Sometimes relationships can be filled with a high degree of criticism. What should a man do when his wife seems to endlessly criticize him? How can he stop being bothered by his wife’s criticism?
Criticism rots, from a wife or others
I can’t think of too many things more discouraging, frustrating and downright exhausting than experiencing my wife’s criticism. John Gottman of the Gottman Instittue identifies criticism as one of the “four horsemen” of a “marriage apocalypse”. Marriages filled with criticism, statistically, have a high probability of ending in divorce. I was losing heart that my own marriage had little hope of lasting because we experienced all the “four horsemen” and in healthy doses!
I was discouraged. But you know what? Those are all gone now and marriage is good now – consistently. No more horsemen (though there is plenty of Horsemon)
“But Sven…!” you might be wondering “How did you do that?!” “I try and try, but my wife’s criticism just cuts me to the core!”
Believe me, I understand, really I do!
My story with pain from my wife’s criticism and critique
There was a time when my wife’s criticism, hell – just about anyone – cut me very very deeply. It felt so unjust and I couldn’t get around it. It seemed like I could only go a few steps in life without encountering it some more. I’d regroup with myself, work harder try to be more diligent and then start to experience it again!
Believe it or not, the criticism wasn’t really the problem. In fact, I now believe there is a place for healthy critique or criticism in my relationship.
In twenty five plus years of marriage, I learned that that criticism was only able to cut me se deeply because of one key attribute about me I didn’t even realize I had – shame.
Yes, shame (that I didn’t even know I had)
Shame is what negatively empowered my wife’s criticism. That shame existed because I did not have a good view of my identity.
Anytime critique was hurled at me and shame was present (which was most of the time), I become triggered because of the shame. Turns out, I was not actually the words I was hearing or being said to me.
Consider this statement representing the kinds of things that would send me into a spiral – and these are mild examples!
“You walked right by the overflowing trash can instead of noticing it and taking it out.”
“We don’t earn enough enough money for us to do that”
“You’re not understanding me”
“I wish we could go to [insert hot vacation destination] like the [some affluent people we knew] are. Must be nice!”
The above are statements of observation. The words themselves do not contain any meaning about my character or identity. They are simply a statements of observation about facts in life, or about my behavior. How I heard or experienced it was much different. Regardless of the tone my wife used, I heard criticism.
Other times they were plenty more direct:
“How come you never take out the trash?!”
“You seem to always make it about you!”
“What… do you just feel you can come home and relax and that I’ll just take care of you?!”
“Why do you give your best to everyone else but me/us!”
In both cases, I allowed the words to have far more meaning behind them than the words conveyed. This is what got me into trouble – and into pain.
I had to first learn to be free of shame about my person and know who I am in order to be free of the impacts of criticism in moments like these,. When I understood who that is and with confidence, I became able respond to statements about what I’m doing or how my wife was experiencing me without feeling hurt by them. I could not do this until I learned to address shame.
My behavior vs my identity
Shame comes in a few flavors and it was important to understand their differences.
Some shame I experience is about my behavior – “I did a bad thing”. This kind of shame is useful until it degrades to the next kind of shame – shame about my person and identity – “I am a bad thing”. This kind of shame is harmful.
When I was young, I got in some trouble for stealing. The moment I got caught I felt the emotional consequences of acting differently than I knew I was capable of being. I was operating outside of my integrity and knew it, and this led me to experience feeling ashamed of my behavior.
I learned not to ever steal again and it was because of that deeply emotional and transformational experience. It was an emotional landmark and sign post for me “this is the last time I am going to do this”. Despite popular thinking on the matter, I believe this kind of shame is helpful. Some might call this guilt. I don’t think the words are as important as the concept – understanding that some of our behavior falls below the standards we hold for ourselves and our behavior.
The source of my shame
Shame about my person started early for me – maybe pre-teens or so. Slowly, it caused me to see myself with very low regard, hatred, and self-loathing despite in reality not being worthy of such. I greatly devalued myself because my understanding of value was entirely wrong.
Sadder still, as I devalued, hated, and loathed myself, at times I just tended to behave accordingly – with more bad behavior. My actions always follow my beliefs. What I believed about my identity will ultimately dictate my behavior. At my worst moments of belief about my self, this resulted in behavior that was pretty bad.
More bad behavior invited, you guessed it, more criticism of that behavior (and sometimes my person) and the cycle continued. The shame that was present caused me to hear all critique about behavior as a critique of person. It was awful!
This is where the pain of criticism was rooted – the sinister impact of eroding my self-esteem, value, worth and significance as a person. You know what? No human was doing that to me but myself. I was interpreting the criticism I was hearing through the filter of existing beliefs about myself and identity.
I didn’t know it, but I lacked confidence in my identity. I’d love to blame this on being teased, bullied, harassed, rejected, not liking my appearance and a whole lot of other things, but I’ve come to understand that everyone experiences this. Every human. That is, until we fix our understanding of our identity.
Could I become confident in my identity?
I’ve always kinda sucked at math so it should be no surprise that the formula I had for understanding my identity was very wrong. My identity was an amalgamation of accomplishments, achievements, physical appearance, doing things right, doing things better than others and having noble and admirable characteristics. I needed that to be validated by others and that was a frustrating zero-sum game because it seemed I was always meeting someone who out-performed, outs-shined, or in myriad other ways, was kicking my ass.
My identity couldn’t endure. That was the real problem. It was only good when I was killing it in life. If I experienced degradation on any of the building blocks of my identity… with it went my sense of self, well being, value and more. See… this way of building an identity is not secure.
You might be thinking “boy, if only he had [ insert some religious/spiritual point of view, experience, etc]”.
This is all life after having spiritually transformative experiences in life, a strong faith and robust understanding of theology. The issue wasn’t a lack of knowledge or experiences, it was that I added them to my accomplishments and achievements list and had a fundamental flaw in understanding my identity – that identity is rooted in value and significance.
Where does value come from?
See, I had this approach to life that saw being valuable, and therefore having an identity that I could be secure in, as being something to attain. If I did the right things, believed the right things, thought the right things… I’d prove myself to be valuable.
I had a view of life that started with a zero balance and tried to earn my way up. Just as with finances, perhaps if and when I earned enough, I could just rest and relax in the security of what I’d earned. Nope. I just kept experiencing bankruptcy and with it, the feelings of needing to do more next time. What a cruel task master that way of living was!
A lifestyle of identity based on anything moveable is like a life where happiness is determined by the current conditions of the stock market. As the market goes up and down, so does the sense of well being. In a bear market, I was easily provoked by critique. In a bull market, I was able to have enough momentary confidence to not be bothered with it.
The issue was, I couldn’t be consistently confident.
It all changed for me when I realized an essential truth; Value, worthiness, significance and identity – those are my origin, not my destination. I’ve never not had these. I had them all along! They were never somewhere to get, but somewhere to come from.
When I realized this, it took me out a market-driven way of seeing value and into a fixed-value mindset. My value cannot change. It cannot increase and it cannot decrease. More on why that is in another post.
Confidence & Security
My confidence is only as good as where I place it and it’s ability to be unmoved. As long as that can move or change, so can my identity, sense of self, and with it, my well being. My confidence must be rooted in something secure, something that cannot move or change if I want a secure identity,. When these are secure, I am secure, valuable, and whole.
If I cannot lose value, then all my wife’s criticism of my person means absolutely nothing. What is there to feel pain about if it’s not true? What can be taken away from me by the criticism? Nothing! If she criticizes me behavior, I’m more free to hear her because I don’t need to defend myself.
With my identity secure, wife’s criticism is impotent. The deep pain wasn’t from her critique or remarks,, but the belief that my value was not secure and there was loss to my identity if there was truth in the words of others.
Reach out and let’s talk about what it will take for you to grow into the kind of man who isn’t bothered by criticism.