5 Ways to Keep Criticism in Check & Prevent it from Poisoning your Partnership
If you are currently in a relationship, take a moment to consider when you last criticized your partner for something. When’s the last time you reprimanded them for their behavior or something they did that you disliked?
As a society (in movies, TV shows, and across other forms of media), we frequently joke about the common and relatable occurrence of couples nagging and criticizing each other, particularly when those couples are married or have been together for many years. But, although we tend to gloss over this behavior, criticism can, in fact, be incredibly toxic to a relationship.
There are various reasons why criticism arises in a partnership. But often, we fall into the trap of criticizing our significant other because we have certain expectations of behavior that we’ve set for ourselves (or that were set for us by our parents or other authority figures over the course of our lives) that we, in turn, impose on our partners. And when they don’t live up to those standards, we grow frustrated with them.
I, for one, have been known to get irritated with past boyfriends for leaving their dirty dishes in the sink instead of putting them in the dishwasher. It’s not uncommon for us to address small pet peeves of this kind by nagging our partners (particularly after nicely asking them to change their behavior the first several times fails to pay off).
But in the same way that a steady stream of water dripping repeatedly onto a rock for years on end will gradually erode the stone beneath it, over time, even nagging can serve to damage and eat away at the bedrock of your relationship.
If you are constantly criticizing or judging your partner, your behavior will progressively poison your relationship. Depending on the circumstances, sometimes the relationship will disintegrate quickly, and in other instances it will be death by a thousand slow and steady drips.
When you criticize your partner, you are pointing out to them that they are doing something wrong. And in committing that act of criticism, you’re also subtly implying that you are (or think you are) somehow superior to them. You move out of the space of being equals and put yourself into a position of power over them.
Further, the negativity that criticism breeds is pernicious in nature - no matter how innocuous the critiques might be. When a person receives constant criticism, they feel attacked and become defensive.
If you regularly subject your partner to criticism, your actions will either begin to make them feel like they aren’t worthy or deserving of you, or at the very least like you feel they aren’t worthy or deserving of you. Over time, resentment will build, and love will fade.
So how can you avoid falling into this trap?
Unfortunately, you cannot control your partner’s actions when it comes to your relationship. But you can work to control your own. So with that in mind, here are 5 things that you can do on a personal level to keep criticism in check and prevent it from poisoning your relationship:
1. Don’t sweat the small stuff
To be more direct, just let some shit go. Don’t be that person who constantly picks at their partner and nags them relentlessly. Strive to possess (and live from a space of) tolerance, patience, and grace.
It’s important to choose your battles wisely. Only pursue the things that really matter to you. If you are ever unsure whether something has risen to that level, try asking yourself: is whatever you want to criticize your partner about worth the potential risk of damaging your relationship with them?
2. Mind your approach
With respect to behavioral changes that are worth asking for (i.e., for things that really matter), be kind when asking your partner to make those changes.
For instance, let’s say you have a dog door and a fenced-in yard for your dog to use while you’re out during the day. And let’s say your partner has a bad tendency to leave the gate to the fence open whenever they leave the house. Asking your partner to please try to remember to close the gate behind them so your dog won’t get out is a request worth making, because otherwise your partner’s habit of leaving the gate open could result in your dog running away, getting lost, getting hit by a car, etc.
Sometimes we have a hard time being kind when asking our partner to make changes that are important to us – especially when our partner’s actions have hurt us. But even if your partner’s behavior was hurtful, it’s not a good idea to act from that place of pain. Don’t speak to your partner from that dark internal space or attempt to project that pain they’ve caused you back onto them in an act of revenge.
Rather, it’s key to be kind and calm (as opposed to emotionally reactive) in delivering any requested changes you’d like your partner to make and in letting them know that something means a lot to you. Because otherwise, they won’t want to change or put in the effort to alter their behavior for you.
So instead of criticizing or berating them, create a safe environment for your partner - one in which they don’t feel attacked, judged, or controlled. If you would like them to do something for you, if you want to have the greatest likelihood of success, make that ask with kindness and respect.
3. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt
When your partner does something that frustrates or annoys you, try to take a step back and give them the benefit of the doubt. Presume positive intent on their part, because, odds are, they didn’t intend for their actions to hurt or bother you.
Positively encourage your partner to be loving and vulnerable around you (i.e., able and allowed to fuck up, make mistakes, and be human and fallible - just like you), even if that means they mess up sometimes. Better that they occasionally do something that hurts or bugs you than having them begin to react to your endless criticism by shutting down towards you out of fear, anger, resentment, etc.
It's easy to fall into the bad habit of regularly seeing the negative things that your partner does as opposed to the positive things. Criticism tends to arise from that pattern.
But by constantly tearing your partner down, you'll also serve to push them away.
4. Let your partner be themselves
Give your significant other space to be themselves. Show them the respect of letting them be whoever they are. That’s how you love someone.
When it comes to potential areas of improvement, instead focus on yourself. Turn your gaze inward as opposed to looking externally. Work on being your best self.
Learn to respect and accept that some changes might not be possible for your partner to make. If something bothers you to the core and addressing it with your significant other in a calm and constructive fashion does not work, then it may be necessary to ponder whether your partner is right for you.
5. Show your partner you love them
Make an effort to show your partner how you truly feel about them, even when they are doing something that hurts you or that you don’t like.
Over time, criticism can make your partner feel unloved – like you want them to change in some way, or you don’t appreciate and accept them for who they are. Take ownership for how your treat your significant other, and strive to make them feel loved and valued.
If you create a safe environment for your partner in your relationship - if you are kind and treat them with respect, and if you focus first and foremost on being your best possible self, either the love and trust will follow and flourish, or you'll learn that the relationship doesn’t work and may need to come to an end.
When it comes to the topic of criticism in your own relationship, if you find yourself struggling, I’d encourage you to try implementing these 5 recommendations for a full month and take note of what, if anything, shifts.
After you’ve adopted this approach for a month, take a bit of time to reflect on the state of your relationship. Do you find that you feel closer to your partner? Have they become kinder towards you? Are you happier? Do they seem happier?
It will take effort to build new habits around criticism, but your relationship will be much stronger and healthier for it - and therein lies the reward.