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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

A Critique on Criticism

A Critique on Criticism

“When I know she’s going to be critical of me,” Jonathan began slowly, “I brace myself. I know something critical is coming and try to prepare for it.”

Jonathan and his wife Lisa had come to The Marriage Recovery Center for a Marriage Intensive after what they described as ‘years of conflict.’

“No one has ever helped me deal with the criticism I know is coming my way. Look,” he said emphatically, “if she is going to criticize me, I don’t know how to not barricade the door of my heart. In fact, the more she pushes, the more I’m going to guard myself.”

His words caught my attention. Here she was trying to reach him emotionally, while everything she was doing accomplished the exact opposite. The more she amped up her criticism, the more he erected defenses against her, causing her to feel unheard and rejected.

This pattern of criticism/ defensiveness is one I see often. It often goes something like this:

He or she levels a criticism against their mate, most often spoken in an unkind and perhaps even hostile manner. Their mate, feeling threatened, braces for the attack, erecting emotional barriers that their mate can see and feel. Noticing their defensiveness, instead of working at creating safety, they amp up their efforts to be heard, raising their voice, building their case, becoming more pointed in their attack. Feeling even more threatened, their mate now either leaves physically or emotionally. They do this through fight, flight or freeze---but not flow.

Fight—counter-attacks on their mate;
Freeze----standing speechless, staring but completely disengaged;
Flight----leaving the room.

It is completely natural to slip into fight, flight or freeze in the face of emotional threat. We stay connected to our mate only when we feel safe.

But this is impossible in emotional situations, you say. Not everything can be managed in a nice, calm, clear manner, you suggest. Yes, there are certainly issues that have voltage, however Scripture makes no concessions for “losing our cool.” Scripture says, “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28).

It is therefore imperative that couples learn to recognize cues signaling when we or our mate disappear emotionally. We must manage our emotions and choose our words carefully.

Jonathan needs to be available to Lisa for her concerns. Right? No question. He needs to be willing to listen to her and be available for her concerns. This is our calling when after we utter the words, “I do.” However, we settle nothing by creating an atmosphere where our mate must defend themselves by fighting, fleeing or freezing. We must do our part to keep them in flow.

Here are some more specific instructions on the topic of managing criticism in your relationship:

First, there are going to be conversations that will be difficult—prepare for them. Not every conversation is going to be “tea and cookies” conversations. Some issues have voltage and you must be emotionally prepared for them.

Second, know how to emotionally calm yourself so that you can listen most effectively. Keep breathing, listen carefully and try to not freeze, flee or fight. Instead, listen for the heart of what your mate is trying to say to you. Focusing on their concerns will help you stay present and available to them.

Third, empathize and validate what they are saying. Reflect that you are listening and care about what they are saying. Even if they say things in less than effective means, try to hear the ‘heart of the matter.’ Your empathy and validation of their concerns will generally disarm them and help them to stay connected to you.

Fourth, notice when you can no longer stay with your mate emotionally. It is your responsibility to ask for a bit of space if you cannot stay with your mate. When you stop listening, preparing for your rebuttal, you can be sure you are not actively listening.  

Finally, agree together to ‘hold to the safe place.’ Agree together to manage emotions, actively listen, guarding against inflammatory and provocative language. Give each other cues when you are feeling threatened, giving your mate the opportunity to make corrections in how they are talking to you. Give each other credit and encouragement when you handle tough issues effectively.

We are here to help and offer phone/ Skype counseling on issues related to this article. Please go to our website, and discover more information about this as well as the free downloadable eBook, A Love Life of Your Dreams, including other free videos and articles. Please send responses to me at and also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website. You’ll find videos and podcasts on sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

Publication date: February 24, 2014