Does Being Critical of Your Partner Equate to a Bad Relationship?
How we use criticism to protect ourselves — even from good relationships
Posted January 12, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
“I always felt like I wasn’t complete,” said Tamara in our first session:
“I was looking for a boyfriend and then for a husband, and then once I got married, I thought I’d feel better when I had children. But nothing has really done what I thought it would do. I still feel anxious a lot, and now I worry that something will happen to my husband and my kids. So I don’t know, but I think that being married and having kids has made me feel worse than I did before.”
Vulnerability has been defined as the fear of being open to emotional or physical exposure or attack, but it actually seems to me to be the fear of hurting or being hurt through loneliness, anxiety, loss, emptiness, and other normal but painful emotions. And vulnerability comes in many forms. You might be concerned about being shamed when you make your next presentation, or you might be worried that a good friend is talking about you behind your back. Or you might be afraid of going to a social gathering and feeling silly or unattractive or like you don’t belong.
Many of us think that when we have a special someone, that person will help mediate those feelings. We’ll have someone to come home to at night, someone who will keep us company at social activities, and someone to talk to when we’re lonely or feeling dumb.
So it often comes as a surprise to realize that simply being in a relationship can make you feel vulnerable!
How does this happen? And what can you do about it?
One reason that relationships make us feel vulnerable is that we come to depend on our partners, and that dependency can leave us feeling unprotected and unsafe. In order to protect ourselves, we may distance ourselves from the person we love, or we might start to find things that we don’t like about them.
That’s what happened with Eva and Art, a couple who came to see me to get help with their marriage. “She criticizes me all the time,” Art said. “That’s not true,” Eva replied. “And besides, you’re always criticizing me.”
I told them that I imagined they must both be feeling pretty vulnerable in the relationship, and they both nodded in agreement. I explained that criticism can be a way of protecting yourself when you feel vulnerable, but that it also has a tendency to backfire:
“It becomes a vicious cycle: I push you away by criticizing you, and I also use that criticism to tell myself that I don’t really care about you, because I don’t like this or that about you. But even though it’s not really true, I also convince you that I don’t like you or don’t care about you.”
“And then you criticize me in an attempt to retaliate, to make yourself feel better, and also to tell yourself, and me, that you don’t like me either. And before too long, you’re both too busy attacking each other and defending yourselves to remember what you actually do like about each other, and why you don’t want the relationship to fall apart.”
Even though what I said made complete sense to both Eva and Art, they found that they couldn’t stop attacking each other. No matter what I said or suggested, they ended each session like two small kids who kept saying that the other one started it! You know the argument. It goes like this: “Well, you said it first.” “No, I didn’t, you started it,” and on and on without ever getting resolved.
The problem with vulnerability, says one writer on the Farnum Street blog, is that "Being vulnerable is not a choice. It’s a reality of living. What we do with that vulnerability can either open doors to a deeper connection or throw up walls that stifle growth and fulfillment."
In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen say that criticism can damage our ability to get things done, whether in a relationship or in a business situation.
In a relationship, constant criticism can interfere with loving and caring feelings. The problem is, criticism adds to our sense of vulnerability and most of us aren’t willing to take the first step to ending the criticism merry-go-round.
Yet in many instances, when there is honest affection and an underlying positive connection between two people, I have found that when partners start looking for positive things to say about one another – things that they genuinely do like and admire – the criticism starts to decrease.
It might surprise you to know that there’s an actual criticism to praise ratio that has been found to be associated with both successful business and personal relationships. According to a study reported in the Harvard Business Review, the highest-performing teams had an average ratio of almost six positive comments for every negative one, while the lowest-performing teams had an average of three negative comments for every positive one.
Relationship guru John Gottman found a very similar ratio predicted whether a married couple would stay together or get divorced. His research suggested that the optimal ratio for marriage is five positive comments for every negative one. The ratio for couples who didn’t stay together was closer to one positive comment for every negative one.
So here’s the thing: if you want your relationship to work, you have to allow yourself some level of vulnerability. And that probably means letting up on your negative comments toward your partner. I often suggest to couples that they not talk about what they’re doing, but simply try to do it for a few days. It’s very important not to count the ratio of positive to negative comments that your partner makes to you during this time. In the initial phase, you’re the one you have to pay attention to. After a few days, or even a week, you can check-in and see if your partner has noticed anything. If not, you might need to dig a little deeper into your well of positivity; or you might ask yourself what’s going on with your partner that they’re not taking in your good words.
So if you’re feeling critical of your partner, before you decide the relationship isn’t going to work, try changing what you say. Shifting the positive to negative ratio is only a small step in making a relationship work better, but sometimes small changes make a huge difference!
Important note: No one has the right to hurt you. If you are in a relationship with a partner who hurts you either physically or emotionally, no matter what your partner tells you, you are not at fault; it’s also important to know that you can get help. One organization in the U.S. is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which you can reach through this link or through the phone numbers 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. They can also help you find someone in your area who will help.
Names and identifying information were changed in this post to protect privacy.
Please note: I can't respond to individual requests for advice about relationships. Please check the Psychology Today Therapy Directory in your area to find someone who you can talk to about your relationship concerns. Thanks!