Criticism in Relationships

Does Criticism belong in a Relationship?  When asking this question we should always look at the true definition of the word. In this case the word is ‘criticism’. Criticism as defined by the Oxford Dictionary “The expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.” This term often elicits feelings of negativity and results in one feeling defensive to the statements made. Other terms that may appear less offensive are; assessment, critique, evaluation, or observation. Truly they all have the same intent, which is to constructively identify areas for improvement.

    As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I have had experience helping families and have done extensive research on the subject of criticism in relationships. One cannot have a truly healthy relationship with another if unable to express areas of improvement. This results in the relationship becoming unbalanced and creates resentment and hostility. No one wants that in their romantic relationship. The romantic relationship is about developing a healthy and balanced partnership in which both parties equally work to develop and strengthen this partnership over time.

    Terms such as ‘constructive criticism’ have been developed to help ease the uncomfortable blow of being told that one is not performing to expected or needed standards. One popular technique with giving criticism effectively is often referred to as the ‘sandwich’ or ‘hamburger’ technique. In a nutshell, this is to deliver a strength, problem, and strength. However this requires much more skill and is not that simple. The following is generally a good technique:

  • Self-evaluation: Check your own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Ensure that your intentions are to improve the relationship versus wanting to complain.
  • Timing: Never do this in the heat of the moment when you are feeling angered by what you are wanting to criticize. This will simply lead to a fight. Timing also needs to be considered for the other person. It is often helpful to ask for a good time to talk. This will help the other person be prepared and more open to listening
  • Positive Acknowledgement: Start off by acknowledging what your partner does right! If you can identify some things that are even related to what you want to criticize, this will be an added benefit. We all want to know what to do as well as what not to do. Include a significant amount of praise when doing this.
  • Constructively Criticize:  You want to state the criticism with a suggestion. This helps to offer a solution, and most importantly use “I-statements” whenever possible!

“I notice when things have been stressful for you and I need help, the response is often in a harsh tone. This makes me feel upset and avoid asking for help.  Please use a calm tone when responding to me or ask me if I can give you time to be in a better space, before you help me.”

This will help the other person to know how it impacts you along with showing understanding and offering an alternative solution.

  • Positive feedback: remind them what they do right and, if possible, examples that are related of times they did things right. Be sure to thank them for being the partner they are and for listening to you.
  • Encourage feedback: encourage them to share their feelings and thoughts and listen to and truly consider what they have to say. Make sure you are ready for some constructive criticism yourself.



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Michelle Natale LMFT

Michelle is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has been working with youth and families for over 17 years.

Michelle graduated from Chapman University with her Masters in Psychology; emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy.

Michelle earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from California State University at Northridge.

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