How can two critical AND sensitive people get along better?
December 16, 2007 9:49 AM   Subscribe

How do two people who are both a) super-sensitive to criticism, real or imagined; b) prone to being critical toward others; and c) married manage to coexist peacefully?

My s.o. and I are committed to the long haul, relationship-wise, and in most ways we get along famously.

One way we don't, though, is in the realm of nitmicking/criticism/nagging. We each - proof that god has a wicked sense of humor - tend to do it, hear it and react poorly to it, whether it's real or (more often) imagined, implied in tone of voice or "that look," etc.

This often leads to annoying, exhausting bickering that sometimes escalates into fights over nothing - mostly a test of wills over who said what with what intent, what "really happened," who was slighted and who deserves an apology. Basically, minor details about who's "right," instead of the underlying feelings. (Did I mention we're both control freaks?)

It's the reflex to snap back when you feel someone is unfairly criticizing you, usually in the form of "why-did[n't]-you," "what-were[n't]-you-thinking" statements. Sometimes it's even true, but it's still no healthy way to communicate.

We're well aware of it, we talk openly and lovingly about it once things cool down, we've gone to couples therapy at times and read many books about getting along with your spouse. In short, we know we do it, but deeply ingrained habits (thanks Mom and Dad!) are damned hard to break.

I'm just wondering if anyone has any battle-tested wisdom to share about either end of the equation: avoiding the statements that could be construed as critical; and avoiding the snap-back response. Biting your tongue and growing thicker skin, I guess.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Selfawareness is the first step to change. So you are already on your way.

Basically these things happen when people want their own way. If you guys really want to change it will entail you giving up your right to BE right, and your right to have your own way, and to choose to look out for your spouse-to include believing the best instead of the worst of anything that comes out of their mouth.

Also, I have a saying: "Fix the problem, not the blame." I grew up with parents who acted as you describe, and I really really wish they'd adopt that as their motto.
posted by konolia at 10:01 AM on December 16, 2007

My fiance and I can get like this. I find it useful to focus on my partner's overall intent rather than the specifics of the situation or what words were used. He intends to love me. He intends to do right by me. He certainly doesn't intend to hurt me. I think of all the good things he's done for me, and I allow him to screw up in this particular situation. Everyone's entitled to screw up now and then, and I try to allow him his stubbornness, his over-sensitivity, his passive-aggressiveness, while keeping in mind that I am also fallible. He has boundless patience at times for my insecurities and character flaws (I mean, he's still here, right?) - so he deserves that same forgiveness from me.

I think we both have a victim-complex from being the scapegoat in our respective families. I won't speak for him, but I know that what seems important to me in the heat of battle is to preserve my self-image as this shining pillar of righteousness, and if that means making him wrong, so be it. The more wrong I make him, the more superior I feel, and since that was my best method of coping in a chaotic childhood, I still cling to it. This seems horribly self-centered, but as a kid, I honestly felt that everything that was wrong with my family was my fault, so if I could just be perfect - or if everyone believed I was - it would all be OK.

Of course, I am not this flawless goddess on a pedestal, and feeling superior to one's partner has nothing to do with true love. Lately I've been working on admitting to myself that I may have been wrong in a certain situation, and that the world won't crumble if I'm not always perfect. He'll still love me anyway.

Do a test - in the next blowup over a minor situation, apologize to your partner, even when you don't feel you've done anything wrong. "I'm sorry I said X. I know it made you upset. I really do love you even if I don't show it sometimes. Let's watch a movie/get a cup of coffee/whatever and calm down a bit, then talk about it."

Apologizing won't kill you. Being wrong won't kill you. You're lovable even if you're not perfect. There's no need to try and prove that you're better than your partner.
posted by desjardins at 10:17 AM on December 16, 2007 [12 favorites]

As a person who is sensitive to criticism and tends to nitpick I offer you this - give one another space.

Anon, take a timeout when you feel the pressure mounting, when you feel like picking or when you feel criticized. Go for a walk, read a book - get away from your SO. And same for the SO. You may be married, but this does not mean joined at the hip. What has worked for me in the past is a few hours of alone time to reset my mind and my soul.
posted by seawallrunner at 10:22 AM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow... I'm currently accusing my fiance of having written this question. You describe us to the proverbial T.

Even though I used to hate my parents fighting as a child, and assumed that fighting meant they were having problems, I now realize that bickering over stupid stuff is just a form of stress relief, and when you spend the bulk of your time with someone, you're bound to be exposed to each other's outbursts. If my fiance and I weren't passionate about and committed to one another, we wouldn't care about each other's (potentially imagined) actions or motives.

I know it's terribly hard to be logical during a fight, but my strategy is to realize that my partner is likely getting on my case about something she can control (doing chores or whatever) because she's feeling out-of-control in some other area of her life. So while I still tend to defend myself against criticisms and get into bicker mode, once I feel I've made my point I like to remind her that I love her madly, and that I'd like to know if she's got anything else to get off her chest.

If you can find 10 seconds during a fight to take a breath, and say "I love you", it can do wonders. It may not even stop the fight, but it stops you from drowning in the negativity of the event.

I also like to "re-cap" a fight at the end, once we've calmed down a few minutes. I tell her what I think the issues we were bickering over are, what I hope to do/avoid in the future, and remind her that I'm always there for her. It helps to emphasize these bicker sessions as a functional part of our relationship, from which growth can occur, rather than a disruption.

Ain't love grand? Cheers to you both!
posted by chudmonkey at 10:23 AM on December 16, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm like this. Luckily my husband isn't, but one highly emotional and upset person can drag on an argument waaaaay longer than it deserves. This is the method that worked for us.

Before your next fight, sit down and agree on a code word or phrase that means 'Hey, we're doing it again. Let's just stop the discussion right now.' Solemnly promise each other that whenever one of you says the codeword, you drop everything and go to the ice cream parlour. If it's the middle of the night, you go to the nearest 24 hour grocery store and buy ice cream. Okay, it doesn't have to be ice cream, just something that separates you from the argument long enough to let the emotional crap dissipate so you can be rational adults again. It probably helps if it's something that makes you leave the house, just because that will really reinforce the attempt to break the cycle by completely changing the atmosphere, but if you don't want to do that, you could have a cup of tea or put in your joint favourite dvd (agreed ahead of time, because you don't want a fight about hurt feelings to turn into a fight about which dvd to watch!) If you think it will work better, you can agree to separate for an hour--maybe she takes a bubble bath and he plays Nintendo. The code word ritual can be anything you like, as long as it breaks the pattern of "why-did[n't]-you," "what-were[n't]-you-thinking"

Agree ahead of time that the discussion will be resumed the next day at x time. X = whatever time both of you are generally at your best, whether mornings, just after work, after dinner, whichever. Most of the time, you'll discover that it isn't a real issue, so you don't need to discuss it after all, but any real issues can be dealt with when you are rational.

The real test will come when one of you feels like you are 'winning' the fight and the other one uses the code word. You'll really really want to keep arguing. And maybe you will. But don't let one or two or twelve failures stop you. It really will work to make you better at separating real issues from imaginary ones, and eventually you'll have fewer fights to start with.
posted by happyturtle at 10:38 AM on December 16, 2007 [3 favorites]

They adapt. It's like asking how will a really jumpy cat get on in a raucous household.. it'll be darn jumpy for quite a while but then it'll adapt to the environment.

The problem with people is that they don't tend to realize they adapt and will throw in the towel too early because they have the free will to do so. Given enough time, however, people will adapt to almost any partner or situation. Heck, J G Ballard even recalls his time in internment camp under the rule of the Japanese with pleasure, simply because he got used to it.
posted by wackybrit at 10:39 AM on December 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Following onto chudmonkey, bickering can indeed be a form of stress relief, but I think it's important to realize that the stress may come from the relationship itself. My parents are/were bickerers and I think it's because they truly didn't belong together. Of course, they belong together now because they have 48 years invested in a marriage set up this way, but they don't talk about anything to us kids or to each other. At all. As an example, I was recently fired and I told my brother and each of my parents separately. Neither of my parents mentioned anything about it to the other once, even though my dad had more questions when I wasn't around.

I don't mean to make this about me, but I also had a girlfriend several years back who was more sensitive and just about as critical as me. We went back and forth a little bit from time to time, but generally we recoiled from each other due to our sensitivities. The relationship just did not go into anything that might raise a controversy or push the relationship into a new direction. After about a year and a half we successfully weeded out everything new and potentially interesting from between us and arrived at sitting on the couch watching TV. We broke up soon afterwards.

So my point here is that the dominant dynamics of a relationship tend to be the things that will survive for all the years you will be together. Sure a bit of sass and empathy are great, but it's hard (for me, anyway) to have a good relationship when I'm worried the other person might be hurt by my criticism, because I know theirs has hurt me before.

It might be helpful to consider that second-guessing and offering advice about the past (why-didn't-you) is the worst form of criticism because you can't do anything about it. Offering advice about the past is insane. "Should" arguments are a huge waste of time and are not worth having at all. If you want to have a constructive conversation about personal activities, do it beforehand. The flipside of "why-didn't-you" is "how-are-you-gonna." Take an interest in each others lives first, because these lines of argument tell me you're only doing it in reaction afterward right now.
posted by rhizome at 10:54 AM on December 16, 2007

The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage is quite good on the subject of communication. It sounds kinda goofy, but simply rephrasing a complaint as a request, for example, does wonders. Instead of putting your spouse on the defensive and getting off onto a long tangent about whether they really are mean and/or insensitive and whether they're "always" that way, you can talk about the actual issue you're upset about.
posted by callmejay at 11:21 AM on December 16, 2007

Instead of saying "I love you but you drive me crazy" try "I love you and you drive me crazy". My wife started doing that...sounds silly but it makes a difference. It reminds me that even when I am upsetting her the fact that she loves me is still more powerful than her annoyance with me. It not the words but the fact that she thought enough to say the right ones.
posted by UMDirector at 11:24 AM on December 16, 2007

Another good book on communication, especially between the genders, is You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen.
posted by thebrokedown at 12:24 PM on December 16, 2007


Er, not to split hairs, but I think you meant "nitpicking." Don't shoot me.
posted by notswedish at 12:28 PM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

When my fiancee and I find ourselves having a silly argument, bickering, etc., whoever notices first starts making a fish face. You just can't bicker when you're laughing or sucking your cheeks in.
posted by jewzilla at 3:19 PM on December 16, 2007 [3 favorites]

I find my own critical impulses come out of being far too self-interested. I recommend you each make an effort to focus your perspective beyond your microscopic bubble. (This is probably best done independent of each other. YMMV.) Some ways to do this are to take courses, pursue a new hobby, make art, read more, watch foreign films, exercise, read the newspaper, cut back on internet use, become active in your community.

I also find that spending way too much time together makes you boring and a smaller person. Soooo many couples have this problem.
posted by loiseau at 3:51 PM on December 16, 2007

There are a lot of issues. You both need to allow the other to win, and you both need to give up on winning and understand that, most of the time, if one of you loses, you both lose.

I recommend learning to detach. When you've both had a chance to say what you need to say, which is usually in the first few minutes, ask "Anything you need to add?" so that he has a shot at the last word. Then leave the room. If he wants to continue the fight, tell him you need a timeout and will continue the discussion tomorrow. Set a time if needed. With time to calm down, the issue will either be seen as trivial or you'll have more perspective if it's important.
posted by theora55 at 4:05 PM on December 16, 2007

An ex-boyfriend and I had an agreement that whenever anything went right, I got credit, and whenever anything went wrong, he got the blame. No matter what. For example, he went shopping, found something he liked on sale, bought it. Score for me!! I was late to work because I forgot to set my alarm. His fault! (The fact that he was camping with friends? Irrelevant.)

The point of this arrangement was that it made fights over this kind of thing non-existent. I also never got to feel superior, for being right all the time, because I knew it meant zero. He never took the blame seriously for the same reason. It was just a silly way to stop worrying about fault and blame, and move on to solving the problem (or celebrating the success). This relationship lasted a long time, and was a very happy one. The fact that he is an ex has nothing to do with how we got a long. We just moved apart and drifted apart. So I like this solution. (Can't get husband to try it. He likes quibbling over who is right too much.)
posted by Capri at 5:00 AM on December 17, 2007

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