The Constant Criticizer?
July 29, 2010 10:54 AM   Subscribe

How constant should criticism actually be?

I feel like I’m living in a feedback loop of negativity. My partner points out absolutely everything I do that is even slightly wrong: if I chew too loud, if I shut a door too hard, if I step on the cat’s tail by accident (for which I already feel awful!), if my arm is on “their side,” if I simply bump into them (because they never bump into me, apparently). Nothing "off" can happen without a comment or some exasperated sigh. It’s just exhausting and sad.

If I do a “job” around the house, they will come by after to improve upon it/inspect it. It’s like they can’t help themselves. I don’t even think they realize that their behavior could be perceived as anything other than helpful, but it’s driving me crazy. I’m at a point where I actually get nervous, alone by myself, that I’ll break something or scratch the furniture, or whatever, because I am dreading the fallout. Not because it’s violent, but because it’s so degrading to continually hear how you’re -just slightly- messing up.

I’ve tried talking about it, calmly, and their response is that “it’s not about you.” Nor is there any concession on their part, nevermind an apology, that this might be hurtful behavior. The part that I don’t think they get is that their actions ARE now about me, because it’s hurting my feelings so much. To which I’m told that I am simply too sensitive.

Is this normal behavior? Am I way off base here? If I am being reasonable, what can I do to try and get my partner to acknowledge that these feelings are justified, and that I’d like for it to stop? Or, if I am just being too sensitive, how can I get a thicker skin to ward off the hurts that all of these little comments are producing?

Have you been on either side of this? What do you do to coexist peacefully?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (55 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
It's not that you are too sensitive; it is simply that you are not wired to thrive on conflict. Some people are; I know couples who snip all the time at each other but wouldn't have it any one way. I'm with you; I could never, ever be more than acquaintances with someone like that, it would make me insane (and I've broken off a relationship because of it).

You can't change other people's behavior, you can only change your own.
posted by Melismata at 10:57 AM on July 29, 2010

Honey? I didn't know that you had a MeFi account.

Ha ha. I'm not as bad as your partner.

I think that if my partner were to want to talk to me about how I do this, I'd want he and I to sit down at a nice dinner or something and hash it out. Come to an agreement about your partner actively trying to not be so critical and you being thicker skinned. I'd imagine you can come to some sort of fair middle.
posted by k8t at 11:02 AM on July 29, 2010

There's no such thing as "too sensitive." There's just as sensitive as you are. Your partner is aware of how sensitive you are, and chooses to act in a way which they know to be hurtful.

Now, it's possible you're so sensitive that your partner would have to repress all criticism in order to avoid hurting you. That's not the impression you've given in your post, but you never know. I'd recommend writing your partner a letter asking for solutions to the problem, and asking if and how they would be willing to compromise in order to reduce the burden on you. For me personally, if constructive answers (and real followthrough) weren't forthcoming, I'd have trouble staying in the relationship.
posted by KathrynT at 11:05 AM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

If it was really that constant (and I can identify a little having been in jobs and relationships that resulted in that feeling you describe), and depending on how much I want to work on the relationship, I might ask my partner instead of mentioning things to me at every instance, to write down All The Things I Do That Bother Them over the course of one week, and then at the end of that week s/he would be welcome to sit down with me and I would listen to the five most important things they wanted me to hear feedback on. Then I would simply paraphrase the complaints in a way that it's clear I heard and understood them. This forces them to triage a little, but also shows I'm willing to listen within reason and in a manner where I'm open to feedback.

What next really depends how you feel about the complaints. You could say anything from "Those are really minor and one of the things I want in a relationship is someone who cuts me a little slack and doesn't criticize me for minor issues like bumping into you. In the future please don't point this out. Consider it one of the givens that comes with being in relationship. There are two people living here and sometimes we will accidentally bump into each other," to "I see that most of these could be categorized as "jobs" where we have different standards. Can we think together of some ways where I don't get criticized and you feel like the job is done the way you want it to be?"

And then if they weren't willing to meet you in the middle (which, it seems, they're already not willing to), I'd think about whether I wanted to stay in an environment like that.
posted by cocoagirl at 11:11 AM on July 29, 2010 [13 favorites]

My partner has a tendency to do this, but is now aware (after a bunch of couples counseling in a previous relationship), that not every one is wired the same way, conflictwise. He now habitually approaches things at least with a "Can I make a suggestion?" and knows that, given the way I am wired, he needs to let it go if the answer is, "Actually, no, now is not a good time for a suggestion.". It has helped him get along better at his job as well.

So my suggestion is counseling if you want to make it work, if your telling him/her that his/her desire to make everything perfect all the time just makes you feel bad doesn't seem to be getting across. I am very glad I am benefitting from my boyfriend's ex's insistence.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:14 AM on July 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

henpecking isn't cool, this is a pretty controlling behavior - like they're not in control of some part of their lives and so they choose to control you instead. My ex was just like this. But being calm can imply it isn't a serious problem to the other person, so if that didn't work then step it up a notch. Go ahead and get upset with them next time, see where that gets you in terms of making them understand. I don't mean fly off the handle, but honestly, make it apparent the extent to which this bothers you - tell them everything, let yourself be emotional. If the partner finally starts to understand and agrees to try to curb things, you still have to call him/her on it every time, and break their habit of correcting you on things that really don't matter.
posted by lizbunny at 11:16 AM on July 29, 2010 [7 favorites]

Maybe that level of criticism wouldn't bother someone else, but it bothers you. And you are the one your partner is in the relationship with. Therefore, if your partner wants the relationship to continue, they will have to make some changes or risk driving you away. Likewise, if your partner does not change, you will have to decide if you want to continue to live with the constant fault-finding.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:19 AM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

How constant should criticism actually be?

I don't think that there's a single answer. I personally couldn't live with someone who constantly criticized me that way--that is, it's one thing if you're having an exchange with your partner, and it's another if your partner is brow-beating you. Your partner's unwillingness to consider your feelings, by calling you "too sensitive" and refusing to change their behavior, makes me think that it's the latter.

This person is supposed to care about your happiness and well-being, but is deliberately making you unhappy by continuing this behavior despite you sharing what it's doing to you. It's unacceptable behavior in my book, regardless of whether you're taking things personally when they're not meant that way. At the very least, they should be willing to talk and compromise.

Honestly, they sound like an ass. Not because of the initial behavior, but because of how they responded when you let them know the behavior is hurtful. I don't think that you're being unreasonable. Try talking about it again, and then, if it doesn't work--well, evaluate what this person's knowingly making you unhappy means for you and your relationship.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:20 AM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

The part that I don’t think they get is that their actions ARE now about me, because it’s hurting my feelings so much. To which I’m told that I am simply too sensitive.

That's nice they admit that it's their problem and not something you're doing to deserve the criticism, but I don't think you're being too sensitive by being hurt by it. Constant criticism is very destructive, and the fact that they're not doing it on purpose (which is entirely possible; I can be incredibly critical without realizing it) doesn't make any better. If you run someone over with your car by accident, does it hurt them any less because you didn't mean to do it? Don't let your partner get off so easy. They are hurting your self esteem and they need to actively not do that.
posted by cottonswab at 11:26 AM on July 29, 2010

Some people are just negative. They point out things that aren't right, and don't think of it as any reflection on you. My current boyfriend used to that a lot. Any thing he didn't think was right, he'd mention it. It wasn't necessarily about me, but sometimes it was about things I had some control over. And it drove me crazy because I'm different. I only point out things that bother me greatly -- so it seemed to me like him pointing things out were bothering him greatly. But as I got to know him, I realized this wasn't the case.

However, when I was finally able to vocalize why his bahavior was bothering me, he made an effort to change. He hasn't stopped completely. But since I know him better, it doesn't bother me as much anyway.

So you've got to tell him that it's bothering you -- and tell him that it 'not being about you' doesn't matter. It's still bothering you. Let him know this. Let him know if you think you might be part of the problem. But just because it's not all his fault doesn't mean he shouldn't be willing to change.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:30 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think that you are getting far too much criticism. People should not be living together unless they are compatible, which means you not only like the person you are with, but you generally like what they do, and are generally in agreement about how to manage the cooperative arrangement of your lives together. You don't have to like everything, and some degree of criticism, especially if it is delivered in a tactful and non-insulting manner, is a useful part of a relationship. But if everything or most things that you do turn out to be wrong, then the association is wrong.
posted by grizzled at 11:30 AM on July 29, 2010

Pecking isn't cool, and I say this as a habitual pecker. With a lot of help from my partner, I came to realize that I peck at him not because of his behavior, but because of stuff that's going on in my own head and in my body. However, that doesn't excuse the fact that I'm hurting him.

I’ve tried talking about it, calmly, and their response is that “it’s not about you.” Nor is there any concession on their part, nevermind an apology, that this might be hurtful behavior. The part that I don’t think they get is that their actions ARE now about me, because it’s hurting my feelings so much.

If it's not about you, then why is your partner making it about you? Next time he or she starts to criticize you, maybe you should calmly point out "This clearly isn't about me or my behavior, so I'm going to end this conversation. I am open to talking about any other topic."
posted by muddgirl at 11:30 AM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

used to DO that a lot...

and I meant to bold this:

But just because it's not all his fault doesn't mean he shouldn't be willing to change.

posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:31 AM on July 29, 2010

No, this is not normal behavior. I recommend that you read The Verbally Abusive Relationship. The fact that you're questioning whether it's okay for somebody to constantly undermine you is a symptom of your partner's crazymaking. If you stay, expect your self doubt to continue growing. (By the way, are you already wondering whether you are simply incompetent? Because that's next.) Letting him or her know how you feel will not "work" the way you are hoping because you are assuming that your partner has your best interests at heart and would not be knowingly unkind to you. This is not true. He or she has already let you know that she or he is okay with you feeling hurt; after all, "it's not about you." I recommend you run and run fast. Your primary relationship should be with the person who is the most loving, adoring and forgiving person in your life -- not your worst critic.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:34 AM on July 29, 2010 [18 favorites]

charmedimsure's "Can I make a suggestion?" idea is exactly what should happen. You are not too sensitive.

I'm someone who can act a lot like your partner. The difference, though is that I feel bad that I can't keep my trap shut about a lot of small things. Here's what I do:
1) In general, I ask "Can I make a suggestion?" or something similar, and demur if I'm told the other person doesn't want to hear it.

2) With my boyfriend, I ask in a general way about the kinds of things I feel most likely to nag about. Is that an area he feels comfortable with how he does things, or would he like to know the things that I have learned about doing it? That way, some of the most problematic issues for me (most of which have to do with keeping things neat) become things that I can openly and regularly bring up as suggestions: how to cook efficiently (using fewer dishes), how to neaten quickly, etc. This is best done in moderation; even with permission, it can be very easy to go overboard.

3) This is perhaps the most important thing: I help my boyfriend do the things I would otherwise nag him about. Most of them are chores anyway. When we've finished, we're both happy: me because the job has been done well, and him because it was less work.
It sounds like your partner might be too stubborn to adopt this kind of behavior immediately, but it's something to work toward.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:35 AM on July 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

There are two things that could be going on here: one, your partner has some form of OCD, and they're not aware of it. I wonder about that because of the "it's not about you" - which to me indicates that their followup and need to tick everything off their internal list out loud is caused by a force they feel they can't control. They aren't self-aware about it so the response is a little defensive & they tell you you're too sensitive because they don't quite understand it themselves.

Two: it's a form of emotional manipulation or abuse. It's designed to get you to stop trusting yourself at all, to get you to constantly second guess, be on edge, jumpy, overthinking everything non-stop. You will start to lose sleep, do this at work, and not really ever have a moment's rest. When you question it, it's your problem, you're "too sensitive" which will just make you ruminate on that over and over again.

I have lived with someone who was very self-aware low-level OCD and would catch himself when he started to do things, and if I said "Honey is this you or the OCD?" he could stop and say "It's the OCD, sorry" and drop it.

I have also lived with an abusive asshat who did almost everything you laid out above over the course of two and a half years. I became anorexic because he would sigh every time I took a bite of food. My hair started to fall out before that.

Wow. That was a little bit of a trigger there.

I don't know what to say about your situation. The whole 'arm is on the wrong side' could really be a sign of OCD, but the rest of it concerns me. The fact that calm discussion isn't getting through to them at all makes me alarmed. But I admit my bias here.

Feel free to memail me if you'd like to discuss.
posted by micawber at 11:37 AM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Your partner is taking out his/her frustration and negativity with life in general on you. Not cool.
posted by yarly at 11:38 AM on July 29, 2010

I was like your partner. I used to be called "the Inspector." It was a source of conflict in my previous relationship. I don't do this any more. It took some self-applied CBT over quite a while to learn to stop.

Part of the problem was that I have a really high standard for some things. Which don't always match the high standards my partner had (she had her own high standards for some other things). So if she did something and it didn't meet my standards, I pointed it out.

These days, my approach is threefold:

1) If it's something I know I am more critical about (e.g. painting trim) than my partner, I know that I need to either do it myself, or accept ahead of time that it won't be done to my standard and that I am going to either accept how it's been done, or go back later and fix it without bitching about it.

2) If it's something my partner does that sets me off irrationally (certain sounds drive me mad), I know that if I'm in a better mood that I will be able to handle this better, so mood maintenance is important. I also am sure to speak up gently if it's becoming a serious problem. This is hard but we have talked about it and agreed that my speaking up is better than having me grit my teeth and be miserable.

3) If it's something I might have a kneejerk reaction to, I will think before I speak up (this took the most effort to retrain), and ask myself, "is it better to talk about it and have a possibly unpleasant conversation and the decreased enjoyment the rest of the day might bring, or is it better to let it go and keep on having a good time?"

I find more and more that "not sweating the small stuff" is a great marker for good relationships. And I find more and more that "just about everything is small stuff" is leading to mutual satisfaction and pleasure.

tl;dr: If you're constantly trying to live up to his obnoxious requirements and it is making you miserable, that's a problem, but it can be resolved!
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:42 AM on July 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

Oh, I forgot to mention the informal rule we have about this: "If you don't like how I did that task/job/chore, you can bloody well just do it yourself next time."
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:46 AM on July 29, 2010 [16 favorites]

Your partner has a good start with the "it's not about you" piece, but they do need to take responsibility for the next part: not laying it on you if it's not about you.

I've got a similar your partner. Little things stand out to me, and I'm a blurter/mumbler about those things. When my current partner let me know this was making him feel similar to how you're feeling, I also told him it wasn't about him. I understood it was mostly a disconnect in my own head for which I was solely responsible. I apologised for hurting his feelings, but that didn't quite soothe things. We've accepted we're probably only going to get a more complete solution via a couples counselor.

However! We've made a start: he now gets that if I go behind and move things around, it's just my crazy brain. I'm apologetic about it, and I've worked hard to make sure he understands this piece is not a criticism, just making things go where my brain is comfortable. My problem, and I don't want to burden him with it, so I just do it. As to chore completion, I reassured him and agreed that if it's something I really care about, I'll do it and he's off the hook. And then I agreed that if it's not something I'm willing to engage in, I get to keep my little blurts in my own head. If it's something I'm not able to do, though, then we work out whatever compromise is most appropriate. Generally easy-peasy.

Arm bumps aren't an issue for us (I love it when we end up superclose to each other, frankly), and I'm sorry it is for y'all. It sounds like your partner might have some boundary issues they're working out, which is one thing a couples counselor could be really helpful to sort out.

As far as scratching furniture and such goes...that's more difficult. If you're being adult-levels of careful with belongings regardless of who cares most about that particular object, then, well, accidents and wear happen and reassuring your partner with diligent repairs and replacements should honestly be enough. But if you happen to have a more cavalier approach to life and tend to induce a bit more entropy than most, well, maybe that's an area for your own development.

I wish y'all luck & success in getting this sorted. I hope your partner sees that this will make it easier on themselves, too.

(i use "well" too much...sorry!)
posted by batmonkey at 11:46 AM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

My boyfriend loves the little things in his life to be exactly right, so he can sometimes nitpick without realizing he's doing it. If it gets to me, I'll ask him "is this so important that it's worth hurting my feelings over?" and because he cares a lot about my feelings, he stops (or at least makes a good case for why it is important, and that he wasn't trying to make me feel bad). If your partner is unwilling to back off ever, you really need to ask yourself "how much does he actually care about my feelings?" because you deserve to be with someone who cares about them a lot.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:47 AM on July 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

I have a tendency to do this, to be the constant critiquer.
In my case, it's not intended to be malicious, and it's not (as one responder suggested) out of any conscious intention to "choose to act in a way which I know to be hurtful".

Usually, it happens on auto-pilot. I blame it on being very left brain, very analytical, and generally clueless about how someone might respond emotionally.

That said, I think I've gotten better about curbing the behavior, and I would like to get better still.

For me, the thing that helps is being made aware that I'm doing it, when I'm doing it. Just a simple (and calm) "you're doing it again" helps to bring the behavior to my attention and gives me an immediate, concrete example of what I'm doing that pushes my girlfriends' buttons.

But that assumes your partner wants to curb the behavior. You have to start there.
posted by browse at 11:49 AM on July 29, 2010

There is a special spot in hell for partners who respond to their unceasing negativity with. "You're just too sensitive." They are usually the same partners who make unfunny jokes about your appearance, and in response to your hurt say something like, "I remember when you used to be fun." I am assuming that there is a way to repair this, but only if your partner wants it to change.

(Trigger territory: Does he sometimes smack/pinch your behind when you are walking past just a little too hard? Not enough to be considered an actual proper swat, but one that was done 'in fun' and then you get described as 'uptight' if you ask him not to do it any more? If so, there is no solution for this that I have ever found. He's right, it's not about you. To that end, you can't fix it either. Good luck.)
posted by 8dot3 at 11:57 AM on July 29, 2010 [7 favorites]

I'm surprised nobody has linked to Ding Training.
posted by jon1270 at 12:00 PM on July 29, 2010 [8 favorites]

I am assuming that there is a way to repair this, but only if your partner wants it to change.


If you can have a conversation with your partner where they recognize this, accept that it's a problem, and are willing to work towards a medium where you're both happy & better for it, wonderful.

But if the response is a take-it-or-leave-it "this is who I am, and if you can't accept that, too bad," then it's time to leave it.

Life subject to constant nitpicking is no way to lead a life.
posted by swngnmonk at 12:07 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

So you're too sensitive, but your partner is...? What?

Because they sound too sensitive. And in your relationship, the person who is too sensitive sucks it up and gets over it, right? Maybe your partner should try that.

Or buy some earplugs if their hearing is so delicate that you can't perform basic activities that you need to live, lest you offend them.

I feel like I might sound too critical of someone you love, and if so, I'm sorry. But you seem kind and thoughtful and empathetic, and I hate to think of you being too nervous to relax in your own home because you chew too loudly or some bullshit like that.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:11 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

When it comes to criticism in relationships, I think the most important thing is that it's (a) constructive and (b) stated kindly. What jumps out at me from your partner's list of criticisms is that they're not helping anything. MAYBE the chewing-too-loud thing has some merit if your partner is one of those people who's super-sensitive to chewing noises, but in that case, as I said, it should still be kind. "Honey, could you please try to chew a little more quietly? You know how I get with chewing noises sometimes." There are certainly times when a partner is entitled to respectfully request a slight behavior modification.

But criticizing because you bumped into them, or because you stepped on the cat's tail by accident? How could that possibly be constructive? You obviously don't go around stepping on cats' tails for fun. Does he ever give you criticism that you feel addresses a real issue, or is it all about fairly trivial stuff that isn't your fault?

My boyfriend is more critical than I am, plus I tend to be extra sensitive when it comes to criticism in general, so we've struggled with this. I think your partner has to be willing to hear your concerns if this is going to improve, though. In my case, my boyfriend usually does give criticism only when he feels there's a real issue, but in the past I often felt hurt by the way he approached me. If I, say, forgot to take out the trash after throwing out something particularly stinky like chicken fat, he would bring it up in an annoyed tone and often would ask me WHY I hadn't taken out the trash (I obviously don't go around stinking up my apartment for fun -- I just forgot!). I would then get pissed off because he was mad about something that should be able to be addressed quickly and non-emotionally, and it would just spiral down from there. So I asked him to simply state the problem, to avoid asking me questions that he obviously knew the answer to, and to try to be less emotional. He's made a huge improvement since. And in return, I've worked on reacting less defensively and emotionally myself so that I'M not turning a molehill into a mountain either.

The reason I brought up that example is that while I was typing this, he texted me and said, "Baby, it's no big deal, but please try to remember to take out the trash when you throw away some chicken." I responded, "Sorry, I forgot. I'll be more careful." End of discussion, no hard feelings. A few months ago it would have gone something like, "Why didn't you take the trash out?" "Why do you think? I FORGOT. You're not perfect either!" *cue long, pointless argument*

We've both had to be willing to stop and ask ourselves, "What is the most helpful way to proceed here? Is this reaction constructive, or am I just lashing out?" From the sound of things, your partner isn't too interested in turning the critical eye on themselves and examining how their behavior affects you. If this is the case but you still want to try to work this out, maybe couples counseling would be a good option. But I'm fairly sure that the answer is NOT for you to just develop a thicker skin. You're sensitive to the criticism because it's hurtful rather than helpful.

Another idea is to write your partner a letter explaining your feelings on the matter. Sometimes the written word can get through where conversation cannot. No matter what you do, though, you have every right to expect your partner to respect the fact that he's hurting you and to want to remedy that. You deserve respect and kindness in your relationship. That's so important to remember especially when constant criticism is slowly chipping away at your self-worth.

Good luck and feel free to memail me.
posted by spinto at 12:29 PM on July 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

It may be normal behavior for him, but it's not normal behavior in a healthy relationship.

Since you've tried discussing it and have gotten the brush-off, it looks like he's not interested in changing.

The question is, can you picture living the rest of your life feeling this way? Furniture gets scratched, glasses get broken, cats get under people's feet. We've both stepped on a cat's tail and neither one of us would think of criticizing. Bumping? My husband would love it if I'd bump into him more often.

How does he respond to you asking about counseling? If he refuses to consider it, why not go yourself and get a professional's opinion on what's going on and what your options are?

My response to this kind of behavior would be along the lines of, "who pissed in your cornflakes this morning?" Not very rational, but chewing too loudly? WTF?
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 12:30 PM on July 29, 2010

This strikes me as being about respect, both the nit-picking itself and your partner's reaction to you. That combined with the "your arm is on my side" example makes me think something else is going on here.

Has you partner always been this way? Or has this built up? How is your relationship otherwise? The way you've laid this out, it seems the nit-picking is a symptom of perhaps some bigger conflict/thing between the two of you.
posted by Katine at 12:31 PM on July 29, 2010

For clarity: This strikes me as being more about lack of respect.
posted by Katine at 12:34 PM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'd start by having another conversation with your partner, one that goes beyond telling your partner how much this constant criticism hurts, and instead involves you saying: "this is unacceptable and it needs to stop." It seems like your partner is wired to think in terms of tasks that can be performed with varying degrees of success. So present this, the stopping of criticism, to your partner as a task that your partner can either succeed of fail at. That way, when your partner does it again, you can respond not with "this hurts me" but with "you're doing it wrong." From your question, it sounds like your partner is built in such a way that the latter will be more effective.

And, also, it is unacceptable and it does need to stop. I'm giving your partner the benefit of the doubt here, mostly as a result of reading responses from other people here who say they have this tendency. But if they are not willing to fix this there is absolutely no reason why you should remain in a situation where you are made nervous or uncomfortable in your own home.
posted by Ragged Richard at 12:58 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

I totally do all of the things on the list to the point where I actually turned to my boyfriend after reading this to ask if he posted this because he has a problem with my nit-picking, and he assured me he did not and he does not find me overly nit-picky.

So, from my perspective, these things are about respect. Chewing too loudly is bad manners and annoying as hell to many people, bumping into me (I'm really small) usually hurts or bends my glasses. I know they're accidental, but attention to detail to prevent these things from happening in the first place shows extra respect for me and my preferences. It makes me feel heard and attended to. That said, I realize these are preferences of mine and I try not to get too naggy. Your partner may feel you are not paying attention to them and the way they like things done, or that you're totally unwillingly to accommodate them. It does go both ways. If you are absent-minded by nature and the comments cause you stress, they should be willing to cut you way more slack, but only if you're making your best effort to not step on the cat.

It becomes a serious problem when one or both of you are unwilling to find that equilibrium.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:17 PM on July 29, 2010

You're allowed to feel however you feel, need whatever you need, and want whatever you want. As adults, we usually do our best to control how we act on those internal urges, but I think you should do your best to not start from a place where you're discounting your internal reality. Dismissing your own feelings--believing, for example, that you are "overly" sensitive instead of being just as exactly sensitive as you are--doesn't make the hurt or the need or the want go away. So I think you should talk to your partner again because if you're still feeling hurt by his/her behavior then you two haven't found a workable compromise yet.
posted by colfax at 2:02 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

My wife has just quit taking antidepressants for the summer, and her levels of anger and criticism have increased accordingly. So maybe there's something going on with your partner.

Also, "Learned Optimism" is my fallback book recommendation for negative people.
posted by mecran01 at 2:35 PM on July 29, 2010

I've had siblings and roommates like this, and I would claw my own eyes out if I were stuck in a relationship with one of these stifling fuckoes.

The only way I know to coexist peacefully is to stand up for yourself and fight back. Don't go out of your way to do it, but don't be afraid to hurt the other person's feelings, if they're being unreasonable and disrespectful of yours. That's not guaranteed to save the relationship, though.
posted by fleacircus at 2:58 PM on July 29, 2010

Wow. I'm stunned by how many people say they do this. Like, my whole view-of-the-world has changed kind of stunned.

One thing I'm noticing is that there are a lot of people here saying "I am like that" or "I used to be like that." I am not noticing a lot of people saying "Oh sure, my partner is like this and its fine, totally normal." Because actually, I don't think it's fine; I cannot imagine any partner who wants to live in a constant feedback loop of negativity. That sounds soul-destroyingly horrendous to me.

My answer to the question "How constant should criticism actually be?" is NOT AT ALL. Neither my partner nor I are perfect people but Jesus, neither of us has an expectation of perfection and we pick our battles. My husband has asked me not to leave towels over doors and to help take out the rubbish more often; I've asked him to please close the kitchen drawer. That's in seven years. I mean, seriously, I can't think of anything else and Christ knows, we're not exactly tolerent people.

Just so you know, while I absolutely respect other people's right to conduct their relationships as they think best, what you're describing would absolutely completely and totally 100% be a deal breaker for me. I absolutely could not live with what you're describing and rather than "toughening up" I would end the relationship.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:27 PM on July 29, 2010 [17 favorites]

Are you too sensitive? Let's ask my cat.

- Ohhh! I'm sorry, kitteh, I'm sorry! I did not mean to step on your tail!!!
- That's okay tel3path!

Does your cat avoid you or seem not to like you or say, "I hate you, anonymous" every time she sees you? If so, maybe you really do have a problem with carelessness.

But if your cat doesn't criticize you constantly, I don't see why your partner needs to. I'm serious when I say this.

I don't think that writing letters, analyzing this some more, or sitting your partner down and explaining yourself for years with or without the help of a therapist, is going to help. You explained why you don't like being criticized, they explained why they like to criticize you. The end. Abusers feed on your never-ending analysis and headbanging attempts to make yourself understood. While you're lying awake nights thinking up ways to cope with their antics, they get to go on abusing you until the magical day arrives when you finally explain yourself to their satisfaction and they go, "Egad! Anonymous has been right all these decades! I am chastened and will never utter a word of criticism again!" Yeah, keep trying, because maybe eventually, with lots and lots of hard work, you'll earn it.

This is definitely abusive behaviour (pending a second opinion from your cat). Whether your partner is doing it deliberately, or simply has some bad habits, remains to be seen. You can find out by saying one of the following when criticized: "Cut it out!" "Cut out the criticism." "Please keep your comments to yourself." "Stop judging me." Or, if you want to do all this with a much lighter hand, "ding!"

Then see what they come out with next. Buy the Patricia Evans book, while you're at it.

posted by tel3path at 3:31 PM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Ah, my mock-XML tags got lost there. Would've made the cat dialogue more meaningful. Live and learn.
posted by tel3path at 3:32 PM on July 29, 2010

My ex-partner used to do this all the time. Seven years after breaking up with him, I still look back and think "How on earth did I manage to love such an abusive, manipulative, deliberately mean asshole for so long?" Of course there was more to it than him just being a nitpicky jerk, and YMMV and all, but it's worth trying to get an outside perspective on your relationship because jerky behavior isn't usually isolated to one particular quirk in an otherwise perfect situation.
posted by soviet sleepover at 3:41 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

My mother would yell at us -me, my sibling and/or my father- for things like sniffling when we were sick and for our 's' sounds being too sharp, as well as all those things listed by the OP and so many more.
When I later found myself doing the same sorts things to my partner and started hating myself for being just like her and sought help, I was told by my therapist that this was unmistakably a pattern of emotional abuse. My sister and I have both had life-long struggles with self-esteem issues. To this day, despite knowing about this and doing all the work and being in a much much happier place... I still kneejerk-apologize to my partner every time I sniffle.

Now, maybe somehow this is only considered abuse when it comes from a parent, but I seriously doubt this. Please find some outside resource for you to figure out for yourself if this is an abusive situation or not; based on your description and my personal experience I believe it is.

Is your partner setting out to abuse you intentionally? Probably not. But that doesn't make it not abuse.

It sounds like s/he is aware that this is a problem area, but just telling you that it 'isn't about you' in no way makes it ok for her/him to continue doing this to you.
Whatever the case, it is on your partner to start making behavioral changes, not for you to walk on eggshells for the duration. Trust me, you simply cannot be perfect enough to make this kind of criticism end.
posted by Brody's chum at 4:08 PM on July 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

There's a famous study of relationships which shows that if you don't say about 5 good things for every act of criticism, you are very likely to break up. So, this doesn't sound like it's headed for the long term unless this behavior stops.

Interestingly, another study finds that middle class kids receive something like 5 positive remarks for every negative or no-- while for poor kids, the ratio is reversed. This is linked with lower vocabulary and poor school performance in the poor.
posted by Maias at 4:21 PM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yeah, basically what Brody's chum said.

I have done/sometimes still do this, and every time I see my husband's face fall because I told him he put the dishes away wrong or some stupid crap like that, it makes me want to punch myself because it's total asshole behavior. Even though I don't think about it like "oh let's make my husband miserable today!" I just do it because that's how I was raised. It's still fucked up and wrong.

If I did it all the time I would hope that my husband would leave me. For real. And I've told him that. And this kind of behavior is one of a few reasons why I don't have kids yet. It's hurtful and it makes the one place where people should accept you and be kind to you--your home--and makes it into a shooting range instead, with you as the target.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:33 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

If they care more about being "right" and not changing than they care about your feelings, my advice is to head for ze hills. I had a similar partner who determined she was "too old" to change. Guess what? I wasn't.

I got my own place where I could relax, and relaxing allowed me to think things through...and I realized I could never be happy with her since she seemed to prefer my misery to a bit of mess and "disorder."

PS: If your name is Suzanne, sorry you ended up with her! But you asked for it.
posted by kidelo at 5:01 PM on July 29, 2010

Couples therapy? In Imago, the first rule is: no criticism allowed. No criticism at all, no excuses. The only important thing is to stop the criticism. Criticism is no longer tolerated. The only failure is to forget the "no criticism" rule. Before going forward or tackling any other problem, first we're going to get that criticism completely 100% halted. Your challenge for this week is to totally suppress even the tiniest hint of criticism.

Makes sense? When I first heard about it, I realized that finally someone figured out how to put the focus on the right part of the problem.
posted by billb at 5:11 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've found a more preferable form of criticism is, instead of "You did X wrong" say "Baby, X is killing me, c'mon now." Avoid saying "you", avoid the past tense, don't make a conversation out of it, and change the topic quickly after.
posted by blargerz at 7:02 PM on July 29, 2010

Get away from this person! Isn't this called "emotional abuse"? I mean, it's a free country. Why be partnered with a person who makes you feel exhausted and sad and criticizes you constantly and cares nothing for your feelings?
posted by citron at 8:51 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

My mother would yell at us -me, my sibling and/or my father- for things like sniffling when we were sick and for our 's' sounds being too sharp, as well as all those things listed by the OP and so many more.
When I later found myself doing the same sorts things to my partner and started hating myself for being just like her and sought help, I was told by my therapist that this was unmistakably a pattern of emotional abuse. My sister and I have both had life-long struggles with self-esteem issues. To this day, despite knowing about this and doing all the work and being in a much much happier place... I still kneejerk-apologize to my partner every time I sniffle.

This rings a bell for me as my dad was the same. It took me a long time to get past - and I still remember the moment when I realised that it wasn't me who was bad, but that my dad was just being an asshole - and so I don't respond very well to criticism and it really pushes my buttons if someone picks me up on the same things he did - or worse, I shrink and worry. I wonder what environment your SO grew up in - as far as I know, my dad learned that kind of behaviour from his father, and took it to be the best way of raising kids.
posted by mippy at 5:15 AM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Personally, I've found that occasionally blowing my top and screaming "STOP WITH THE CONSTANT FUCKING CRITICISM!!!!!!!!!!!" and generally freaking the fuck out tends to put a damper on it for a few days. :)
posted by Jacqueline at 5:53 AM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well - are you chewing too loud, slamming doors, stepping on the cats tail and bumping into people? You could try being more deliberate, more mindful as you move about your house. Are you living in a very small space? I don't think I've ever seen any of my four roommates bump into each other and so I know it is possible to move around someone without running into them. And we intentionally don't slam doors. If someone did, we would all find that annoying.

We used to have a roommate who was always doing these things, dropping food everywhere, putting dents in furniture and the walls - he was a mess - walking around like a drunk zombie paying no attention to the trail of destruction in his wake. We're all glad he's gone. And instead of expressing our feelings about it we tended to just passive aggressively hate him for it - so it's probably better that your partner is expressing how they feel rather than bottling it up.

I get that you're upset because of how you feel when these things are pointed out - but you seem to agree that you might actually be a bit clumsy. If that's true and it's not just low self-esteem or an OCD partner - then maybe you should think about working to be less clumsy. You don't have to break things or bump into people or slam doors - those are choices one makes. Not that you're trying to be loud, but you may be choosing to be lazy about how you move, or not pay attention to where the cat is.

BUT - If it's low self esteem or an OCD partner or whatever, then it's still your issue to work on - why do you feel bad about being who you are? Why do you feel like your partner's comments have to impact your self esteem in that way?
posted by jardinier at 7:12 AM on July 30, 2010

"You don't have to break things or bump into people or slam doors - those are choices one makes."

With all due respect, most people don't choose to break things or slam doors or step on their beloved pet.

I am a somewhat clumsy person, and will be pretty much no matter what. Shocking, I know, but constant criticism didn't cure my ADHD, my mildly shitty eyesight, or my god-given ability to walk into every single doorjamb everywhere.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:41 AM on July 30, 2010 [10 favorites]

I will admit, I once had housemates who repeatedly put me in life-threatening situations by leaving the gas burners on overnight, or during the day for me to come home to.

When I explained that I'd opened all the windows and doors and they needed to leave them open and not flick any switches because we were all in immediate danger of death, they complained that I was being unkind to them. And also that I had OCD, because OCD people worry about turning the stove off, and I was worrying about turning the stove off, so that proved it. And even if it was dangerous, leaving the stove on is just something that happens, and it's not like they did it on purpose anyway, and they couldn't wave a magic wand and just make it stop, and you could get killed by a block of formaldehyde being flushed from a plane going overhead, and their lives were really hard, and I was just making things harder for them by not understanding, and the basic problem was my critical and controlling nature etc.

You don't sound like them, so I'm inferring that you're not actually the one at fault here and the problem actually is the criticism.
posted by tel3path at 7:51 AM on July 30, 2010

Sure you could try not to do all the things that bother your partner but you know what if your partner doesn't have enough respect and care for your feelings not to constantly nit-pick you I think that in and of itself is a bigger problem. I think you deserve to feel loved and accepted in your relationship whether you're clumsy or not.

We all have things that just drive us nuts about the people we live and interact with but criticism should be made in good faith and limited to things that will be constructive. I also firmly think that it should be kept to a minimum and we all need to learn to pick our battles.

Ones romantic partner is not an improvement project and when it gets to the point where one is constantly picking on them I think its time to reconsider how well the relationship is working as a whole.

You're post reminded me of one a couple days ago about how when you get close to wanting to break up with someone - everything they do drives you crazy. I know for me loving someone makes me more accepting of their flaws not less.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 9:08 AM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

To paraphrase Miss Manners, "The idea that one of the advantages of being in a relationship is to have your own ever-present honest critic is a mistake."

For two years, I lived with a partner who made me an "improvement project," as SpaceWarp13 says. I grew to resent it greatly (as one who is uncomfortable with confrontations, so I settled for constant mental mutterings of "Well, thanks, Mr. Perfect"). Such conditions did not make for a long or a happy relationship.
posted by virago at 9:52 AM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

That should be "As one who is uncomfortable with confrontations, I settled for ..." Where's my copy editor?
posted by virago at 9:53 AM on July 30, 2010

instead of "You did X wrong" say "Baby, X is killing me, c'mon now."

Because that's such a difference-maker right there.
posted by micawber at 10:13 AM on July 30, 2010

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