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The Chronically Critical Spouse--Strategies to Maintain Peace

The Chronically Critical Spouse--Strategies to Maintain Peace


"Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace…." (Pirkei Avos)

The ideal marriage is one in which there is healthy communication between the two spouses; the mode of working through difficulties includes negotiation, compromise and an ability to recognize and accept "feelings" but rise above them and deal with "facts."

The reality of many marital relationships is that not all people are capable of healthy communication. Instead, they initiate conversations with sarcasm and attacks, which may be subtle or obvious. And any response seems to increase the tension, unresolved difficulties and disappointments. This slow, and often insidious, invisible disintegration sometimes is not felt for years. Then, suddenly, one spouse may wake up to the fact that the distance between them is growing and the "walls" are becoming thicker. They seem to be leading parallel lives, with no real connection.

If such couples can work together to learn communication skills and become more respectful of each other, it is certainly possible to regain some degree of harmony. But, what happens when there is only effort on the part of one spouse and the other is simply not interested? When the hurtful words and behaviors become too painful, the healthier spouse must learn to defuse the damaging tirades that gnaw away at the marriage.

When we feel attacked or criticized, our automatic response is to defend ourselves with one of our three primitive (initial-automatic)) responses: fight, flight or freeze. For example:

(FIGHT) "You're so up-tight and nervous!" Automatic response: "If you'd help more, I wouldn't have to be uptight. You're just like your mother-always finding fault and demanding perfection."

(FREEZE) "Why can't you take an extra job to provide for our family?" Automatic response: withdrawal into silence and shame.

(FLIGHT)"Why is this house always so messy?" Automatic response: run away crying.

What is really needed at the instant of the hurt, are some "ready" responses that help you "switch gears" and think about a response that would be kinder and more productive, both to you and your spouse. The well-known suggestion to "count to ten" is important as it serves as a bridge between the lower, instinctive response and the higher, rational one. If you can reduce the sense of danger, you can reduce the initial "punch" and keep the "war of words" from escalating. (By the way, as an added benefit, this approach can also work wonders with children, who can be so tenacious in their questions and/or demands.)

With chronically critical people, you must learn to stop the urge to defend, explain or counter attack. While the critical person wants to "engage" you with provocative, accusatory statements, you must avoid responding with old "right-wrong," "win-lose," "fair- not fair!" patterns. You must also learn to avoid the thinking that "I can change him/her." You cannot be responsible for someone else's thought, speech or deed, only for your own. The commitment to peace rather than power is a serious step towards your own mental health and the health of your family.

Instead of getting into a power struggle with a person who constantly blames, shames and labels, I suggest a "refreshing" approach called the Pareve Response. Often, this response deflates the unhealthy patterns of fight, flight or freeze. This is not meant to be sarcastic or put anyone down, but simply to provide an alternative to destructive verbal dueling. It allows you to buy time, until the hurt has passed and you have given up the need for the other person's understanding and approval. Following are some major "pareve responses" to various accusations or criticisms.

Pareve responses

1) ACCUSATION: "You never have time for me."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "You may be right." (Do not voice the other part – "you may be wrong.")

2) DEMAND: "My mother insists that we come for Passover."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I'm not comfortable with that idea right now." (This indicates that you've heard, but are not yet ready to respond.) Or, "I'll think about it." (This shows that you are not just dismissing the idea.)

3) ACCUSATION: "Where did you get that idiotic idea from?"

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I'm not sure. (It's alright not to be sure, or not to know.) At first, you may reject this response because you do not want to appear stupid. However, it makes the other person feel powerful, which is what critical people want. You also avoid giving explanations, which they are likely to attack. In addition, "To know that you don't know" is actually the highest form of knowledge (according to Maimonides)! Humility is a great personality trait to work on.

4) DEMAND: "You have to take a second job."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "That's an interesting idea/suggestion/opinion." (Note that here again we're acknowledging someone else without having to agree with him. You might also say, "Hmmmm" (and nod)……(Sometimes just letting the other person know you're there and not ignoring them helps to keep the options open rather than create impenetrable walls. It also stops you from withdrawing into hostile silence, which is another form of angry escalation.)

5) COMPARISONS (For example, someone compares you, your kids, your looks, your salary, etc. to someone else.)

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I don't 'do' comparisons. I don't find them helpful."

6) DEMAND: "I must talk to you immediately."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I know you said you need to talk to me right now. But it's not a good time for me right now. How about in an hour?"

7) ACCUSATION: "You don't keep house or cook like my mother."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I've noticed that too."

Quite often, just putting some distance between the action and the reaction will actually result in the topic being dismissed or tabled for a while, or even forgotten altogether. Remember, the above responses are meant to be temporary – to buy time, to cool you down, until you can re-visit the issue without blame, shame, guilt, judgement or criticism.

Notice that in many of the responses we focus on using what is called an "I" message – as opposed to a "you" message. In other words, instead of "You're crazy!" say "I'm not comfortable with that." Replace "You're so lazy" with, "I'm not sure I can finish this job without help."

It is truly a holy challenge to take responsibility and stay within our own "inner environment." It is much easier to go to the "outer environment" and blame or shame someone else, especially when we feel justified in doing so!

Despite the initial pain, once you learn to stay in tune with your own self-control when it comes to responding to others, you can actually have some fun with this invaluable tool. Following are some examples of questions and statements that could prove to be "provocative" – meaning that they might elicit a negative response. Now look through the 7-point list above, and see if you can find another choice for your response.

"Why did you make the appointment at that time?"

"Why didn't you make the appointment?"

"Where did you hide my keys?"

"If you really cared about me, you would……."

"You shouldn't be tired. Everyone else handles these things."

"Your priorities are all mixed up."

"How come you're never on time?"

"Why didn't you pick up the cleaning? What do you do all day?"

"Your priorities are all mixed up."

"Since when did you get so fussy/religious/etc.?"

"Why can't you keep house like your mother?"

"You've put on a lot of weight."

Like any new habit, learning takes time. At first, this might seem awkward and stiff. Many people say, "But it's not me! I could never do that." It certainly will take time to get used to new verbal patterns, and your spouse may become even more belligerent when he/she doesn't get the old, dramatic response. However, if you will "hold your course" and focus on peace not power, you will eventually experience the powerful blessings and benefits of your new-found self-control.

Yehudis Karbal, M.A. LCPC (Licensed Clinically Professional Counselor) is based in Chicago, but is available for phone-consultations.
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Anonymous Saint Louis March 28, 2017

These are easy to remember suggestions. My marriage is a mess, but divorce is not an option right now. I just want to keep the peace in a household with a man who constantly talks down to me and criticizes me. I'm often blindsided (which is surprising that I am) and freeze, then later get mad. I'm going to practice using these kind of responses instead. I've recently truly accepted that he doesn't care how he makes me feel and only desires to power over me. So trying to convince him of my point of view or that I contribute to our lives is pointless. I just want a more peaceful household. I don't need to be validated by him.
I do wonder what happens after you say one of these statements. I know my husband will make sure I completely, thoroughly understand he is right and I am wrong. He simply cannot function until he does. Do you just keep repeating one of these lines or is there a peaceful way out of hearing the dress down? Reply

JP January 17, 2017

This is very helpful in dealing with people like this they really exist, they criticize everything you do and always put you down to uplift themselves, the pareve responds works especially if you love this person and have children and to top it of the person is dependent on you and can't exist financially without you, but always seems to think they have a sense of superiority over you. Since you can't change the person's attitude or leave because of what may happen to them, this tool works like a bomb cause you rise above the person's attitude and deal with them. Reply

Anonymous January 6, 2017

How about this reponse to constant criticism, "Honey, after much consideration to your recent comments about my shortcomings, I think you might wish to take a lon walk on a short pier." Reply

Kova New orleans October 11, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Awesome! Reply

Anonymous December 28, 2016

This information is very helpful. In therapy I've learned that I can be both judgemental and extremely critical. Traits I wish to no longer serve as a purpose or reaction in my life. Reply

Anna New BrunswicK, Canada December 22, 2016

critical spouse I have been learning to do this for 39 years with my husband. Thank you for this post. I can see that I am not alone in my pain and others are given the same test. Noone knows about what I go through - only God. Reply

TLT November 21, 2016

....and once you've come back with your one liner, then what? Reply

Anonymous May 6, 2016

Not easy The above mention is what I did. I feel my husband is abusive. I will tell him that I'm not ready to talk about the issue now, we will talk in an hour or so, he will start pushing me and ask me why not now, what is my problem.

Or if I acknowledge that yup, I might be wrong he will go on and blame me with other stuff. That's when I lose it and feel the need to defend myself because he is stepping on my head. Reply

Anonymous January 5, 2016

I really appreciate this and really really need to learn how to do this, but my question then is how to respond afterwards. When responses like these actually seem to give him more wood for the fire of judging and criticizing. Reply

Anonymous Florida December 2, 2015

Some comments suggest the pareve approach is catering to the abuser, and becoming a doormat. It takes two to create a dominant/submissive conflict. If you, as the powerless one, do not engage, the abuser will have nothing to attack. The responses suggested are defusers. You are robbing the attacker of his prey if you don't defend, a position he or she can then attack again. If you don't play the game, eventually the game will change or stop. Reply

Anonymous Virginia November 22, 2015

Strategy of buying time does not work When your partner is constantly critical. She will be critical now and in 10 mins and in an hour and at all times. From the first word she says in the morning till the last, nothing by negatives. 'Buying time' only works with people that have _some_ sanity left. If that were the case, both this pareve and a slew of other techniques would work just as well.

What should one do when their tormentor is relentless? Reply

Anonymous June 25, 2015

Doesn't this result in the responder turning into a doormat?

Like, what's up with this advice?:

3) Accusation: "Where did you get that idiotic idea from?"

Pareve response: "I'm not sure. (It's alright not to be sure, or not to know.) At first, you may reject this response because you do not want to appear stupid. However, it makes the other person feel powerful, which is what critical people want. You also avoid giving explanations, which they are likely to attack. In addition, "To know that you don't know" is actually the highest form of knowledge (according to Maimonides)! Humility is a great personality trait to work on.

My boyfriend would never call me idiotic, or refer to an idea I had as idiotic, that is straight up emotional abuse. And then the advice is to just roll over and play dead? Wow. I appreciate the conflict management advice overall, but this isn't focusing on how to actually handle critical people, it's focusing on how to avoid their bad behavior. Reply

Anonymous April 25, 2015

to Anonmys Homestead! Yes!!! Emotional Abuse hurts so bad!

"This entire article is teaching you to cater to someone else's over critical and arrogant attitude. It is emotional abuse to always be over critical of your spouse. This article should be speaking on how the other person should be approaching."
Homestead Reply

Anonymous Homestead March 6, 2015

This entire article is teaching you to cater to someone else's over critical and arrogant attitude. It is emotional abuse to always be over critical of your spouse. This article should be speaking on how the other person should be approaching. Reply

Anonymous Florida November 1, 2014

My own dilemna My husband often scolds me for mistakes and omissions. He is a good man, nevertheless, but has many unresolved issues relating to self-esteem and the inability to maintain a sexual relationship in a marriage. He was okay when he was dating. My criticism of him is that he believes he is "owed" a partner who never makes mistakes and never disappoints. I feel that starting over at 83 will be daunting but I have considered it. Parenthetically, I am still sexual and get hits from different age ranges, including younger men. We married after both of us were widowed 20 years ago. I do love him when he isn't being overbearing. Reply

Anonymous Florida October 14, 2014

I love this article it has really helped me in my marriage. Reply

Anonymous May 16, 2014

Works! I have tried this approach with my husband, who is habitually argumentative and sarcastic, and, I believe, has no idea that he is because he claims these are not his intentions. When I express my feelings, he says that I am "saying he did things that aren't true" and the argument begins. Using benign responses seems to calm him, until his sarcasm eventually dissipates and he goes back to normal. I am not getting any comfort or resolution, but at least I don't have to put up with endless retorts and rhetorical questions! It works like magic, Reply

CathyC April 20, 2014

It's interesting to consider a response 'pareve'. As a christian who observes jewish holidays, i never thought of things in life such a s responding as being kosher or not. Reply

Moira Uk February 12, 2014

I lost my mum Christmas Eve and my dad New Year's Day, my husband was supportive for just over a month, then went back to his critical tyrannical ways again. He had a very sad childhood, and although I try to make allowances I find I am running low on sympathy for him.
He says I don't clean house properly, has run down my appearance and told me I'm not intelligent enough to be with him.
I'm very down anyway because of my parents dying, and just feel worthless and useless. Reply

Anonymous November 22, 2013

so true My husband is just like this. He criticizes all the time but also scolds the kids with a loud voice and accusatory tone often. But mostly he criticizes me, everything I do and how I do it. And then expects love at night.
I am getting so sick oh his controlling and critical ways and have tried various techniques to deal with it but it is hard to be calm when you are verbally attacked or criticized Reply

Preacher girl Alaska September 30, 2013

Critical hubby My husband saw a lot of criticism when he was growing up and I know that's why he is like that now. Some times he says "well I wouldn't be critical if your weren't defensive" he claims my defensiveness makes him want to criticize me more. I told him "no it doesn't work that way."He knows he is wrong and is trying to not be critical but he still does it. He complained that I didn't have a job so I got a job and he complained I didn't ask for enough money. I'm willing to try this advice, but I think it takes a willing spouse who will at least try to not be critical. Reply

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Yehudis Karbal, M.A. LCPC (Licensed Clinically Professional Counselor) is based in Chicago, but is available for phone-consultations.
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