriage and on the criticized spouse.
- Lower intimacy for both spouses
- Reduced marital satisfaction for both spouses
- Reduced self-esteem and more negative self-image for the criticized spouse
- Poorer cooperation on joint tasks
- Lower marital satisfaction for both spouses
- Greater likelihood of conflict, and more use of poor conflict solving skills
- Higher rates of depressive symptoms for criticized spouse
So you can see why it is important to address this issue.
How to Protect Your Self Esteem From Criticism
Now I want to talk specifically about protecting your own self-esteem. Constant criticism from your spouse can be tough, as that list demonstrated, so you need to find ways to keep your sense of self-worth intact.
There is a strong link between your level of self-esteem and the amount of support you get from your social circle[viii]. Normally your spouse is (or should be) the main source of social support, but if this isn’t happening then having lots of support from friends and family can compensate. Having lots of other voices and opinions supporting and affirming you can raise your self-esteem even if your spouse is damaging it.
This is a reminder to choose to spend time with friends who are edifying: who build you up rather than tear you down.
- Self-esteem is also derived from your personal identity. Identity is defined Cast & Burke (2002) as[ix]
- Having ideals, goals, and values about who you want to be, and
- Seeing yourself as being able to live up to those goals
So it’s about having a clear idea of what’s important to you, and then actually being able to act on that. Having a highly critical spouse can impact your self-esteem and identity by interfering with the 2nd part of that definition: you feel less like you are able to live up to your personal ideals because your efforts are constantly criticized[x]. But there are still ways to have a strong identity and good self-esteem with a critical spouse:
- Establish more of an identify outside your marriage. Pursue individual and personal goals and take pride in the work/activities you do outside the marriage. Having a healthy amount of your activities and interests be outside of your marriage means that a big part of your identity/ self-esteem will be “outside the reach” of your spouse’s criticism. This isn’t the same as disengaging from your spouse: you aren’t taking anything away from your marriage, you’re just adding extra things outside of it.
- Change your mindset. Instead of internalizing your spouse’s critical voice, affirm your values and also your successes and the areas where you show that you are capable. Define success by whether you are satisfied with yourself, not whether your spouse is satisfied. Pursue aspects of your identity that matter to you, not to your spouse or anyone else.
It would be easy to take what we have just said and see it as a trajectory moving away from the marriage. That is possible. Again: let’s be clear that we are not talking about an abusive marriage. Just a marriage with a spouse who has gotten bitten quite badly by the criticism bug. In that context, building your self-esteem may lead to a stronger marriage because as you gain confidence you can begin to assert yourself in terms of respect and hold yourself and your spouse accountable to affirming one another rather than tearing one another down.
Is that going to be difficult to navigate? You bet. Is your spouse going to resist that accountability? You can count on it. But I would encourage you to commit to trying this for a month at least, and then reassess. Don’t be swayed easily.
Once your self esteem starts to rise, it helps protect you from having a highly critical spouse. Research in 2002[xi] found that self-esteem can act as a buffer against criticism by helping you to ignore unhelpful criticism, take it in a more positive light and see positive things about yourself even in the face of negativity. High self-esteem can also be seen as an “emotional anchor”, meaning that your sense of who you are is not as strongly affected by other people’s opinions. So if you develop good self-esteem then the negativity of your spouse won’t sway you as much[xii]
That’s a good thing to work towards: you might not be able to stop your spouse doing something you dislike, but you can absolutely change how it impacts you.
A study in 1994[xiii] studied 105 couples over 2 years and found that frequency of criticism and negativity was linked to lower marital satisfaction (as expected). However, frequency of positive relationship maintenance behaviors such as displays of affection, praising and pointing out good qualities, and wanting to spend time together all act as a buffer against criticism in marriage.
So encourage your critical spouse to show affection and use good relationship behaviors as well. And I think there’s always the point to be made of affirming what you want more of. Even in distressed marriages there are positive moments. Do you acknowledge those moments? I know it’s hard when you are frustrated at the whole picture, but you can always choose your own response even though you cannot choose your spouse’s. We’ll look at this same idea from the perspective of the critical spouse in our bonus guide.
Dealing with the Cause of Criticism
High levels of criticism and negativity often come from a place of anxiety, dissatisfaction or insecurity, we looked at initially. Helping your spouse overcome these issues will help them become less critical.
For example if the criticism in marriage is caused by negative attributions, due to your spouse being dissatisfied with the marriage, perhaps there are parts of the marriage you need to work on? Or if it’s caused by mental health issues or perfectionism, encouraging them to work through these issues will help alleviate their need to criticize.
It may also be the case that your spouse is not aware of how critical they are being. Perhaps in their family of origin this was normal — it was something that was modeled by his/her parents. But you can choose to, in an authentic way, tell your spouse how hard the critical words are on you. And the feelings that are prompted in your heart back to him or her.
The goal here is not to prevent all negative or critical feedback, but rather to have your marriage be a place of positivity and encouragement and affirmation. And in that larger context of building each other up to be better people, it is still legitimate to register complaints with one another. Sometimes you do have to let your spouse know when something is a problem. That’s OK — it’s just that when most of what you’re getting is negative that it begins to wear a person down.
[i] Thomas N. Bradbury and Frank D. Fincham, “Attributions in Marriage: Review and Critique,” Psychological Bulletin, 1990, 3–33.
[ii] Bradbury and Fincham.
[iii] Frank D. Fincham and Thomas N. Bradbury, “Marital Satisfaction, Depression, and Attributions: A Longitudinal Analysis.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64, no. 3 (1993): 442.
[iv] John P. Caughlin, Ted L. Huston, and Renate M. Houts, “How Does Personality Matter in Marriage? An Examination of Trait Anxiety, Interpersonal Negativity, and Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, no. 2 (February 2000): 326–36.
[v] A. Marie Habke, Paul L. Hewitt, and Gordon L. Flett, “Perfectionism and Sexual Satisfaction in Intimate Relationships,” Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment 21, no. 4 (December 1, 1999): 307–22, https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1022168715349.
[vi] Gilad Hirschberger, Victor Florian, and Mario Mikulincer, “Strivings for Romantic Intimacy Following Partner Complaint or Partner Criticism: A Terror Management Perspective, Strivings for Romantic Intimacy Following Partner Complaint or Partner Criticism: A Terror Management Perspective,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 20, no. 5 (October 1, 2003): 675–87, https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075030205006.
[vii] John F. Finch et al., “A Comparison of the Influence of Conflictual and Supportive Social Interactions on Psychological Distress,” Journal of Personality 67, no. 4 (n.d.): 581–621, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6494.00066.
[viii] Ann F. Muhlenkamp and Judy A. Sayles, “Self-Esteem, Social Support, and Positive Health Practices,” Nursing Research 35, no. 6 (1986): 334–38, https://doi.org/10.1097/00006199-198611000-00007.
[ix] Alicia D. Cast, “Power and the Ability to Define the Situation*,” Social Psychology Quarterly 66, no. 3 (September 2003): 185–201.
[x] Hirschberger, Florian, and Mikulincer, “Strivings for Romantic Intimacy Following Partner Complaint or Partner Criticism.”
[xi] Alicia D. Cast and Peter J. Burke, “A Theory of Self-Esteem,” Social Forces 80, no. 3 (2002): 1041–68.
[xii] Cast and Burke.
[xiii] Ted L. Huston and Amy F. Chorost, “Behavioral Buffers on the Effect of Negativity on Marital Satisfaction: A Longitudinal Study,” Personal Relationships 1, no. 3 (n.d.): 223–39, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1994.tb00063.x.