How to Deal with a Constantly Critical Partner
The Constantly Critical Partner – a Mixture of Magnetism and Recoil
How many times a day do you feel like escaping your constantly critical partner?
Remember anticipating that nagging voice of your constantly critical partner on the way home, making you put your wall up before you get through the door?
No doubt you wonder what you are doing with someone who is a constantly critical partner, but who doesn’t feel like a partner.
Maybe you wish that your constantly critical partner would leave and set you free.
You know you aren’t a bad person and don’t deserve this attack from your constantly critical partner. But it isn’t enough to shield you from the acid of the criticism. Somehow it seeps into your core being and threatens to erode it – making you unsure of yourself; doubting and questioning your reality until you are lost, unmoored, feeling unstable and a bit crazy.
Yet you don’t leave, and your partner stays too.
There is an invisible magnet keeping you both in a loop that is driven by the need for control, and a sense of self-righteousness where each strives to prove their ‘goodness.’
Both partners try to control their fear and dread of not being valued, wanted and loved. They do so by pushing out their fear of being unlovable by making the other one the cause and source of inner torturer; inflicting a life of pain and misery on the other.
A Constantly Critical Partner Pushes Your Hot Buttons With Exquisite Precision
Lawrence, a 37-year-old successful real estate developer married to get away from his nagging, controlling parents. His 36-year-old homemaker wife Gina won him over with her sympathy and understanding, joining forces with him against his parents, until five years and two children into their marriage. That’s when Gina rampted up her complaints about almost everything related to Lawrence.
Gina chastised Lawrence for talking to his friends on the phone.
She made him wrong for his way of making breakfast for their kids.
Often Gina criticized him for leaving her and going on hikes, while at other times she castigated him for looking unhappy; and or not supporting her every decision.
She saw Lawrence as the embodiment of her absent, negligent father and her weak, indecisive unavailable mother.
He took the bait since he was already programmed to be criticized and devalued from his childhood experience.
A Constantly Critical Partner Puts You on the Defensive
At times Lawrence couldn’t stop the sting of the criticisms penetrating deep inside and undermining his confidence and sense of self. He felt so worthless that he withdrew physically and sexually, trying to make up for the loss through rough-and-tumble play with the kids. They loved it and the joy on their faces gave him enough emotional food to keep going.
At other times Lawrence wanted to fight back and prove his constantly critical partner wrong. He wanted to make her eat her words and apologize. But his strategies failed and he was deflated in defeat.
Asserting himself meant he had to take the chance of agitating his constantly critical partner and ratcheting up the conflict; or have his assertion turned against him as typical of his apparent ‘selfishness.’
In the wretchedness of self-defeat Lawrence typically withdrew to protect himself from the onslaught from his constantly critical partner. He numbed out with weed, video games and alcohol. That was his way of maintaining control of himself – making sure that he was sufficiently padded so that Gina’s debasing criticism could no longer intrude and destroy him.
A Constantly Critical Partner Sets you up to Create a Self-fulfilling Prophecy
The more Lawrence distanced himself in an act of self-protection, the more Gina mocked and accused him of proving her point – that he was not present, didn’t do anything right, and couldn’t be relied upon. He gave her the ammunition to reload and shoot to kill on a consistent basis.
His way of protecting himself was used to make her right and vindicate her critical stance. Now Gina felt self-righteous and acted like the ‘wronged party.’
When Lawrence started to cook breakfast for the kids he expected to be judged by Gina and unconsciously egged her on by asking for recognition and prompting the kids to praise him in her presence. Gina was provoked into finding something to complain about and created a self-fulfilling prophecy for Lawrence.
This pattern is part of an Obsessive Compulsive chain where both parties attempt to avoid and prevent harm and danger to themselves. As a study in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 2019 reports when looking at the predictors of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One partner like Lawrence absorbs and takes responsibility for the relational problem, making him ruminate with obsessive thoughts that he really is to blame for the problems as he anticipates being debased and devalued.
Constantly Critical Partner Relationships are based on Sado-Masochistic Patterns
In relationships with a constantly critical partner, one partner is more masochistic and the other more sadistic and paranoid. As a report in the Psychoanalytic Review, 1963 reveals, the masochistic partner gives up power for love, while the paranoid partner renounces love for the sake of power. The masochist seems depressed whenever he attempts to assert himself on his own behalf, just like Lawrence. Whereas the sadistic- paranoid partner (who experiences the partner as a threat (paranoia) that has to be killed or disarmed) reacts in hostile, aggressive manners and gets relief from releasing that uncomfortable emotional heaviness inside, just like Gina.
Constantly Critical Partner is Full of Unhappiness
Receiving Gina’s constant criticism made Lawrence unhappy. But it didn’t belong to him. He was absorbing Gina’s unhappiness, fear of abandonment and neglect. When he absorbed it, he became the ‘abandoner’ by being willing to hold and carry it. He became the negligent care giver and the unavailable significant other just by passively consenting to let it rest inside him.
Gina was then able to see him as the heavy, unhappy, rejecting and abandoning partner because he took it off her and held onto it. She disowned it and experienced it as belonging solely to Lawrence.
She saw her own reflection in him, but he didn’t know that. Lawrence thought she was attempting to paint him into a person he wasn’t. Under threat he withdrew or tried to prove her wrong, unsuccessfully.
Dealing with a Constantly Critical Partner
Lawrence needs to work in individual counseling to handle this impossible marital relationship where he is the reservoir of all Gina’s unbearable feelings of fear, abandonment and helplessness. Here are some steps he can work on in therapy.
- Imagine a wall between him and his wife when Gina begins her critical attack, so that he creates a psychological shield, keeping her stuff on her side of the wall as much as possible.
- When she is done criticizing and has spent her fury, give her back her intolerable feelings so that she can learn to address them and take responsibility for her stuff.
Say, “You never have anything nice to say about me!”
That statement does 2 things: it stops the critical attack on Lawrence. He doesn’t have to absorb her toxic emotions. Gina is faced with having to reflect on her behavior and emotional turbulence; sensing the risk she is taking of pushing Lawrence away for good and defeating herself.
- Work on building up his sense of self, separating his stuff from hers, so that he won’t be so vulnerable to her giving him all her unhappiness. Lawrence needs to tone down his masochistic tendencies and become more active in self-care.
Gina also needs to heed the warning that the constant criticism will destroy the very person that she wants to love and cherish her. Hopefully it will bring her into insecurity counseling to do some work on her vulnerabilities so that she isn’t suffering with the horrors of paranoid thoughts that leave her feeling so insecure.
When both have done a good amount of personal therapy, Gina and Lawrence may be ready to see each other as trustworthy and lovable in the safety of couples counseling.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2019
All rights reserved.
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