Criticism within a romantic relationship can be very toxic. Relationships researcher and marriage counselor, John Gottman, includes criticism, along with contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, as one of the "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse" when discussing predictors of divorce and relationship dissolution. Despite this, criticism is common. When you are on the receiving end of a loved one's criticism, it can be hurtful, frustrating and overwhelming. While your boyfriend is ultimately responsible for his own behavior, modeling positive communication skills can often help the situation improve.
Model Good Communication Skills
Evaluate your own methods of communication and assess whether you, too, may be frequently criticizing your partner. According to relationships researcher John Gottman, criticism often involves an attack on someone's character. An effective way to help change your boyfriend's communication patterns is to model effective communication and the avoidance of criticism. Avoid using phrases that begin with "you always," "you never," "why are you so...." or "you're the kind of person who...," as all of these are often precursors to negative, criticizing comments. If you avoid criticizing your boyfriend, he may pick up on your behavior and reduce his own criticism.
Learn to communicate dissatisfaction in effective ways. Albert Bandura's social learning theory supports the notion that individuals learn by observing the behavior of others. This can be applied to your own relationship. If your boyfriend does something that upsets you (including criticizing you), make a statement that follows this format: "When __ happened, I felt _ and I want _." Telling your boyfriend how you felt and what you specifically want to change lets your boyfriend know why you are upset and what he can do to remedy the situation. Once again, if you model these effective forms of communication, your boyfriend will be more likely to follow suit.
Ask your boyfriend to explain why he is upset and what you can do to help fix the situation. Working on communication and problem solving skills within a relationship can improve relationship quality and satisfaction. Be direct -- explain that you will not tolerate criticizing statements (give him some examples), but that you are more than willing to listen to what he has to say if he would like to rephrase his statements in ways that follow good communication patterns (stating actions, feelings and remedies). Eventual change will require the conscious effort of both you and your boyfriend, but you can jump start the process by gently reminding your boyfriend of how to communicate effectively.
Take Care of Yourself
Identify whether your boyfriend's criticism is a sign of poor communication or a sign of verbal abuse. Although we all are likely to criticize our loved ones from time to time, excessive and continuous criticism is a form of verbal abuse, says author and public speaker Marty Friedman. If your boyfriend is constantly putting you down, putting you in your place or discrediting your feelings, this is a form of verbal abuse. Let your partner know that his behavior is unacceptable. If you've tried modelling good communication skills and have spoken with your boyfriend about improving his communication skills and you still see no improvement, it may be time to consider whether you want to continue in the relationship or leave.
Try to find a pattern in your boyfriend's criticizing behavior. Does he mostly criticize when you have done something that upsets him or does he mostly criticize when something negative has happened elsewhere in his life? According to Marty Friedman, criticizing can represent an ineffective way of communicating one's feelings or it can be a habitual method of making oneself feel better by putting others down. While both forms of criticizing can be damaging to you and to your relationship, the former may be easier to fix with communication skill training, while the latter may be more indicative of greater mental health and interpersonal issues.
Respect yourself. Practice being assertive, communicating your own needs and making sure that you acknowledge your own strengths and weaknesses. Do not be afraid to seek social support from other sources in your life to buffer the negative effects of your boyfriend's criticism if you decide the relationship is worth continuing.
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- AZ Growth: John Gottman's 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse
- Family Process: A Two-Factor Model for Predicting When a Couple Will Divorce: Exploratory Analyses Using 14-Year Longitudinal Data
- Journal of Social and Personal Relationships: Perceived social network support and well-being in same-sex versus mixed-sex relationships
- Social Learning Theory; Albert Bandura
- Prevention of marital distress: A longitudinal investigation.
- Be patient with yourself and with your partner. Learning new patterns of communication can take time. Our communication patterns are habits that can be very hard to break.
Karen L. Blair has been professionally writing since 2001. Her work has been published in academic journals such as the "Journal of Sex Research," "Journal of Social and Personal Relationships" and "Psychology & Sexuality." Blair received her M.Sc. in psychology at Acadia University and her Ph.D. in social psychology at Queen's University. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow and research consultant.
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