The Critical Spouse

Critical Spouse - graphicstock-angry-african-american-young-couple-shouting-on-his-girlfriend-with-covered-ears_rOM4b0r8hl copyAre you dealing with a critical spouse? Do you feel like you can’t do anything right because your spouse points out all that he or she believes you are doing wrong?

When we first marry, we would never think that we would be in that place. We’re sure our love will stay fresh and only grow. But something happens along the way to making “life work” for us. We let our guard down and almost become too comfortable with each other. And that’s when little irritations start to grow.

“It’s grueling work being a husband or wife. And when no one’s really paying attention, we start cutting critical emotional and soulful corners. We start drifting from the concentrated effort required to make love last. We get all caught up in ourselves, in our own pursuit of that personal happiness we think we so deserve, and we end up growing increasingly bored with our own situation. In the end, we begin to wonder if all of this lack of happiness within the marriage might actually be the other person’s fault.” (Serge Bielanko)

Dealing With the Critical Spouse

The problem is that when we start criticizing our spouse on a regular basis, we play the part of a fool. We’re told in the Bible:

A fool’s mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul. (Proverbs 18:7)

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. (Proverbs 18:2)

Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue. (Proverbs 17:28)

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21)

Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips. At the beginning his words are folly. At the end they are wicked madness—and the fool multiplies words. (Ecclesiastes 10:12-13)

And it’s both husbands and wives that can play the part of the fool by speaking in ways that we shouldn’t. There is a difference when we give constructive, loving criticism, rather than being a cutting critical spouse. One can be helpful, the other is not. In this Insight, we will first address the needs of the one who is on the receiving end of being berated. Afterward, we will address those who are the critical spouse. We will give some pointers that others have found to be helpful.

When You Are Living With a Critical Spouse

So, if you are on the receiving end of being berated, you will find below a few tips to help you. But first, please know that if you are in an abusive marriage situation, we give more help for that type of issue in the following topic: ABUSE IN MARRIAGE. We are not talking about abusive behavior here, but rather irritating, continual criticisms. There is a difference. One is irritating; the other is dangerous.

The following are gathered from several resources. We actually wrote this message a number of years ago, but really believe the Lord wants us to revisit this subject. We ALL can use a bit of a tune up. Some of these tips may help you; others may not. But please prayerfully read through them and use the gleaning process to use what you believe may help.

Tips for Spouses Living With a Critical Spouse:

•  “There are all kinds of reasons why a person might be prickly and critical. In the vast majority of cases, the criticism has more to do with the one saying it and less to do with the one the criticism seems directed toward. If at all possible, don’t take it personally. We’re not suggesting that you allow yourself to be bullied. At the same time, if you can find a way to see the complaint for what it is, this can free you up to connect and have the relationship you want. For example, if you know that your partner is under a lot of strain from work, this can help you not to take a criticism personally. If you are aware that your spouse has been feeling down or depressed lately, take this information into consideration.

“Again, we’re not saying that it’s ever okay for you to be verbally abused. But, there are many times when refusing to take your partner’s picking personally can be the key to changing this bad relationship habit.” (Susie and Otto Collins, from their article, “4 Methods To STOP Your Spouse From Criticizing And Nagging You”)

Sometimes our spouse does or says something they shouldn’t. They direct it at you, when really, they’re releasing pressure built up from other circumstances. It’s more about them than it is about you. As John Maxwell said:

Look beyond the person for the problem. Always remember that hurting people overreact, over-exaggerate, and overprotect themselves. When a person’s reaction is out of line or larger than the issue at hand, the response is almost always about something else.”

Don’t Join In

•  Try to “rise above the emotional turmoil” your spouse is creating. And don’t join in by spouting off back at them. You’re just adding to the problem. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.(Proverbs 15:1)

Develop healthy boundaries. The following tip addresses husbands who are the critical spouses. But please know that many wives are just as guilty. So change the pronouns around if this advice applies if you have a critical wife:

•  “If one person refuses to participate in criticisms, bickering and control, the dance must change. When we develop firm, healthy boundaries, others often learn to treat us with greater respect. …Stop explaining your actions or defending yourself. Stop engaging with him in the destructive dance. Let him know you will not participate with him in any critical discussions unless there are boundaries in place so they don’t become ‘complaint sessions.’

“Stop trying to please him or others. It is easy, with a Control Freak, to try to please them, though always falling short. We must not get hooked in the struggle of trying to please others. We must keep our focus on the Lord and what He wants from us. Approval addiction only hurts us and enables others to control us.” (Dr David Hawkins, from the article, “Living with a Critical Control Freak”)

Another Tip:

Beyond this, what do you do about the critical spouse?

•  “Just because your spouse’s criticism [is or] isn’t malicious it doesn’t mean that you should ignore it. For the sake of a happy marriage, you need to let them know that you feel criticized. The best time to talk to your partner about this is when you have calmed down and are not feeling defensive. Approaching your spouse when you are feeling defensive will only escalate the situation and lead to an endless cycle of criticism and defensiveness.

“When you talk to your spouse, start by acknowledging their frustrations and concerns. This will help them feel heard and make them more open to acknowledging that their delivery was not the best. Then, ask your spouse what changes they want you to make. This encourages them to communicate what they want in clear and measurable terms.

“I suggest that you both begin phrasing your criticism of each other as requests. For instance, instead of saying ‘you are such as slob’ say, ‘Would you please pick up after yourself?’ This one trick can make married life a whole lot easier because it takes the focus away from what the other person is doing wrong and directs it towards a measurable goal.” (Mike Tucker, from their article, “Dealing with a Critical Spouse”)

Here’s Another Tip:

•  “Change all Criticisms into Requests. When you’re tempted to criticize, ask yourself, ‘What do I want? I’m very unhappy with my spouse right now. I know what I don’t want but what is the flip side of this? What is it that I really want right now?’ If you can’t figure out what you do want then you need to stop trying to communicate until you do know.’

“If you are being criticized—don’t defend yourself or attack back. Practice self control and say, ‘You seem really upset with me, what is it that you want from me?’ Change Requests that are vague to Requests that are Observable and Measurable.

“…A criticism that says, ‘You are such a slob’ can be changed to a request that says, ‘Would you please pick up after yourself?’ This vague request can be made observable and measurable by asking… ‘Would you pick up all your dirty underwear from the horizontal planes of our bedroom (i.e. the floor, bed, dresser top, etc.) before you go to work each morning?’” (From the article, “Criticism in Your Marriage”)

An Additional Tip:

•  “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. …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.” (Yehudis Karbal, from their article, “The Chronically Critical Spouse—Strategies to Maintain Peace”)

Keep in mind the scriptures, where we are told:

• “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.(Proverbs 26:4-5)

Here’s a tip from Dr David B. Hawkins that could help:

•  “I recommend a powerful technique called pattern interruption. Yes, it’s that simple—notice the pattern and create a new recipe of behaviors ready to replace the old patterns. There’s importance in not defending yourself. This mistake leads to more defending, increased criticism, and an erosion of positive feelings. Instead say, ‘I’m feeling criticized, and I’d like you to ask for what you want in a different way,’ or, ‘I’m feeling defensive and need to call a brief time out to consider how I want to respond.’

“… How about injecting another pattern interruption: agree to ask for what you need from one another in a positive way. Remember the old rule, ‘Never offer criticism without offering a possible solution.’ Agree to tell each other what you’d like differently, being ready to assist your mate with the solution. When restoration and correction are needed, do it gently. (See: Galatians 6:1.)” (From the article, “Critical Spirit Just as Destructive to Marriage as ‘Bigger’ Problems”)

Another suggestion?

•  “Calmly ask your spouse to slow down and speak in a softer tone. If your spouse’s tone or accusations cause you to change your mode and attitude, gently ask them to be careful and tone down how they speak and what they say. It is healthier to nip the problem in the bud than let it blow you and your home apart.” (From the Marriage Alive Digest article, “How to Respond to a Critical Spouse”)

And whenever possible (it’s biblical too):

•  “Show kindness. It’s hard to be kind when our spouse has been critical or unkind. It’s human nature to be less kind in return. But kindness is catching. Your kind words and actions can bring out kindness in your spouse. Try doing unselfish things for your spouse such as listening with patience, helping with a task when they’re busy, avoiding an angry reply, or apologizing for something you said.” (Thomas R. Lee, Ph.D.)

And last, but not least, we have something for you that may help you until your spouse changes. Or perhaps your spouse just won’t change (at least, not right now). Below you will find a link to something written by Beth Steffaniak, that she has used, and adapted for your use. Please glean through this list, and use what will work for your situation. When your spouse says something critical or harsh to you, Beth gives some great suggestions. Please read:


If You Are The Critical Spouse

So what if you are the critical spouse, what can you do to stop this behavior? First off, we’re told in the Bible:

Remind the people… to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” (Titus 3:2)

In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice… Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” (1 Peter 2:11)

When YOU Are the Critical Spouse

The above words from the Bible are great ones to live by aren’t they? But they’re sure difficult to live out —especially when your spouse “pushes your buttons.” Or it could be that you’re in a downright cranky mood.

So, what can you do to get out of this toxic habit? Below are a few suggestions. First off:

•  When you do say something you shouldn’t, accept responsibility.

When you lose it and say hurtful things, it’s human nature to blame someone else for “making me feel this way.” You, and only you, are responsible for your actions, and your reactions in marriage. You’ve got the power to make your marriage spectacular. Don’t permit yourself to make it anything less than that.

The road from wedding day bliss to long-term happiness has many bumps. But when you treat your partner with compassion and refrain from spitting venom when angry, you’ll make it through the rough times with dignity, respect and a deeper love for each other. (Scott Haltzman, from the article, “Why Do I Verbally Put Down My Spouse?”)

It’s important for us to realize that when we give into our impulses to say contemptuous words, it’s as if we throw acidic poison, or “venom” at our spouse. It is the sulfuric acid of contempt that can eat away at the love we can have for each other. If you have given yourself permission, in the past to do this, then it will take some work on your part, to rearrange your thinking.


•  Do your “homework.”

Who wants to do this, right? Well, when you do the wrong thing, sometimes you need to unlearn some things and learn now things. If you had homework to do from your job, you’d do it, wouldn’t you? You’d probably say yes, if you knew you wouldn’t get a paycheck unless you did. Or perhaps it would lead to a raise. Consider this a Paycheck of the Heart. Or consider it a raise to a better marriage.

We have several linked articles posted below and additional articles posted in the Communication and Conflict topic. We also have related articles in the Communication Tools topic that you can use. These articles can help you to manage your anger, and give you helpful tools to use instead of bowing to toxic behavior.

Look around and see what you can read. We pray the Holy Spirit, our “Wonderful Counselor” will guide you, as you look to Him to lead you.

Cindy and Steve Wright


To help you further, we give a lot of personal stories, humor, and more practical tips in our book, 7 ESSENTIALS to Grow Your Marriage. We hope you will pick up a copy for yourself. (It’s available both electronically and in print form.) Plus, it can make a great gift for someone else. It gives you the opportunity to help them grow their marriage. And who doesn’t need that? Just click on the linked title or the picture below:

7 Essentials - Marriage book


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