All criticism in a relationship is painful. Complaints that include specific request for change, can make a relationship better. Criticism does not. Inevitably criticism makes the relationship worse. We all know this. Yet, many of us, myself included, are guilty of being critical of our partners.
So during the holiday I asked myself, what makes a partner chronically critical?
The first is an emotionally unavailable partner. When Kris continues to ignore Susan’s complaint about him leaving his shoes and socks in the living room, she is likely to start escalating the issue by criticizing him in hopes to get a reaction. She may start calling him a slob and irresponsible instead of kindly reminding him to put his shoes in the closet. The shift from complaints to criticism is understandable, but unhelpful since the criticism makes Kris less responsive.
The only way out of this critical cycle is for both of them to change. And changing yourself when you desperately want someone else to change feels like an impossible task. It takes courage to compassionately communicate our needs or to turn towards a partner who talks about your flaws.
The Inner Critic of Love
The other source of relationship tension is inside you. It is the self-doubt that has developed over a lifetime of compounding experiences of betrayal, abuse, and neglect.
Early in our childhood we create beliefs about the world, the people around us and ourselves. As the authors of A General Theory of Love say, “who we are, and who we become depends, in part, on who we love.” 1
All of us have stories about not being good enough and narratives about the parts of ourselves that love ones labeled inadequate or a burden. As we experiencing these heartbreaking moments time and time again, we can’t help but believe them to be truths. Instead of a person’s opinion of you, it becomes a fact. And once that happens, the true torture begins. We begin to criticize ourselves.
It’s incredibly difficult for me to enjoy my own accomplishments. Before I started therapy, a setback in my business didn’t mean I made a human mistake that I could learn from, it meant I was worthless. Deep down, that’s how I felt. And when my business was succeeding, I hid my success because I felt no one could give two shits.
The voice inside beat me up telling me that I am not good enough. It has taken years of work to be kind to myself. To stop searching for approval that I wouldn’t allow myself to enjoy or receive when it was offered.
What happened when I got into a relationship?
Since my mind was focused on only seeing what was wrong with me, what is missing, and not appreciate what is there, it became impossible for me to rejoice in the delight of love my partner gave me.
There was a soul crushing pressure to measure up leading me to buy gifts and smoother my partner in affection, instead of relaxing and enjoying the amount I had. Since I feared being inadequate for her love, I behaved in ways that overwhelmed her and pushed her away. Making my deepest fear a reality.
I also ended up attracting partners who saw my gifts of emotional availability as turds. I was called needy and hopelessly romantic. Granted I was. In part due to my beliefs about myself and in part due to these beliefs attracting women who didn’t treasure my gifts.
In a way, dating emotionally unavailable women was a form of self-punishment. Reinforcing my lifelong pattern that my sacred gifts of affection and capacity for closeness that are essential parts of myself are somehow flawed and shameful. 2
Or maybe for you, you struggle to appreciate your partner’s wonderful qualities, including their kindness, dedication to the family, and the deep emotional support your partner offers you when you go through a tough time, and instead focus on their flaws. Maybe that they are “sensitive,” kind of awkward at social events and not as clean around the house as you’d like.
According to Dr. Gottman, 85% of relationships 3 go wrong because partners find themselves unworthy. If you believe yourself not to be good enough, you will always anticipate for what is not there in yourself and your partner. And whether you want to see it or not, any person you fall in love with will be lacking desirable qualities. After all, they are human.
The difference between the masters of relationships and the disasters is the master’s focus on what they have, while the disasters focus on what is missing in their partner and overlook the good enough qualities that are there. The disasters take the qualities in their partner and themselves for granted.
If you notice your self-critic above, the best thing you can do for your relationships and yourself is to work on accepting yourself as you are, flaws and all. Looking back at the years of work I have done on myself, I am grateful that I have been forgiving of my mistakes and imperfections. It has made an immense difference as a healthy relationship teacher and lover.
The antidote to criticism in our relationships and it’s deadly brother, contempt is a fuller acceptance of oneself and expressions of thanksgiving and compliments. To start, I wanted to invite you to take the Thanksgiving Challenge
The Thanksgiving Challenge
Step 1: For seven days, mindfully notice your tendency to criticize. When those moments happen, focus your attention to notice what you have and what others contribute to your life. Search for the small things you can admire and appreciate in yourself and your partner. Maybe this is noticing:
- Your partner taking out the trash
- Listening to you with their full attention
- Giving you a kiss randomly
- Your ability to turn towards your partner during conflict
- Your ability to ask open-ended questions that allow you to see different parts of your partner
- Your ability to help out more when your partner is stressed
Step 2: For the entire week, offer your partner at least one genuine compliment each day. The compliments I give include the event I noticed and a characteristic I love about my partner. It goes something like this, “I love how you smiled at the little boy in the stroller at the grocery store. You’re such a compassionate and kind person.” As you are doing this, notice how it impacts your relationship, your partner and yourself. Don’t be phony and make things up. Notice the positive qualities of your partner. Rejoice in them. They are there!
As you take on this thanksgiving challenge, you’ll receive an amazing gift. You will be less critical of yourself. You will begin to be kind to yourself and over time will relish in your own accomplishments and the beauty of the relational gifts you offer the loved ones of your life.
The more you can embrace the spirit of thanksgiving and the profound presence of praise and admiration, the more fulfilling your relationship will be.
- I highly recommend the book A General Theory of Love. Quote is on page 142. ↩
- Ken Page calls this attractions of deprivation. Check out chapter 4 or subscribe to my newsletter to get my view of this next month. ↩
- Dr. Gottman makes this claim on page 283 in The Seven Principles that Make Marriage Work. ↩