What to Do When Your Spouse Criticizes You

What to Do When Your Spouse Criticizes You5 min read

Criticism seemed unavoidable in Jeff and Nicole's marriage. It even crept into discussions about issues that seemed relatively insignificant.

Nicole often found almost-empty milk cartons on the shelf of the kitchen refrigerator. "Jeff, is it really that difficult to finish the last few drops of milk and put the carton in recycling?" She knew Jeff put them there. "You always do this, and it drives me crazy!"

Jeff had a choice. He could defend his actions or try to understand the issue from Nicole's perspective. He felt angry at Nicole for repeatedly making an issue out of the almost-empty cartons. Jeff took defensive action. "I took what I needed and left the rest." Then he threw in some criticism of his own. "You're so critical. Just chill!"

Caught in a Cycle of Criticism and Defensiveness

What is the best way to respond when your spouse criticizes you? What do you do to keep your relationship from spiraling into a cycle of criticism and defensiveness? Like many couples, Jeff and Nicole sought answers to these questions.

On the receiving end of criticism, many spouses react strongly to each other’s criticism. Many get defensive and strike back with their own critical remarks. Spouses armed with criticism and defensiveness are like boxers in a ring, but when they swing at each other it’s with words. Both suffer emotional wounds, and in this fight, no one wins.

Dr. John Gottman identifies criticism as the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that predict marital dissatisfaction and divorce. Dr. Gottman’s research has discovered that criticism often triggers the second horseman, defensiveness. When criticism and defensiveness are left unchecked in a marriage, they cast a dark shadow over the relationship that grows darker with the arrival of the last two horsemen, stonewalling and contempt.

Looking for Answers

All marriages have conflicts. But the masters of marriage navigate their way through conflicts by stepping outside the verbal boxing ring.

Jeff and Nicole knew that criticism was hurting their relationship. Like any habit, this one is difficult to break. They tried calling each other on it by putting a dollar in a jar every time they caught each other making a negative remark. This only seemed to generate more criticism.

They tried using "I statements." But these statements turned into veiled criticism. "I feel like you're being lazy when you put the carton back with just a little bit left," Nicole would say. Jeff would say, "I think you're making a big thing out of nothing."

Tools for Breaking the Cycle

Their approach to conflict kept running Jeff and Nicole’s relationship off the rails. Fed up with their inability to manage conflicts successfully, they sought professional help. Visiting with a marriage counselor, they described their tendency to get stuck in a cycle of criticism and defensiveness.

Their counselor introduced them tools to help them keep the wheels of their relationship on the tracks. In over 30 years of research on thousands of couples, Dr. Gottman’s research has identified these as conflict management tools used by couples in the most satisfying relationships.

1) Use repair attempts

Like many couples, Jeff and Nicole felt the emotional tension rising between them during conflicts. They raised concerns by blaming or accusing each other of bad behavior. Dr. Gottman calls this a harsh start-up.

A harsh start-up triggers negative emotions. Negative emotions between spouses create tension. Rising tension can trigger emotional flooding. Once flooding has occurred in one or both spouses, they need to use time-outs and self-soothing.

Jeff and Nicole learned to use repair attempts to break up the tension and prevent flooding.  Repair attempts use words or phrases that help both spouses focus on the concern or stop the action. They used and reviewed together the Repair Checklist to identify the repair attempts that would work for them.

2) Accept influence to share power

Criticism can sometimes be a reaction to feeling powerless in a relationship. When used in this way, the critic feels like they are leveling the playing field. Likewise, by defending against criticism, a person tries to protect their status in the relationship. In satisfying marriages, spouses share power. Dr. Gottman calls this accepting influence.

The counselor helped Jeff see his habit of rejecting Nicole's influence by defending himself against Nicole's criticism. Nicole saw a pattern of turning to criticism when Jeff rejected her influence by belittling or ignoring her complaints.

Their counselor explained that criticism is often rooted in a complaint that has not been acknowledged. By his outright rejection of Nicole's criticism, Jeff failed to acknowledge Nicole's underlying complaints.

Instead of getting defensive, Jeff decided to start accepting the criticism as a signal that he'd failed to acknowledge a complaint.

Their counselor encouraged Nicole and Jeff to practice using what Dr. Gottman calls a soft start-up to avoid criticism. Using soft start-ups means complaining without blaming, and using "I statements" without accusing.

3) Discover Your Spouse's Needs, Desires, and Dreams

"Why does it matter to you if a milk carton is almost empty and I put it back in the fridge?" Jeff asked Nicole.

Nicole explained, "When I come home with groceries that need to go in the fridge, I need space. Sometimes there's not enough space and I have to move things around to make it all fit. A milk carton that's almost empty is taking up extra space."

"That makes sense,” Jeff said. “I just think it's wasteful to use more than I need. That's why I put the carton back almost empty."

"I understand you don’t want to waste milk,” said Nicole. “Do you know what I do when I don't have enough room for the groceries? I throw out your almost empty milk-cartons anyway."

"That's not okay," Jeff said.

"I know that now," said Nicole.

By using soft start-ups, spouses can discover each other's needs, desires, and dreams. They do this without minimizing or belittling the value of each other’s point of view. This develops intimacy.

4) Mee​​​​t Needs, Fulfill Desires and Make Dreams Come True

Jeff thought for a moment. "What if I put the leftover milk in a smaller container that takes up less room. Would that help?"

"Of course," Nicole said. "That would solve my problem. It solves yours, too."

By accepting influence from each other, spouses take important steps toward meeting each other’s needs, fulfilling desires and making dreams come true. Each step in this direction fosters trust and security in the relationship. Criticism and defensiveness become like useless crutches that can be thrown away.

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Jon Beaty

I'm a counselor, writer and believer in the power of God to help you thrive in your marriage and family. I live with my family, a small herd of Boer goats, and thousands of honeybees near Portland, Oregon.

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