Five Reasons a Partner Becomes Overly Critical
It might indicate a problem with intimacy.
Posted September 17, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
No one likes everything about their partner. Even the cutest quirk can become annoying when we aren’t in the mood.
Usually, we can let these go without paying them too much mind: We choose to focus on what’s enjoyable instead. When we do harp on the negative and become overly critical, it might indicate that we have difficulty with some aspect of romantic intimacy.
Of course, if we really are having a hard time coping with our partner’s behaviors, we should rethink whether we should be with them. Maybe they just aren’t the right fit.
When we decide to stick around, we need to think of difficulties we have with our partner as shared problems—problems that exist between us—requiring both parties to work on resolving it.
If the problem is something that isn’t likely to change, we have to find a way to accept the bad with the good—otherwise, we risk becoming overly critical. We might consider that though our criticism expresses discomfort with the relationship, the cause of the discomfort may have more to do with us than our partner.
5 Reasons We Become Overly Critical
1. Being Self-Critical
If we are self-critical, we will most likely be equally critical of others, especially those who are closest to us. Often, we are unaware of the destructiveness of our own internal critic because we are used to it—we take it for granted. As a result, we assume others should be held to the same standard—especially our partner.
Shamed into a crippling self-consciousness by her parents, Annie struggles with relaxing and having fun at parties. Recently, at a wedding, as she sways gently to the music, her boyfriend lets loose on the dance floor. Under the guise of giving him helpful feedback, she tells him that he is drawing too much attention to himself. Feeling embarrassed herself, she shames him and ruins his evening.
2. Lacking Gratitude
Some of us feel painfully vulnerable when receiving love. Getting what we really want from a partner makes us feel too reliant on them. We become painfully aware that what is given can be taken away. As a result, we don’t acknowledge what we enjoy about them—and consequently, we don’t temper our criticism with gratitude and come across as overly critical.
Ben often complains that his boyfriend is too easily hurt; he doesn’t take criticism well. Though Ben says that he feels loved and admired by him, he never prefaces his criticisms with how much he appreciates the love he receives. Ben explains, “It’s how I was raised. We never got compliments. But we certainly heard about our mistakes.”
3. Distrusting Our Judgment
We can be overly critical when we are afraid to trust our own judgment in romantic relationships. Often, this is a result of being traumatized by previous relationships or having experienced someone close to us trapped in a bad romance. If we don’t work through our negative emotions about past relationships, we won’t have access to our gut instinct—we can’t tell when someone is right for us.
Throughout her childhood, Amy experienced her parents' hostile-dependent relationship—they were constantly at each other’s throats but never broke-up. In her relationships, Amy tends to focus on her partner’s shortcomings. Unable to relax and trust her own judgment, she can’t decide when someone is good enough. Feeling unsettled about her choice, she struggles with commitment.
4. Being Self-Protective
Some of us become overly critical to protect ourselves from getting hurt—we dread painful feelings. The reasoning goes something like this: if we don’t open our hearts and accept our partner, we won’t be as hurt if the relationship ends. Maintaining a constant critique of our partner, we keep them at arm's length—at least in our minds. In essence, we reject them before they can reject us.
Mark tumbled into a deep depression following his last break-up. He thought that his ex was the “love of his life.” Now, he desires a new relationship but resists opening himself up to the possibility of getting hurt again. In therapy, he realizes that focusing on his current girlfriend helps him feel less anxious about his ever-deepening attachment.
5. Fearing Space
If we have difficulty taking space from our partner, we might create space by becoming overly critical. Just as expressing love brings two people closer, being critical creates distance. If we cannot tolerate being away from our partner physically due to our insecurities or difficulty being alone, we might use criticism to create the distance psychologically.
Mark struggles with jealousy. When he is away from his girlfriend, he doubts her commitment to him. Wondering what she is up to, he can’t relax and just enjoy time with his friends. While limiting his time apart from her, he resents missing out on playing sports. Stuck at home, he becomes cranky at the slightest annoyance: his moody demeanor creates more distance than any actual absence.
Each of the above reasons indicates a difficulty with one of the essential ingredient of emotional intimacy. We could be struggling with one or any combination of the following:
- Accepting: Being self-critical increases the likelihood that we will be equally critical of our partner and not accepting of their differences.
- Appreciative: Lacking gratitude indicates we struggle with expressing our appreciation for the good our partner affords us.
- Committed: Distrusting our judgment regarding relationships interferes with our ability to fully commit to another.
- Accessible: Being self-protective suggests we resist making ourselves accessible enough to allow others to become deeply involved with us.
- Courageous: Fearing space is a sign that we lack the courage to secure our individual identity while being a part of a couple.
When we struggle with an aspect of emotional intimacy, we experience discomfort in our relationship. If we don’t realize that the discomfort is a result of our own issues, we become overly critical of our partner.