Center for Shared Insight, PC

Understanding an Over-Critical Partner

October 19, 2016
Posted By: Kristen Hick, Psy.D.
Unhappy couple looking away from each another

Many couples struggle with a partnership that is built on an ideal of “perfect.” The expectation that a partner shouldn’t do anything slightly “wrong,” and the nit-picking and fault-finding that accompanies such partnerships, can leave the criticized partner feeling confused and frustrated, wondering what they have done wrong and how they can make it right again. However, it usually has less to do with what the criticized partner did or did not do. Instead, the roots may lie in childhood dynamics, past relationship patterns, and/or control issues.

No matter the culprit of such criticism from a partner who points out every little thing wrong – from the way someone cleans the bathroom to the way he/she greets them at the end of the workday – it’s a challenging dynamic to understand and overcome.

If you find yourself in such a situation, know that you are not being over-sensitive and that a relationship like this needs addressing. First, it’s helpful to understand the reasons one behaves this way to have empathy for your partner’s deeper issues on hand.

Conflict is normal

Too often, one or both partners have been in past relationships in which they weren’t treated all that well. If you are a “nice guy” or “sweet girl” your significant other may simply not know how to show up in a relationship that isn’t built on drama or unmet needs. When so few flaws are evident to your love interest, they look hard to find them – and are vocal about these insignificant grievances.

Sometimes, this is a way to “normalize” the relationship to include some kind of conflict, by identifying some way their partner will not be able to meet their needs, because that dynamic is what a partner is accustomed to managing in companionship. Similarly, you may become their scapegoat for conflict. If it's not originating in work, family, or other dynamics, they may look to you as that source of conflict, as it’s a requirement for life to feel “normal.”

If you recognize that this might be the culprit of your nit-picking partner, honesty is the best policy. Approach him/her patiently and suggest that due to past relationship experiences, you feel as if he/she is pointing out flaws unnecessarily. Talk through this to get to the bottom of his/her drive to make a problem out of something negligible. Challenge (kindly) whether he/she wants to be a relationship with someone respectful and loving versus dramatic and frequently unstable. Never question your self-worth in this type of relationship and know that unnecessary criticism is often masking a much deeper issue.

Criticism protects

Perhaps your partner has been hurt repeatedly in relationships. Maybe things have always ended with heartache and loneliness. Now that things are going well, your partner still fears what feels like that potential, tragic end. Putting down a partner or finding potentially fatal flaws is a way to protect from that potential heartache or loss. This self-defeating behavior feeds the illusion that one can control the future. It prevents a mate from getting too close and creating hurt all over again.

If you sense that a partner is picking apart your imperfections due to their own unresolved pain, reassure them that you are committed, willing, and safe. Learn more about their stories of past hurt and be extra sensitive to their need for reassurance and transparency. Explore their triggers – such as your tendency to be late, which may remind them of an experience of abandonment as a child or an unfaithful partner’s patterns – and do your best to overcome these minor challenges. Talk openly about their feelings around fear and tendency to self-sabotage through criticism.

Control wins

Nit-picking or henpecking can also be a way to control a love interest. When the relationship feels out of their control, or some aspect of life feels this way, using a stream of criticism can help the instigator feel in control of something - you. Perhaps the most difficult of all reasons to address, it’s likely that you’ll be aware of other control issues in this person’s life – from their incessant need to have clean kitchen counters or a tendency to isolate you from friends or family. Control shows up in his/her life far beyond the need to criticize you. It’s a way for them to feel empowered, and the issue might be a bigger one than you can tackle on your own.

If you feel nit-picking is used as a means to control, it’s important to remember that love should be unconditional and result in both partners feeling valued and upheld. In this situation, it's helpful to talk to a trusted third party, like a therapist at Center for Shared Insight, who can discuss how to manage a controlling partner.

Every relationship is plagued by at least one challenging dynamic. Overtime, these challenges can evolve depending on what an individual partner is experiencing, inside or outside the relationship. It’s important to recognize that nit-picking behavior is always masking a deeper more complex issue – and while it doesn’t feel good to receive such treatment, it’s critical to get to the bottom of the behavior.

If you need support and tips for initiating the fearless dialogue necessary to overcome this relationship dynamic, contact us for a free consultation to discuss your feelings in detail.

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