Relationship advice: What to do when a partner is always critical

Welcome to Relationship Rehab, news.com.au’s weekly column solving all your romantic problems, no holds barred.

This week, our resident sexologist Isiah McKimmie advises on what to do if your partner always criticises you.

Question: I feel like I can never do anything right when it comes to my wife. She criticises everything I do – I don’t clean enough but then when I do it, it isn’t done properly. Her voice annoys me and cuts right through me. I’ve started to avoid going home as being at the pub with my mates is more fun. I know I’m drinking too much and avoiding going home because of her. Is my marriage over?

Answer: Your marriage isn’t over, but you can’t continue the way you are. Without change hurt, resentment and frustration will continue to build for both of you, becoming harder to resolve.

This is a painful situation to be in. I feel for you and I suspect there are many men out there that can relate to your dilemma.

Your withdrawal is understandable

In many ways it makes sense that you would want to stay out with your friends rather than be at home where you feel criticised. I imagine that you very much want to please your wife and try to do what she’s asking for.

Without knowing how to talk about this (without starting an argument) or what to do to make things better, withdrawing is a common and understandable coping strategy.

Although both men and women can withdraw when there are challenges in a relationship, it is more common for men, who often aren’t taught the value of sharing emotions and talking things through.

It’s awful to feel like you can’t get things right for the person you love. I’d imagine you feel quite frustrated, and perhaps even like you’re failing as a husband because of it.

While withdrawing to spend time with your mates or lose yourself in alcohol might help you tolerate the situation in the short term, it is likely doing more damage.

There’s more going on for your wife than criticism

After many years of studying and listening to couples’ conflict, I can tell you that what couples are arguing about isn’t really what couples are arguing about.

For every incident and topic that causes tension between a couple, there are deeper feelings and needs that are the fundamental issue.

While it might seem to you that your wife is frustrated by your actions, it’s likely that frustration is a protection mechanism from her underlying anxiety. Experience tells me she likely feels anxious about wanting more support from you, anxious about getting everything done and/or anxious about how she’ll be judged for her housekeeping.

You’re stuck in a pattern together

In almost 50 years of research, renowned therapist Dr John Gottman found gender differences between couples in arguments. While men are more likely to withdraw, women are more likely to criticise their partners in an attempt to create change in their relationship.

This criticism becomes heightened when a woman feels disconnected from her partner.

Unfortunately, this creates a challenging cycle, where one partner criticises in order to ‘fix’ things and the other withdraws to avoid conflict. The more that partner withdraws, the more the other criticises – and around you go.

You have to break this cycle together.

Healthy conflict management is central to a thriving relationship

Building a strong harmonious relationship requires understanding each other and being able to respond with empathy to each other. So often couples think they’re being absolutely clear in their communication, but are really misunderstanding each other.

It’s hard to respond well when you feel criticised, but it can be done.

Right now your wife probably sees your drinking as not caring about her. She needs to hear what you actually feel and how hard it is for you to hear that you’re not getting it right.

Therapy can help

While my advice is often for couples to talk things through, I’m aware that this can be difficult without tools to change how you’re communicating together.

A good Couples Therapist can help with tools for more harmonious communication, ensuring your discussions don’t escalate and allowing you to understand each other better.

Isiah McKimmie is a couples therapist, sexologist, sex therapist and lecturer. To book a session with her, visit her website or follow her on Instagram for more advice on relationships, sex and intimacy. If you have a question for Isiah, email relationship.rehab@news.com.au

Read related topics:Isiah McKimmieRelationship Advice

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