Close X

How to Avoid Criticism in Relationships

Jonathan Swinton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist - February 14, 2012


What better way to say "Happy Valentine's Day" than by taking steps to improve your relationship? Criticism is a damaging communication pattern, and every relationship can benefit from removing it.

We live in a society where criticism has become the norm and respect a thing of the past. This is, in my professional opinion, one of the primary reasons families across the United States are deteriorating.

What does criticism look like? We are critical when we communicate our concerns in a way that can be interpreted as personally attacking or blaming. For example: “Why didn’t you call me when you were coming home late? Didn’t you realize that I was waiting for you? You always put work ahead of me and the kids. You never think about how your actions impact other people.” Clearly, there is a valid concern that may need to be expressed, but the way in which the concern was presented was very personally attacking and blaming.

Criticism is detrimental to relationships for several reasons. First, if you are critical with family members, they may feel belittled. No one likes to feel attacked, and as a result they will become defensive. It doesn’t motivate them to want to change; it only motivates them to defend themselves and save face.

Feeling belittled is especially difficult for children to deal with. When they are criticized, their character is threatened. They may begin to feel poorly about themselves. For example, many self-esteem struggles experienced by children are rooted in critical remarks directed toward them. The sting of criticism can be felt much longer than you may think.

Second, you may regret what you say later. At the time you make critical comments, you likely feel justified in saying the remark. However, it is your emotions that are talking when you are in the heat of the moment. If you are frustrated, irritated, or in some other emotionally charged state, you lose your ability to be rational and objective. Emotions can calm with time. As they do, your ability to be rational will return and you will see how the emotions got the better of you. I love the line in the popular film You’ve Got Mail. Tom Hanks’s character remarks: “When you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.” Even if you may think the other person deserves the zinger you give them, later on you will likely regret what was said.

Third, criticism leads to contempt and resentment. If you are critical with a loved one, they may be patient and forgiving initially. However, research has shown that feeling repeatedly criticized fuels resentment and contempt. Research also highlights that resentment and contempt are extremely toxic to any relationship. Hence, criticism is a catalyst to poisoning relationships.

If you are too critical of loved ones or if they are too critical with you, it is time for a change. Seeking the assistance of a professional may be necessary if the criticism is deeply rooted and habitual. However, you can move past it if you are willing to put forth the effort. So make that effort—the well-being of your family may depend on it.

Ways to Avoid Criticism

Complain without blame. Blaming is at the core of every criticism. If you express frustrations without pointing a finger at another, criticism can be avoided.

Express your frustrations about situations, actions, or behaviors. Human tendency is to focus on how people are bothering us or causing problems rather than the behavioral manifestations that frustrate us. For example, someone may make a critical remark such as “Why can’t you clean up after yourself?” A better way to say it would be, “I feel frustrated about how messy the house is.” The latter example focuses on the situation, rather than the person.

State positive needs. People tend to focus on what they don’t want others to do anymore. For example, a person may say to his or her spouse, “You need to stop playing on the computer all day.” The positive need is likely a desire to have more time and attention from the spouse. A positive need request would be, “I would appreciate more one-on-one time in our relationship.”

Jonathan Swinton is an LDS Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He accepts self and Bishop referrals, and is available to provide marriage and family therapy services and weekend couple retreats to anyone interested. He is also available to speak on marriage issues at Relief Society and Ward events. Contact him at Swinton Counseling: 801-647-9951,

© LDS Living, January/February 2012.
Comments 3 comments

leecrites said...

06:41 AM
on Feb 14, 2012

Report Abuse

While this was a nice Polyanna type article, it didn't really address the mushrooming problem with habitual verbal and emotional abuse that constant criticism quickly becomes. Overt criticism is like an addiction, with the ones dishing it out getting their "fix" from the chemicals their body produces while doing it.

osmiles said...

01:39 AM
on Feb 19, 2012

Report Abuse

To me there is a missing element in this article. True we don’t want to personally attack others with our words. It is important to value them as people like ourselves. But don’t we miss the mark if we don’t express your feelings with honesty and charity? I feel true communication depends on a change of heart on our part. Tip-toeing around, wondering, “Did I say that correctly,” can do more harm than good to a relationship. It leaves everyone off balance. I am not suggesting that it is honest to blast someone else’s character. That is nether right nor charitable. But I think it might be a better idea to stop when we are frustrated and ask, “What is the right thing to say or do in this situation” and listen for a response from the spirit. Instead of trying to do the right thing, we need to do the right thing. It takes humility, patience and a desire to change on our part; learning to have the ability to “see things as they really are.” No technique can substitute for our coming closer to the Savior and seeing things through His eyes, and speaking more as He would have us speak.

oracle said...

11:35 PM
on Mar 05, 2012

Report Abuse

I must be missing something because I think this one of the best articles on criticism I've ever read. He describes what he means by criticism, with examples. He describes the immediate feelings people tend to have when they are criticized, as well as its effects on the one criticizing. Finally, he describes the serious long term effects - the resentment - that impacts both the one receiving chronic criticism as well as the one dishing it out. Then he describes the importance blaming plays, and describes how to express frustrations without resorting to criticizing. I think that leecrites might be right that it can be like an addiction, or at least there is something driving the need to criticize. But in a few paragraphs this article provides a remedy for much of the criticism, and its sometimes devastating effects, that goes on. I honestly believe if the suggestions he made were put into practice, a home where criticism is the norm would become a home where criticism is rare.
Leave a Comment
Login to leave a comment.