Case Example: Sarah and Jose had been together for 5 years and came into my office saying “we fight over everything.” When asked to describe a typical scenario, it turns out that he was the angry one — usually because he saw Sarah as lacking in self-discipline, being lazy, spending too much money, and not keeping the house clean enough.
She of course, reacted defensively when he started yelling at her, using the usual arguments that she worked too, that they had a two year old that cluttered everything, and that she deserved to buy nice things because she worked too. In turn, he would elevate things a notch by now pointing out that he observed that she would never accept responsibility for her shortcomings, she had excuses for everything, and he was tired of it all.
Why is Anger Expressed As Excessive Criticism Harmful To A Marriage?
Sometimes it is the anger that causes a partner to be excessively critical of the other. Other times anger is the result or consequence of too much criticism. Either way, excessive criticism or a general negative atmosphere in a home can be toxic and destroy a marriage.
- Highly critical partners often do not inject much positivity into a relationship, a necessary ingredient for relationship growth and nurturance. They don’t balance the negative with the positive which is essential for partners to feel good about themselves as partners or parents. Who wants to come home at the end of the day to a barracuda or a porcupine after battling the alligators all day?
- Research shows that in successful marriages the ratio of positive to negative is about 5:1; in conflicted relationships, it is near zero or even reversed.
- Excessive criticism erodes self confidence and self-esteem of partners
- Excessive criticism can led to development of long-term resentment (even hatred) toward the critic
- Children who observe this patterns may lose respect for one or both parents
- Children may perceive excessive criticism of one partner by the other as subtle permission for them too to treat the “victim” parent as the critic does which leads to disrespect
Next Steps: Things the overly critical spouse can do
In my first session with Jose alone, I pointed out how critical of her Sarah saw him. He did not see himself that way; as is often the case, he saw himself as “helping” her see her defects so she could change them.
Jose had to learn to change his perspective on things by adjusting his expectations. Many men his age base their expectations on what they saw in their parental homes when they were growing up. But, our society has changed considerably since then. Many of our role expectations of men and women have changed considerably. \
He also had to learn how to communicate complaints he had about her (all partners have complaints) in a more loving way — without the blame.
Finally, Jose had to learn to shift his focus to the positives in their relationship instead of the negatives. Like a photographer, where we point the camera is what we see. Our anger often lessons considerably if we broaden our perspective of our partner or our relationship.
Better ways for the partner to react
To repair their problem, Sarah also needed to make some changes. She was asked to try and react differently the next time Jose became critical of her—just to see if it worked.
Sure enough, about three days later he apparently forgot some of the things I had taught him. He started his usual harangue about all her shortcomings. This time, however, Sarah was ready for him. She dropped her natural inclination to defend herself and justify the house messiness. Instead, she acknowledged her own frustration with trying to keep up with everything.
Sarah then went on to tell Jose that he must be disappointed coming home to a messy house when he worked so hard for the family. She agreed that indeed he deserved a clean house. She explained that she deserved the same things. Pouring a glass of wine, she invited him to sit down so they could discuss how to fix the problem and stop fighting because she just couldn’t do it anymore.
He was immediately disarmed and lost his anger. His brain went from challenging mode to problem-solving mode.
More on this subject: Anger Class 101 – Silence is Golden
Lessons for the Critical Spouse:
- Learn how to be less critical of you partner by changing you expectations and self-talk
- Learn how to complain in a loving way that isn’t perceived as criticism
- Learn how to double down on the positives in your marriage instead of focusing on the negative
- Learn how to Praise Your Partner without being fake about it
Lessons for the Reacting Partner:
- Learn how to assert yourself to an overly critical partner
- Learn how to stop being acting like a victim and change how your partner treats you.
- Learn how to start liking each other again and rebuild friendship
- Learn how to work together to eliminate or better deal with the practical issues that cause anger and criticism between you.