Dear Dr. Chani,
It pains me to write about a relationship issue I have with my wife. Although we have what I would consider a pretty good marriage, I feel that in many ways she is critical of me. It really demotivates me to help out at home and hang out with my family.
I try to be a great husband and a nurturing father. When our children need help with schoolwork, I offer to explain things to them or help them with their assignments. I frequently run out shopping for last-minute forgotten ingredients that my wife needs for a recipe. When my children have free time, I take them out to the park or play games with them outside. But, somehow, even though I go out of my way to be a loving spouse and parent to my family, my wife usually finds a way to criticize me.
Sometimes, my wife will tell me that she cannot trust me or rely on me. I do not know why. It seems to me that I am more available and helpful than other married men that I know. If I do things in a different way than she would have done them, does that mean that I did them wrong? I am wondering if I am missing something or if my wife is just too critical of me. If she is too judgmental, what should I do about it?
I can tell from your letter that you feel really hurt by your wife’s comments. You are trying to be the best husband and father that you can be. You willingly do what you can to help out your wife and take care of your children. It is disappointing and even surprising for you to hear that you are not meeting her expectations. You feel inadequate and unappreciated by your wife. This is really upsetting you to the point that you sometimes want to withdraw from your family and not get involved.
When you think about the relationship dynamic between you and your wife, it is helpful to recognize that there is always more than one way to look at something. Like a diamond, a relationship can be examined from many different angles. Looking into each facet, can lead you to see things from a different perspective and to gain insight that can improve your situation.
It is important for you to communicate with your wife, and to discuss the issue from both of your perspectives so that you can understand how you each think and feel about the dynamic you describe. Initiate a conversation with your wife. Start with expressing your positive intentions. Then follow up by explaining the negative feelings you have and why. Try to convey your feelings with “I” statements. Lastly, ask your wife to help you understand what you can both do to improve the dynamic.
You might say, “I love partnering with you to do things for our family—like helping out with the shopping and cooking, or taking care of the kids. At the same time, I often feel like I do not do things to your satisfaction. It makes me feel criticized and unappreciated. Can you help me understand what we can do about this?”
When you open this conversation with your wife, be prepared to listen to her answer. It may be that she will be surprised to hear how you feel. She might explain her behavior. Even though you might not agree with her behavior or her explanation, if you listen to her carefully and try to see things from her perspective, you will gain insight into your relationship dynamic and how you can change it.
It may take several conversations for you to each express your feelings, and to share your understanding of what is contributing to the difficult dynamic between the two of you. Be patient with the process and keep communicating until you can figure out together how to deal with this issue.
It may also help you to explore if there is a way for you to look at your wife’s behavior in a more balanced way. In your letter, you mention that your wife often criticizes you and says she cannot rely on you. This is understandably upsetting and distances you from your wife. You see your wife as being unappreciative and ungrateful. In order to see if you can adopt a more balanced way of looking at your dynamic, ask yourself if your wife ever acknowledges your efforts and thanks you for your help. It is possible that she appreciates your actions and is grateful even though she is critical as well.
If this is true, it helps for you to acknowledge your wife’s gratitude as part of the dynamic. This accomplishes two things: (1) you can reduce your resentment towards your wife by noticing that she responds to your efforts in both positive and negative ways, and (2) you may be more motivated to continue giving to your family, by noticing that your actions are valued even though they are also criticized.
There is another significant point to think about. There might be meaning behind your wife’s criticism. She might really be trying to tell you something. Since she feels passionate about it, it comes out as criticism. How can you tell if your wife’s main goal is to find fault with you or to simply convey a need she has?
Relationships are often consistent across all parts of the relationship. Indeed, there are relationships where a spouse can be highly critical, domineering, or demanding. In those relationships, at least one spouse would usually feel bad about his relationship on a consistent basis. In your situation, you describe your relationship as generally strong and cohesive. You do not mention that you find your wife to be a critical person, in general. If she were critical all around, it would probably be hard for you to have a “pretty good” relationship with her.
It sounds like it might be meaningful to your wife for you to hear the feelings she is conveying. Ideally, she should not express her ideas in a way that sounds critical, or tell you that she does not trust your judgment. At the same time, the thoughts behind her words are for you to hear what she is feeling. That might be a helpful way to engage your wife in conversation. Explain to her that you do not see her as being a critical person. Yet, sometimes she speaks in a way that you internalize as critical. You have a feeling that her goal is for you to understand a certain message. Ask her what that message might be. This can set the framework for many truthful and deep conversations which could help you both advance to a new level in your relationship.
Wishing you much success,