Dear Dr. Chani,
I would love to get along better with my husband. We have been married for over a decade but it seems like forever. An outsider would probably say that we have a great marriage, yet the truth is that I find it very difficult to feel close to my husband. He is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. He constantly criticizes me and our children. We are never good enough.
One of the ways I deal with my husband’s personality is to avoid being with him or talking to him as much as possible. He usually works long hours as an attorney so he comes home very late at night. I deliberately go to sleep early so we do not have time to talk. I wish we could enjoy talking to each other but I am afraid that he will overanalyze anything I say to him and show me why I am wrong. This leaves me feeling stressed and insecure.
I realize that my husband is not trying to be mean. He is generally very thoughtful and nice. When we were dating, I was immediately attracted to his generous, friendly, and charming nature. He still has that positive side to his personality. I wish he would only treat me that way.
One of the aspects of my situation that worries me is the effect that his criticism will have on our children. Right now, our three children are still young. They do not seem to notice any issue. Our oldest is seven and he adores and looks up to my husband. I worry that as they mature, they will develop insecurities as I have because of my husband’s high expectations for them.
How can I deal with my husband’s perfectionism and criticism? Is there a way I can make my situation better even if I cannot change him?
You have been married to your husband long enough to recognize both his positive and negative qualities. Unfortunately, his constant criticism has made you feel emotionally very vulnerable. It makes sense that you chose to distance yourself from him to protect yourself emotionally from his criticism as much as possible.
One of the ways to take the sting out of your husband’s criticism is to understand more about why he might behave that way. Human beings, in general, are wired to pay more attention to the negative versus the positive. We have a negativity bias. Our radar for noticing problems, issues, and threats enables us to protect ourselves and survive. It helps us make good decisions so that we can lead healthy and productive lives. In this way, our negativity bias is a good aspect of our personalities. However, it can sometimes be too powerful and can wreak havoc on our relationships and on our well-being.
Your husband has a strong negativity bias. This is likely one of the ways that he is successful in his career as an attorney. He has the ability to analyze deeply and perceive details that need to be adjusted. At the same time, in your home, he inevitably analyzes what you express to him and leaves you feeling invalidated. He notices areas for improvement in the way you and your children behave and voices his disapproval. You feel attacked and resentful of his criticism.
It might be surprising to know that you and your husband are, in some ways, in the same boat. You probably both suffer from his criticism. How so? Interestingly, many people who are critical, like your husband, have a tendency to be strongly critical of themselves. While you might not notice it, your husband probably analyzes and criticizes himself first and foremost. On the one hand, this self-criticism can motivate him towards self-improvement and drive him to succeed. Yet, on the other hand, it can make him feel inadequate and not good enough. It is possible that his self-criticism spills over and extends beyond himself to the people whom he cares about and self-identifies with most: you and your children. When you hear your husband’s criticism, try to imagine that it is really an extension of the self-criticism he directs at himself, rather than a pointed attack aimed at you because you are inadequate. Understanding your husband’s inner world and empathizing with his own struggles with inadequacy can help you feel closer to him and less insecure about why he criticizes you.
Another point to keep in mind is that not all criticism is made equal. There are times when your husband’s criticism might be delivered in a gentle and constructive way that helps you and your children improve. Recognizing and accepting his feedback when you feel it is balanced, can help your husband feel validated and closer to you. On the other hand, when you notice that your husband criticizes you or your children in a harsh, judgmental, or personally attacking way, or harps on issues that you feel are insignificant, discuss your concerns with him.
Even though it might seem really daunting, it is important that you share with your husband how you feel about his criticism. Try to find a time that is convenient for both of you when you feel calm and undistracted. Let your husband know what you notice about his criticism and ask him what he thinks about what you are saying. It may take time and many conversations for your husband to understand your feedback and become more sensitive to the subtleties of how he communicates with you. If you feel unable to discuss it with your husband, seek a therapist to help you facilitate these conversations.
Changing the dynamic your husband has with you and your children is a process that takes optimism and patience. You will see better results if you notice when your husband improves and you compliment him on it. I hope that discussing your feelings with your husband, deepening your understanding of his perspective, and encouraging him as he responds to your feedback will lead you to the close relationship with your husband that you desire.
Wishing you much success,