How To Stand Up To A Critical Partner

Annie Gurton

Relationship Therapist

Criticism is like battery acid in a relationship – extremely caustic and powerfully, permanently damaging.  For many women with good levels of self-esteem, the first sign of criticism is enough to throw the towel in, but for others who may feel that it is unintended or it is worth attempting to overcome, criticism is something to be acknowledged, accepted and rationalised by good communication.

critical-partnerimage via pinterest

What you should not do is respond in kind, or ignore it.  By sending back another criticism by way of a reply things are only made worse, never better.  And ignoring it is tacit approval that its alright to use hurtful critical words, and encouraging more in the future.

In Imago Relationship Therapy we use a method of structured dialoging to get both partners to express themselves, so the giver of the criticism can come to learn how damaging even casual remarks can be, and the receiver can learn to stand up for themselves in a non-aggressive way.  While it is unwise to retaliate with criticism of your own, it is equally unwise to passively accept constant criticism.

By allowing your partner to cut you down, you are establishing a power structure in which he or she is the dominant one. If this becomes a pattern it can easily lead to harsher forms of abuse. When your partner voices criticism about something, rather than simply accepting it, you should learn to discuss the issue calmly and try to find ways both of you can improve the situation.

It is very likely that your partner doesn’t really want or intend to be critical but he or she doesn’t know how to communicate in a healthy way.  The good news is that it is absolutely possible to bring love and understanding, and warmth and kindness, back into your relationship.


1. Ask your partner to have a discussion about what happened, and ask if now is a good time.  Your partner may say that now is not a good time, so ask to agree a time within the next 24 hours. Sometimes it is best not to have a conversation immediately while feelings are running high, but to wait to later in the day or next day until things have settled down before opening a discussion about the criticism.

2. Explain to your partner how the words felt like a criticism, and how that made you feel.  Use ‘I’ statements, and don’t be accusatory.  Keep the focus on whats going on for you.

3. Whatever your partners response, mirror back their words so that they feel heard.  You can paraphrase, but its best if you mirror them back exactly.

4. Then summarise what you’ve heard them say, and tell them what part of what they’ve said makes sense to you.  This validation is important because it emphasises that you have truly been listening to them – you don’t have to necessarily agree with them, but just put yourself in their shoes and tell them what makes sense to you in what they’ve said.

5. Lastly, imagine how your partner is feeling emotionally, and share that with them.  For example, ‘I imagine that you are feeling frustrated, and that might mean that you are lonely in our relationship.’

We cannot force someone to apologise, and it is not our intention to make our partner feel bad but just to understand that their words were cutting and painful, and unhelpful to the relationship.  If this is expressed in a calm way, and your partner comes to appreciate that criticism is pointless and painful, hopefully they will express less criticism and more compliments.

If the idea of holding a structured dialogue seems impossible, an Imago Relationship Therapist will help you learn the process and technique, and your relationship can move forward to a happier and healthier place in the future.


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