By Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott
“People tend to criticize their spouse most loudly in the area where they themselves have the deepest emotional need.” – Gary Chapman
Criticism is an insidious behavior that comes into our marriage and eats at the core of our identity. Few things will shut down intimacy quite like being criticized or controlled, and it is capable of immobilizing your emotional health and personal growth, especially within your relationship.
Nobody enjoys being criticized or picked apart, but it’s especially painful when your spouse–your soul mate–is the one being critical and hurtful to you. It’s demoralizing to be treated this way when you’re doing your best to make a contribution and add value to your relationship…but you get criticized instead of appreciated. Criticism can easily break a servant heart, and that’s a terrible place to be in your marriage.
WHAT MAKES A PERSON CRITICAL?
We like to refer to critical people as “control freaks” or “high-maintenance people.” Control freaks are compelled to critique every little thing you do; it seems like they believe their spiritual gift is to point out what’s wrong with you at every turn.
Control freaks care more about some things than anybody else does, and they won’t stop pushing and nagging until they get their way. They are convinced that things like routine tasks should be done a certain way, and that their way is the only right way to accomplish those things. They have more energy for these matters than most people, and they’re going to make sure you know it.
It’s irritating for your spouse to be controlling in one area or another–after all, every one of us has some quirky part of our life that we feel compelled to control. But when this becomes troublesome and destructive is when the need for control becomes global, and the high-maintenance person believes they have a right to critique and control multiple areas–or even every area–of your life.
Controlling people actually have a high level of unconscious anxiety that influences everything they do. Because they feel anxious, they’re highly motivated to get control of their world. And because they probably haven’t identified their anxiety as coming from within themselves, they’re assigning it to the little things you don’t do “the right way,” then pointing those things out in hopes that you will “fix” the problems, thus alleviating their anxiety for them.
While your spouse may be telling you, “It’s not me, it’s you,” it is most certainly about them.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT ALL THIS CRITICISM?
In a high-maintenance relationship like this, it’s hard to cope with your spouse’s complaints and critiques without harboring resentment toward him or her. After all, the person who is supposed to love and nurture you first and foremost is picking you apart and trying to “improve” you on a daily basis!
Most critics frame their critiques like this: “I love you so much that I want you to be aware of these few things about you that aren’t perfect.” But being approached in this way doesn’t feel loving at all; it just piles on one thing after another that you can’t do right in your spouse’s eyes, and it’s crippling to feel like you can’t make him or her happy.
First of all, it’s important to focus on the fact that your spouse is actually anxious inside. This helps him or her to look a little more vulnerable to you, and it helps you to cultivate a little more grace and empathy for your spouse. It’s helpful to realize that, on some level, your critical spouse is actually feeling distressed. While this doesn’t let him or her off the hook, it gives you a more detailed perspective on where they’re coming from.
Realizing your spouse is anxious also means you can begin talking with him or her about the problem. A single conversation won’t fix the issue, but over the course of many conversations, you can begin uncovering what they’re feeling so anxious about, and perhaps discover why they have a need to control you. Over time, these talks may help ease the tension in your relationship, and you may find that his or her compulsive criticism will ease, too.
HOW CAN YOU COPE WITH YOUR SPOUSE’S CRITICAL BEHAVIOR?
While you’re working through these issues together, it’s also important for you to have ways to cope with your spouse’s critical spirit. Here are some things you can put into practice now:
- Learn how to deflect your spouse’s criticism. Humor is a great way to diffuse critical statements, and it can serve as a shield to protect you from your spouse’s negativity.
- Remind yourself that this is your spouse’s problem–not yours. This is not about you.
- Communicate to your spouse what their constant criticism is doing to you. Let him or her know, “I can handle a little criticism here and here, but this is pulling my spirit down.”
- Create a phrase like, “You’ve officially entered the negative zone,” to give your spouse a heads-up that their critiques are becoming excessive.
It’s important for your spouse to know that his or her criticism is harming your spirit. In fact, constant criticism from your spouse can fundamentally change who you are as a person if you don’t both take steps to get into a healthier dynamic. So speak up and stand up for yourself. Showing your spouse this vulnerable part of yourself can help them see what their behavior is doing to your spirit.
When you communicate to your spouse that their behavior is hurting you, and they take steps to try to ease the burden they’re putting on you, you’re less likely to carry a heavy, internal sense of resentment. And when your spouse begins to see and understand what they have been doing to you–that their urge to control isn’t about you, but them–that’s when you’ll begin to see positive behavioral changes in your relationship.
If you would like help with your marriage, please contact CornerStone Family Services at 614-459-3003 to talk with a coach or counselor.