Ok, fine. This also applies to husbands who need to refrain from criticizing their wives. But. The one-sides title of this article is because 1) 90% of my followers are female and 2) In therapy, the overly-critical wife and the overly-avoidant husband happens waaaaaay more often than the other way around. (Women are more-often anxious; therefore more-often critical.)
When I first heard the controversial admonition to avoid criticizing your spouse all-together, I was skeptical to say the least.
Now, a decade later, my professional and personal experience have solidified that no-criticism-in-the-relationship does indeed make sense. Here’s why:
1) Criticism kills motivation. Universally. It’s not a sign of weakness that your husband avoids trying when he’s diminished; it’s a sign of being human. (Criticism also increases the likelihood of your spouse becoming defensively aggressive or eventually passive-aggressive…Not that your criticism gets him off the hook from reacting constructively. This isn’t to say that another person being a dick is ever your fault. But, for what it’s worth, the criticism/passive-aggression dynamic is something I see a LOT, and it’s not exactly something to aspire to.)
2) Your criticism doesn’t articulate your unmet need OR how to meet it. Saying “you are always on your phone,” doesn’t pinpoint that you are feeling abandoned OR give your man the slightest idea how to make you feel not-abandoned.
3) The healthy/constructive behavior of simply asking for what you want him to do differently does not require pointing out what he did wrong. (Making a direct request instead of criticizing is what Imago therapy suggests.)
4) Diminishing someone else usually feels good when you are lacking in power, but it actually ends up decreasing your power by increasing the likelihood that the other person will not hear you.
5) Diminishing someone else usually feels good when you are lacking in appreciation and a sense of adequacy. But putting someone down is the quickest way to make that person stop seeing the good in you. And, I always say, there’s nothing wrong with directly asking for some appreciation.
6) Using criticism (anger, hurting someone “back.”) is usually an instinct when someone feels that they have been intentionally, personally slighted. You know what is more constructive than criticism in this instance? Asking if the other person meant to hurt you, before making an assumption. Six times out of ten, you will get a “no” and an explanation. (The other four times, you will get a “no” and an eye-roll, but I digress.)
7) Using criticism tempts to give us a sense of control and safety when we feel anxious and worried. But when we fear that some spousal oversight will be result in catestrophic consequences, it is often more constructive to remind ourselves that it’s not the end of the world (therapy can help with reigning in anxiety).
8) Your husband is wired differently than you. He has different strengths and limitations, which result in attending-to, focusing-on, caring-about, and tolerating different things. His behavior is not necessarily passive-aggression, uncaring, or negligence. So, why not just explain your needs and make a request according to this reality?
9) We choose what aspects to feed and grow in our lives and in our relationships. If we focus on the negative (pointing out what’s “bad”), our spouses begin to look pretty crappy over-all. If we focus on the positives and liberally issue appreciation (even for small things), we genuinely become happier in our relationship (even if the other person’s behavior didn’t change.)
10) Research. Gottman considers “criticism” to be one of the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse, or one of four behaviors that predicts divorce. Also, Gottman’s research suggests that happy couples engage in FIVE positive/up-building statements for every ONE negative/diminishing statement.
Just something to think about as usual, from the therapist who totally uses criticism sometimes because theories are aspirational and indeed no one is perfect.
PS if you’re a same sex couple or a husband who is over critical of his wife, change the pronouns and the same concepts apply.