A greeting card asks:
“If a man is alone in the forest with no woman to criticize him, is he still a schmuck?”
Men typically find the card funnier than women do. “That’s my experience exactly!” is a common response. “I can’t do anything right. I’m tired of being the target of nagging and complaining.”
It’s no surprise that women have a different response to the concern: “If they are so bothered by criticism, why don’t they pay attention to it? “
It’s common for couples to reach an impasse at which each person sees the other as the problem and believes that the only “solution” is for that person to change.
He thinks that she has to stop criticizing him, and start appreciating all the things that he does for the family. She thinks he has to pay more attention to the needs of the kids and the house, without her constant reminders. The pattern typically breaks down along these gendered lines—”distant” husband/”nagging” wife—it doesn’t always. And same-sex couples are hardly immune to this marital dance.
It’s easy to appreciate both perspectives: It feels terrible to be on the receiving end of criticism—and just as terrible to be in the role of the “nagger,” whose legitimate requests are being ignored. But when we’re feeling angry, it’s hard to take positive steps to change our part in the pattern because it seems so clear that our partner is the one who should change.
You’re lucky if you have a partner who feels so solid, calm, and good about himself or herself that he or she can let your criticism and negativity slide by much of the time, and consider the good points you are making without distancing or shutting down. But once couples move past the honeymoon or “Velcro” stage of the relationship, such Zen-like forbearance is much more rare.
Many fine people can’t tolerate much criticism or instruction from a partner, even if they truly appreciated it at an early stage of the relationship, when they felt valued and chosen.
What can you do? Dial down the criticism. Make sure that positive comments outnumber the negative ones by a healthy margin.
The habit of criticism is hazardous to any relationship. As I write in Marriage Rules (link is external), remember this above all else: No one can survive a marriage (at least not happily) if they feel more judged than admired. We love people who make us feel good about ourselves.