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What to Do When Your Spouse Is Constantly Critical

You're on your way home from an exhausting day at work and you feel like you're going from the frying pan into the fire. Your wife doesn't seem to have anything to say to you these days except for whatever she thinks you're doing wrong. You take your time getting home and when you walk in your wife asks you where you've been. You're tired and you don't want to argue about anything so you just mumble a reply.

Your wife asks you what's wrong and you tell her that you don't want to talk about it. You can tell that she's getting angry when she says, "You never want to talk about anything." You know that this discussion is going to turn into a war of insults in a few minutes so you start to tune your wife out.

It is very common to hear a spouse complain that his or her partner is overly critical. Most marriage breakdowns come after a breakdown in positive communication. Couples move from love to contempt very quickly when they don't know how to control the cycle of criticism and insult. Understanding why your spouse is critical and what you can do about it will improve your marriage and help turn negative communication into positive communication.

A wife might make what she thinks is a suggestion to improve the marriage but, because of different communicating styles, her husband might interpret her comment as a criticism of how he is performing as a husband or father. The husband may then respond defensively, accusing his wife of something else. This discussion elevates until husband and wife are hurling personal insults at one another and eventually coming to feel contempt for one another. This cycle becomes a habit and eventually every discussion turns into a full-fledged battle.

This is a common scenario in which one or both spouses acquire the habit of constant criticism. There are also other common scenarios. One spouse may respond to the criticism with passive acceptance and eventually adopt the victim role. This kind of situation usually leads to abuse. Another possibility is for one spouse to adopt a passive-aggressive role in which he actively ignores his partner's criticisms. This kind of scenario also creates a cycle in which every discussion becomes an argument.

All of these patterns are the result of poor communication styles. Spouses misunderstand one another and create an endless cycle of criticism and defensive behavior. It is very likely that your spouse doesn't really want to always be critical and always argue but he or she doesn't know how to communicate in a healthy way. There is always hope to bring love and understanding back into a marriage but it is necessary for both of you to change the way you communicate.


1. Make a commitment to try to improve.

As you and your spouse begin the process of improving your communication, it is important to remember that both of you have to make a commitment to the effort. Your relationship will never improve if only one of you is trying.

2. Learn to recognize what behaviors are hurtful to one another.

Part of overcoming the negative communication in your relationship is learning to recognize and control those behaviors that hurt your spouse. One way to do this is to record an argument between you and your spouse and then analyze together what things are hurtful to one another. Another way is to have a controlled discussion in which one of you speaks while the other uses gestures or signs to show you when your behavior affects him or her negatively, positively, or neutrally.

3. Respond to criticism with empathy.

Both you and your spouse should practice responding with empathy to one another's comments. This may mean establishing ground rules in which you may only speak after summarizing what it is that you understood from your spouse's comments. An exercise like this will force you to try to see things from your spouse's perspective. And it will improve your ability to communicate–and decreasing the frustration that occurs when you feel attacked and criticized.

4. Take personal responsibility for all of your statements.

When we make suggestions to each other we often speak in the form of a command or an accusation (i.e., "You never listen" or "You should always call if you're going to be late"). These kinds of statements will almost inevitably create resentment. It is more effective to take personal responsibility by using "I" statements (i.e., "I feel like you aren't listening to me" or "I would appreciate it if you could call when you're going to be late"). These kinds of statements are much more likely to promote understanding.

5. Be willing to forgive and to give in often.

When we argue we are inclined to latch onto our argument and defend it at all costs, even if we know that we're wrong. Couples commonly forget what they were arguing about in the heat of a battle. Whatever the argument, it is not likely to be worth the misery of constant bickering. If you and your spouse are both ready to forgive one another and give in to each other most of the time, you'll find that you will have many fewer disagreements about foolish things. Besides, even if you've been married for only a little while, you've probably already learned that "winning" an argument still doesn't make you feel happy all the time when your spouse is hurting and frustrated.

6. Seek professional help if needed.

Some problems may be too difficult to solve by yourselves and in these cases it is wise to seek help from a trained marriage counselor or coach. These professionals can help you see the problems and give you direction and ways to work on them without creating more conflict.

7. Start now to solve your differences.

The old saying is true, if you want different outcomes, you have to do somethings differently. Regardless of how serious you think your problem is, it's important to start working on changing your relationship right now.


Tucker-Ladd, C.E. (1998). Psychological self-help. [On-Line] Available Internet: Hostname: File: psyhelp.

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