The other day I was walking through Costco when I heard a husband suggest to his wife that they get a bag of dog food. She critically responded, “We don’t need that whole bag of dog food. He’ll never go through it all.”
“It was just a suggestion,” her husband responded with an edge of defensiveness in his voice.
We kept passing each other on the aisles through the store. At one point she asked her husband to get a large bag of rice. He picked up the long grain rice and she snapped at him, “Do I ever buy long grained rice? We have been married for seven years. In seven years, have I even bought long grained rice?”
Her husband stood up and said, “Which rice would you like me to get.” He was obviously getting angry. By the time we made it through the warehouse, they were not speaking to each other and both of them looked angry and resentful.
Criticism makes it difficult for your partner to open up and vulnerably move towards you. The message your partner receives when you’re critical is that he isn’t good enough. Unfortunately, that doesn’t lead to the connection and closeness that you are longing for. It leads to defensiveness and withdrawal–the two things that are hurting you right now.
In relationships, we know why this criticism happens. It is usually a symptom of not feeling loved and important. That’s a very normal response, but it’s not a very helpful one.
While it may not seem like it, your partner desperately needs to know that he is good enough for you. That’s how much you matter!! Your criticism wouldn’t sting if you didn’t matter. But it does hurt your partner–so much so that he may even pretend that it doesn’t.
Lucy was shocked when her husband Brian explained this to her in therapy. For years, she was sure she had no impact on her husband. It didn’t matter what she said, she would never get a response. But when Brian began to soften and finally told her of the pain all those years of criticism had caused, Lucy was devastated.
“I may pretend like I don’t hear or I don’t care,” Brian said, “but I hear everything you say to me. And I remember everything you say. That’s when I wonder if you regret marrying me. I get afraid you’ll get fed up with me and find someone who can be a better husband for you.”
So what exactly is criticism?
Dr. John Gottman uses a powerful illustration of criticism called, “What’s Wrong with Jim.” I quote it with permission.
1. Jim doesn’t listen.
2. Jim doesn’t show his feelings
3. Jim is not a good father.
4. Jim doesn’t help around the house.
5. Jim doesn’t recycle.
6. Jim is lousy in bed.
7. Jim runs away when the feelings get hot.
8. Jim isn’t a good planner.
9. Jim doesn’t pay the bills on time.
10. Jim neglects his friends.
11. Jim doesn’t call his mother very often.
12. Jim flirts with other women at parties.
13. Jim rushes me when I’m trying to get ready.
14. Jim leaves his dirty clothes all around.
15. Jim breaks dishes when he washes them. I think he does this on purpose.
16. Jim drinks to excess.
17. Jim yells at other drivers and it scares the kids.
18. Jim is a couch potato.
19. Jim goes to the grocery store and then forgets the list, so he doesn’t get the essentials like toilet paper.
20. Jim often forgets to flush.
21. Jim doesn’t ask me about my day, he just talks about his day.
22. Jim doesn’t share his innermost feelings with me.
23. Jim gets rowdy at parties.
24. Jim doesn’t clean up after a party.
25. Jim is too lenient with the kids.
26. Jim is sometimes too strict with the kids.
27. When Jim paints, he leaves spots undone.
28. Jim’s attitude toward women is sexist.
29. Jim forgets to feed the cat.
30. When Jim does feed the cat, he doesn’t wash the fork off but leaves it to get crusty and yucky in the sink, so I have to clean the disgusting thing.
31. There’s rarely foreplay before sex.
32. When he talks, he brags. I could laugh, he’s such a fool.
If a friend or coworker or even your spouse were to write a “What’s Wrong with Jim” list based on your comments about your spouse, what would it sound like?
Criticism is not only in the words we use but also in our tone and non-verbal expressions. Rolling your eyes, speaking sarcastically, or acting put out when your partner doesn’t get it right communicates just as much (and sometimes more) than the words you use. This week, I encourage you to pay close attention to how you speak to your spouse. If you find yourself being critical, stop and try again. “I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. Let me try that again.” Make a commitment today to build your partner up rather than tear him/her down.
(Used with permission. Gottman, J. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: Norton.)