Habitual criticism can corrode the very foundation of a relationship — and that’s not an overstatement. In fact, criticism is so damaging that relationship researcher John Gottman identified it as one of the top predictors of divorce — though it could spell disaster for nonmarried couples too.
That said, no one expects you to just roll over and accept all of your partner’s less-than-desirable qualities or behaviors without ever saying a word. Inevitably, you’re going to have complaints from time to time. But how you choose to communicate these grievances to your partner is what matters.
For example, a critical partner might say: “Ugh, you always leave your dirty dishes in the sink. You’re such an inconsiderate slob,” instead of saying, “Hey, I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the dishes piling up in the sink. Can you help me out by cleaning them before I start dinner?”
People often resort to criticism as a form a self-protection, according to relationship coach Kyle Benson. Attacking or blaming our partner is a less vulnerable act than revealing what we really need from them.
“It’s much easier to poke our partner by telling them that they’re the one with the problems, than to drop our shield of criticism and say, ‘My needs are not being met, help me,’” Benson wrote in a blog post.
We asked therapists to explain why criticism can be so destructive to a relationship and how to communicate in a healthier, more productive way instead.
The difference between a complaint and criticism
If you want to know if you’re constructively voicing a complaint or just criticizing your partner, consider the language you’re using. Criticism is frequently doled out in the form of “you always” or “you never” statements.
“Healthy feedback is about the behavior and not the person,” said Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, who specializes in counseling men. “We can tell our partner what we think or how we feel without criticizing them as an individual.”
So if you’re speaking in absolutes, using harsh words or attacking your partner’s character, it’s probably criticism.
“When our comments include cursing or demeaning labels, it kills any value our message has and makes the feedback pointless,” Smith said. “Criticism is often ignored because of the manner in which the message is delivered.”
How criticism damages relationships
Our critical side tends to rear its ugly head during heated moments of stress or frustration, making it a difficult habit to break. But knowing the effect it has on your partner and the bond you share may nudge you to reexamine your ways.
It chips away at your partner’s self-esteem.
As anyone who’s been on the receiving end of criticism knows, these words cut deep. Repeated criticism may shake your partner’s confidence and eventually make them doubt their ability to do things right.
“It can make us question our value and worth, especially when it’s coming from someone who’s supposed to love us,” Smith said. “We can begin to believe that since they care about us, then what they’re saying about us must be true.”
It erodes trust.
“Frequent criticism feels like betrayal,” said Steven Stosny, a psychologist in Washington, D.C. “It violates the implicit promise made in the formation of attachment bonds, that the person you love will care about how you feel and never intentionally hurt you.”
It destroys intimacy.
Over time, criticism widens the emotional distance between you and your partner. The warm, positive feelings you once shared diminish and are replaced by resentment and hostility.
“Most of us don’t take criticism well,” Smith said. “Understandably it doesn’t make us feel good and thus makes us feel less loved and close to our partner.”
“Criticism is when a complaint is expressed as a character flaw.”
It belittles your partner while making you seem superior.
“Criticism tends to be devaluing, implying that the critical partner is smarter, more skilled, moral or superior in some way,” Stosny said.
It’s not actually effective in getting your partner to change their ways.
Instead of encouraging your S.O. to modify their behavior, criticism triggers defensiveness. When your partner is feeling attacked, their guard goes up, and they’re not in a state to really hear what you’re saying.
Note that when criticism is constant, it may actually be a form of emotional abuse.
But not everyone who is critical of their partner is an emotional abuser. When you called your partner lazy because they decided to watch TV instead of cleaning the bathroom like they promised, it was probably a misguided attempt at asking for help with household chores — not an effort to demean your partner. We all get overwhelmed or frustrated and resort to criticism at times.
But if you frequently lash out and criticize your partner no matter what they do (for the way they dress, their sex drive, their job, their family and friends or an aspect of their personality like, their sensitivity, for example), then it could be a sign of emotional abuse.
So how should you communicate instead?
Telling someone to “just stop being critical” is easier said than done. Here’s how you can more lovingly and effectively express yourself in a relationship, according to therapists.
Focus on what you want from your partner, instead of what you don’t want.
As they say: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Be respectful with your requests. Rather than accusing your partner of being careless for not staying on top of the bills, Stosny offered this alternative: “Honey, I’m a little worried about the bills. Could we sit down and go over what we have coming in and how much has to go out? I know you’re busy, what’s a good time for you?”
Use a “soft startup.”
With this Gottman-approved technique, you open up the discussion about what’s bothering you using the phrasing: “I feel _____ about ____, and I need ____.”
“It’s important to put an actual feeling in the first blank. Avoid, ‘I feel like’ and ‘I feel like you’ — neither of which are helpful,” Brittle said.
“Think of how you would make a behavior request to someone you admire and respect. That’s how you should make behavior requests of your partner.”
Try an “I wish” statement.
Instead of saying, “You’re so unhelpful — you never pick the kids up from soccer,” try saying, “I wish you would help lighten my load by picking the kids up from practice a couple nights a week.”
“Your criticism is a wish disguised,” Brittle wrote in a blog post. “It’s a negative expression of a real need. What if you took responsibility for what you really desire for the relationship? What if you owned the wish and committed to articulating it as a positive hope?”
Advice for both partners
If you’re the criticizer in the relationship, know that most critical people are often self-critical too. You may not even realize how critical you seem to your partner because you’re so accustomed to talking to yourself that way.
“Do you automatically say something critical to yourself when you make a mistake or drop something like, ‘Idiot, there you go again, you always screw up’?” Stosny said.
Sound familiar? Try this exercise Stosny suggested: Write down a few of the critical statements you’ve made to your partner and read them into your phone. Then play back the recording and see how it sounds from another perspective — you might be surprised.
“And finally, think of how you would make a behavior request to someone you admire and respect,” Stosny added. “That’s how you should make behavior requests of your partner.”
If you’re the criticized, it’s understandable that your partner’s harsh words affect you. You don’t need to minimize your hurt feelings — you’re justified in being upset, Smith said.
When you feel attacked, it may be tempting to punch back by criticizing your partner for something they did. But try not to stoop to their level.
“Don’t react in kind or betray your nature by becoming critical yourself,” Stosny said. “Regard your partner’s criticism as his or her lack of self-regulation skill.”
Though this may not be easy in the heat of the moment, after you’ve been criticized, take a breath before that defensive wall goes up. You may be able to figure out what veiled request your partner is making with their criticism.
“If you can delay your defensive response, ask your partner what they’re asking for,” Brittle said. “The quicker you get to their ask, the quicker you can get to relationship repair.”