Does any of the following sound familiar?
- That’s not the right way to load the dishwasher. They won’t get clean that way.
- Why are you going this way? It takes longer and there are more stop lights.
- Why can’t you put things away when you’re done?
- That’s not the right way to discipline the kids.
- If you would just do it the way I told you, you wouldn’t have this problem.
In most every marriage, there will be one spouse who is more particular about things. They are more black and white and more concerned about the “right” way to do things. This is typically the spouse who is accused of being critical.
There will also be one spouse who is not that particular about things. They see thing more in shades of grey than black and white, and they are more concerned about getting things done than doing them the “right” way. This is typically the spouse who feels consistently criticized.
This post is meant to address the latter. But first…
TO THE SPOUSE ACCUSED OF BEING CRITICAL…
If you’re the one accused of being critical, you probably don’t view it as being critical. You probably view it as trying to be helpful. You’re just trying to make things better.
Everyone will need to offer suggestions or correction to their spouse from time to time. That’s normal. But when these attempts to be helpful are frequent and unsolicited, they can easily come across as critical rather than helpful.
Here’s the problem with frequent and consistent criticism:
- Your spouse will take it personally. Your spouse will hear your attempts to make things better as attempts to make them better. This will feel parental and demeaning to them. No adult wants to feel like they’re being parented, and it can cause them to become defensive and defiant.
- You come across as dominant and controlling. Think of the last time you felt like you were being controlled and told what to do. How did you feel when that was happening? My guess is…not good. Did it make you feel like cooperating with the person telling you what to do? My guess is…no. Trust me. You don’t want to be seen as dominant and controlling. It’s not attractive!
- You may get what you want, but you will breed resentment in your spouse. You may get your spouse to do things the way you want them to; especially if they are passive or uncomfortable with conflict. But don’t confuse their compliance with agreement. They may do things the way you want to avoid a disagreement, but inside they will nurse a growing resentment toward you that will eventually erupt into a more serious issue.
Now someone is probably saying, “You mean I can never speak up about anything or address something that’s wrong?”
That’s not what I’m saying. Of course there are times when we have to speak up, share our preferences, point out a problem, or deal with differences. But there is a way to do that can help your spouse from becoming so defensive.
Remember this before you correct or criticize:
- Not every hill is a hill to die on. There are some things that just aren’t that important. So they didn’t load the dishwasher the “right” way. At least they loaded it. At least they were trying to help. Let the small things go. It will give you more credibility for the bigger things. (And if you’re not sure is something is a big or small thing, ask a trusted friend who will be honest with you.)
- Make sure your complimenting more than criticizing. For some people, spotting everything that’s wrong with something comes easier than spotting everything that’s right with something. Work hard to not be that person. As a general rule of thumb, make sure you’re handing out five times as many positives as negatives. (Ok…if that sounds like too much, then start with three times as many positives as negatives.) It will make your negatives much easier to hear and address.
- When you really need to point out something, preface it with love. In the ancient New Testament Scriptures, we’re told about “speaking the truth in love…” (Ephesians 4:15) Yes, we need to be truthful with our spouse, but it’s love that makes that truth hearable and digestible. And you need to show that love, not just when you want to address something that’s bothering you, but at other times as well.
Now, let’s address those for whom this post was written…
TO THE SPOUSE FEELING CRITICIZED…
If you’re the spouse who is feeling criticized, you probably have accumulated some feelings of hurt and resentment. Those feelings may have even morphed into anger. So telling you not to get defensive when your spouse is criticizing you would be like telling you not to jump when someone startles you. So let’s approach this from a different angle.
Here are two things to do when you’re feeling criticized by your spouse…or anyone:
- Don’t take it personally. Try to remember that the thing that’s irritating your spouse is more about their wants, their need, and their personality than it is about your deficiencies. They are the ones who need help with something. It may feel like they’re trying to change you, but really they just need your help.
- Listen for the grain of truth in what they’re saying. When we feel criticized, it’s easy to let our defensiveness write off everything our critic is saying. But chances are, there is a grain of truth in what they’re saying…even if it’s a small grain of truth. You don’t have to agree with everything they’re saying, but pay attention to the grain of truth in what they’re saying, and do something about that. Because this is the area in which you need to grow.
To the person feeling criticized by their spouse, here’s the bottom line…
If your spouse is critical…learn from it.
I know it’s no fun, but it’s a critical part of learning to live together. (Did you get the pun?)