Dear Neil: I grew up with a father who was very critical and controlling, but I was never on the receiving end. I am now critical of my husband, and on a regular basis I point out flaws in his thinking, his behavior and in his speech. I regret everything I say, but I cannot simply remain silent, because then I get resentful and negative emotions seep out of me anyway. Is this a flaw in my character? Is there anything I can do about this?
Critical in Santa Clara, California
Dear Critical: It is possible that because you were not on the receiving end of your father’s criticism, you don’t know how it feels to be chronically judged and disapproved of. So here’s a test for you: are you highly judgmental and critical of yourself? If the answer is yes, then you know how demoralizing and paralyzing persistent fault-finding can feel.
So ask yourself this question. “When I point out my husband’s flaws, does he interpret my criticism as loving, encouraging and helpful, or does he feel I am cutting him down and making him feel deficient?” If your husband sees your criticism as helpful, then perhaps you’re doing no harm. If, on the other hand, he feels as if you’re calling him inadequate, incompetent or unacceptable, your judgmental words are no doubt pushing him away and distancing your marriage. So which are you trying to do?
Many people who are critical are not fully aware of how their assessment is received by others. Some judgmental people are attempting to make the other person feel inferior. Others feel so badly about themselves that they’re afraid that their spouse or partner will leave them and find someone of higher quality, so they attempt to cut the other person down to size so s/he doesn’t feel good enough to leave or find someone else. Still others are caught in a habitual pattern of judging and criticizing because that’s what they grew up with and have always been around. I’m suggesting that it would be wise for you to carefully examine exactly what your motives are in being so repetitively critical of your husband.
One of the most prudent and enlightened things every spouse or partner must learn is when to not say anything at all. Pick your battles, because you’re not going to get your way all the time, and you must discern what’s important from what’s merely desirable. So before you say anything critical to your husband, ask yourself “Is this so important that I am willing to risk a fight and/or us being angry or distant from each other?” If you can’t say yes to that question, then follow the adage: silence is golden.