No marriage is perfect. And if we are honest, sometimes we all wish our spouse would speak or behave differently.
In a healthy relationship, a husband and wife can communicate these irritations or frustrations in ways that don’t tear each other down. When there is mutual love and respect, such conversations can bring about positive results.
By comparison, when spouses speak in a critical way toward one another, intimacy is shut down and resentment flourishes.
No matter how much we love our spouse, when we’re upset or frustrated, we may speak harshly and critically. That may be a very occasional occurrence. But in some marriages, for one spouse or the other, or even both, criticism is a regular part of communication. And they may not even realize it.
Let’s take a closer look at some attributes of critical speech.
- Sounds like an accusation. It has an accusing tone and may include diagnosing, labeling or lecturing
- Often questions intent – May assume the other person’s motives are negative, and present that as absolute truth
- May be general in nature – Is often directed at a person’s character or temperament rather than a specific incident or behavior.
- May exaggerate – Sometimes includes phrases like “you always” and “you never”
- Sounds arrogant – Can come across as condescending, authoritarian, or self-righteous
- Feels like an attack – This is the central feature of criticism. It blames and disparages, so that the other person feels defensive instead of safe.
So what causes a person to be critical toward another?
When someone is habitually critical of others, it may be because they are worried, anxious or stressed. They respond to this anxiety by trying to control others.
Another common cause is life experience. For example, when a parent is frequently critical, their children may become habitually critical themselves. And they may not realize the effect their words have on others.
Sound familiar? If you often speak critically to your spouse, and you want to change that behavior, here are a few ideas.
8 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit:
Take a 24-hour challenge
You can do this alone or with your spouse. Commit to going 24 hours without criticizing the other person. Do your very best to follow through. You may discover that critical speech is more of a habit than you realized.
If you are angry, stop for a moment. Before speaking ask yourself, is this the way I would speak to a close friend or a co-worker? If you would address those people more respectfully, why not give your spouse the same courtesy?
Identify what you want
When you are tempted to criticize, ask yourself, what do I want? I know I’m upset, and I know what I don’t want, but what is it that I DO want right now? If you don’t know the answer right away, think about that for a bit and then discuss it with your spouse.
Make specific requests
You may feel like saying, “You never help me with the kids!” Instead, figure out what you want and try expressing it as a specific request: “Would you please put the kids to bed in the evenings? If you would take them to bed at 8:30 while I clean the kitchen, it would really be helpful.”
Remember to listen
Any conversation should be a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s especially true when in a disagreement. Be sure to give your spouse time to speak, and listen attentively.
Acknowledge that no one is perfect
Accept that perfection is not attainable. You may believe you are helping your spouse by telling them the “right way” to do something, but it may harm your relationship in the long run. Remind yourself that your marriage is more important than having everything done according to your preferences.
Try a one-week challenge
Once you’ve made it through the 24-hour challenge in number 1, you are ready for this. Agree with your spouse that for a week, neither of you will criticize the other. Instead, each person will keep a list of what bothers them. Every time your spouse annoys or upsets you, write it on the list. At the end of the week, each of you will privately read over your lists and cross off everything that no longer seems like a big deal. It may surprise you how trivial many irritations seem after a little time has passed.
Then, discuss any remaining important matters in a calm, respectful manner. (If there are more than three, you can always opt to discuss one or two now and meet again later.)
Enlist God’s help
Meditate on Scriptures like James 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV). Ask God to help you break the habit of criticism and learn to voice your feelings in a more loving way. If this has been an ongoing issue in your marriage, admit this to yourself and to your spouse, and ask for forgiveness.
Remember, it can take a while to break habits and change behavior patterns. But when we avoid criticism and learn to communicate in a way that builds love and respect, we create a safe atmosphere in our marriage. And we nourish a relationship in which real intimacy can grow.