The cost of criticism in relationships

bleeding hearts flowers

By Jana

“Never criticize your spouse’s faults; if it weren’t for them, your mate might have found someone better than you”~Jay Trachman

When my future husband and I were preparing for marriage, we took an Institute class where the teacher told us that there was no such thing as “constructive criticism.” He challenged us to never criticize our spouses and to find other ways of solving problems. He suggested a standing weekly meeting where each partner could air grievances, but without being critical, rather just explaining and owning our own feelings.

I’ve thought a lot about that advice over the years. There’ve been many times that I abandoned it completely in favor of a biting word. Often those times have been behind the person’s back who I was criticizing. I suspect that very little of my criticism effected positive change. If anything, I found that such criticism led to a cycle of more critical thoughts that became habitual. As I reflect on the times that I’ve said these things, I feel a sense of ugliness. Criticism is not uplifting or enlightening.

Now, do let me add the caveat here that I don’t view honest conversations about tough topics, even discussing how someone’s behavior is out-of-line or has brought harm to others, as wrong. I believe in speaking plainly and pointedly when there are problems. But that is different than criticism.

I love this quotation:

“Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you. Love me and I may be forced to love you.”~William Arthur Ward

I think about this often as I teach, as I parent, as I interact with my spouse, and as I progress in my spiritual journey. Is there value in criticism? Are their ways to offer feedback to people without using criticism? What is the cost to my own psyche when I fall into patterns of criticism?

Today I am thinking specifically about the cost of criticism in our closest relationships–with family members and good friends. Can you share how you’ve experienced criticism in your relationships? Do you have any suggestions for those who might want to remedy their own criticism habits?

Photo taken in my garden


Jana is a university administrator and teaches History. Her soloblog is

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10 Responses

  1. Deborah says:

    Phew. I think about this a lot. If something bothers my husband, he just says it. Gets it out. I tend to stew, to play passive games. Family patterns, I think.

    Funny thing is, when I am internally critical of my husband — no matter how well I think I’m hiding it — it leads to conflict. My body language, my *energy* must communicate my critical thoughts — I can’t hide them.

    The longer we are together, the more I cling to the idea that we are each other’s refuge. That in a world of blows and buffets, this is the place (home) that he and I should be able to find someone who *believes* in them. So I’m getting better at expressing myself when I’m upset — because I don’t want anything to fester.

    And, simple as this is, when I pray for my husband when I’m in critical mode — pray in really specific terms — it helps melt the umbrage.

  2. Caroline says:

    I think about this topic too. Though I adore my husband, I can be critical when he does certain things. I’m pretty up front when something irritates me, and I give him credit, he deals with it pretty well. It’s much harder for me to accept criticism. I hope to be better about that some day.

    For me, trying to balance truth/open communication with kindness and compassion is tough. I haven’t figured it out yet.

  3. Jessawhy says:

    What a great topic, Jana.
    I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on this subject (relationships), and if I can incorporate 1% of what I read into my life, it will make a huge difference.
    Some of the themes I’ve read about are: unconditional love, being honest about myself and my mistakes, forgiving myself and others, being at peace in my heart.
    The books that have helped a lot have been
    Real Love by Greg Baer
    The Anatomy of Peace by The Arbinger Institute. (very much like Leadership and Self-Deception, if you liked that one)
    It’s so eye opening, though, to read these books and realize how much I am consumed by criticism, or other ways of justifying my own choices. Being aware of my mistakes is the first step in fixing them, even though some of my behaviors are patterns I’ve had over years of interactions.
    I like what Deborah said about spouses being each other’s refuge. Thanks for the post and comments.

  4. ZD Eve says:

    I really enjoyed this post and the subsequent reflections. I just read the initial quote about not criticizing your spouse’s faults because without them he or she would have found someone better than you to my husband, and he laughed.

    I think in marriage there’s always the temptation to make your spouse the obstacle to your happiness–if only he or she didn’t ________ or did _________. But I too really like what Deborah said about being each other’s refuge in a shifting and uncertain world.

  5. Jack says:

    I’ve learned in my twenty years of marriage that there are very few occasions when criticism might–I say might–be justified. And of those occasions when we feel a sense of justification there are very few that are not motivated in part by a desire to “even the score.” And of those occasions when pure motives prevail love is likely to find a better way than criticism.

  6. Angie says:

    I have noticed in my marriage that when I am angry about something my husband does, that the anger becomes the new and bigger problem. This is true no matter what – even if my husband was originally in the wrong. In my experience, anger and criticism divide us from each other, and that lack of unity is the biggest problem of all.

    My husband is a high school choir teacher, and a few of the LDS parents in his school were openly – and not so openly – critical of him. They drove him out with their criticism, despite all the other supportive parents and his own best efforts. This was very hurtful for him and our whole family, but we have learned first-hand the power of criticism to destroy. Now we know intimately why we are counseled not to criticize our church leaders. Being critical divides us, it hurts, and it creates an atmosphere where it’s almost impossible for the criticized person to improve. It seems illogical, but focusing out someone’s faults is a great way to make it harder for them to fix them.

  7. Vada says:

    Like others, I’ve found that if I’m upset by something my husband did (or didn’t do), it’s only worse if I don’t say anything. I’m way too prone to let things fester and build up and get blown way out of proportion. But criticism also isn’t helpful, so I’ve spent some time thinking about what to say. I’ve found that the best solution for me is to say something quickly (when it’s just a small annoyance), and then I can get past it easily. But rather than criticize, I try to just express my feelings. For example, when my husband doesn’t empty the trash when I ask him to (this happened this week), rather than criticizing him for being a bad husband or not listening or not helping around the house, I try to say something like “I would really have appreciated it if you’d taken out the trash” or “It made me upset that you didn’t take out the trash when I asked you to.” That way he knows that he upset me, and being a good husband, will apologize, and we can both move on from what was really something rather insignificant.

    Also, I love the quote by William Arthur Ward, and Deborah’s comment about praying for those we might be upset with. I’ve found that when I decide to just love someone no matter what they’ve done, and especially if I then pray for them, I’m the one who’s been richly blessed. A lot of the greatest friendships in my life have come when someone hurt me, and I decided to forgive them, love them, and pray for them rather than be mad and hold a grudge. I’ve become much closer to those people afterwards, and they’ve gotten me through some of the roughest times in my life. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I’d instead held a grudge and not had those good friends to lean on later.

  8. Julie says:

    I appreciated this post and it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.”
    – John Kenneth Galbraith

    To me, that is many times at the heart of any issue in which I feel a need to criticize. I am thinking more about how I am right and the other person is wrong instead of looking at the bigger issue. My life has been changed by reading The Art of Giving and Receiving Criticism by Dr. John Lund and the Terry Warner books “The Bonds that Make us Free” and Leadership and Self Deception. Thanks for the opportunity to reflect on this subject.

  9. Kiri Close says:

    When Rob and I first married, I wanted ‘this’ and ‘that’ to be completed in my own quickety-lickety-shplickety time frame. I also talked really, really fast to him and expected him to keep up-deep down inside, I knew I was showing off (my hubba is more a contemplater and listener).

    Rob has always treated me like a queen even during our dating, and so I somehow translated this as my allowance to be an IDD: Impossible Demanding Diva.

    Of course, at the time, I didn’t think I was. 6 years later, I am learning how much more effective I am as a queen when I am quick to hear, slow to demand (demands are a form of criticism). I also have had to learn how he communicates—extremely different from my style which is somehow much more polite and patient, less assertive with everyone else BUT my husband. Strange how I do that.

    I am learning how not to be condescending (by demanding) toward him when I need something done or from him. I also have to consider if my needs are truly genuine (although I keep hinting to him about the new multi-hued vernis Louis Vuitton handbags are a must and will be my only purchase from that cow-killing brand).

  10. Ann says:

    I drove my husband to and from a doctor’s appointment. There was no hurry to get home. Once there, he criticized me for allowing someone to cut in front of me. He criticized me for “giving space” to others and for taking my favorite route and a little detour for sight-seeing. He didn’t think I merged fast enough and accused me of taking a route that was too long and could have been shorter his way.
    This may be very true but I was enjoying myself and I guess I was the one talking.
    I felt leveled and hurt and reminded him
    of his double standard. He can critique me but not I him. I was angry at him. He never lets up on my driving. I’m careful, conservative, kind and non-aggressive when I drive. He tries to drive and will spend the entire trip making a score card for me. It just ruined this day. I felt as though I were being graded for a test.

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