Intimacy has several building blocks. Unfortunately, we can topple these building blocks in response to personal issues. When we do, we often find ourselves on the pathway to becoming a critical spouse. Let me give a few examples as way of explanation.
Pathway 1: Intimacy requires that we accept our spouse and ourselves. Unfortunately, many people do not accept themselves. Instead, they think all sorts of self-critical remarks. They criticize their abilities, their appearance, their accomplishments, or any number of other things. They may believe their self-criticism motivates them toward improvement and success. But, how many of us would like a teacher or mentor who constantly criticized our efforts and abilities. Rather than motivate, criticism holds us back. We also grow accustomed to criticism when we engage in constant self-criticism. We become hardened to its hurt. We may even lose our ability to recognize it. Eventually, what’s in our mind comes out toward ourselves and others. We become critical not just of ourselves, but of our spouses as well. And, we probably don’t even recognize it when we criticize our spouse…but our spouse recognizes the criticism and it hurt them.
Pathway 2: Some people fear becoming too dependent on their spouse; so, they don’t acknowledge how much their spouse helps them. They don’t show their gratitude and appreciation. Other people don’t believe it necessary to show gratitude to another person for doing “what they’re supposed to do anyway.” So, they don’t acknowledge their appreciation for tasks done. (In case you’re wondering, here’s the reason Why We Thank Our Spouse for Doing Chores even though they’re supposed to do them anyway.) However, in both cases, the ungrateful person feels free to criticize their spouse. Why? Because criticism reinforces their independence from their spouse. Criticism also points out what the other person needs to do to improve so they too can become more independent. Unfortunately, reinforcing my independence and pointing out how my spouse needs to improve only comes across as a critical spouse, especially when I don’t acknowledge any gratitude.
Pathway 3: Many people fear the vulnerability inherent in an intimate relationship. It opens us up for potential hurt. Perhaps we’ve experienced hurt at the hands of loved ones in the past; or, we’ve lost relationships in the past either through “break-ups” or death. Either way, we fear losing the relationship now. In response to that fear, we protect ourselves by keeping some distance between us and the other person. We protect ourselves by limiting access to our deeper emotions. We avoid the vulnerability of intimacy by keeping our spouse at “arm’s length…” and criticism is a one way in which people do this. It’s a very effective way to keep a loved one at “arm’s length” and so protect one’s self from the vulnerability of deepening intimacy.
How can you step off the pathway to a critical spouse and turn back into a loving spouse?
- Acceptance: In order to have a healthy relationship with another person, we need to know and accept ourselves. Then we must accept our spouse. We can accept our spouse in spite of differences, mistakes, and hurts because we love our spouse and we know they have the best interest of our relationship in mind. (Read Accepting Family Members Unconditionally and Six Tips for Practical Acceptance to learn more on acceptance.)
- Appreciation: One way to grow in acceptance of one another is to develop a habit of mind that looks for and then verbally acknowledges those things you appreciate about your spouse. Make it a habit to thank them for what they do throughout the day. Voice your admiration for their character and their love. Verbalize your adoration for them as often as you can ever day. A Lack of Gratitude Can Sink Your Marital Ship but building an environment of appreciation will keep it afloat through any storm.
- Courage: Growing more intimate puts us in a vulnerable position. We are entrusting our lives, our security, and our joys into the hands of another. Doing this takes courage. Yes, you develop this trust over time. Both partners reveal themselves as trustworthy through their words and actions. Still, it takes courage to let down your guard and allow yourself to stand naked (emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as well as physically) and unafraid before your spouse. Be courageous. Show yourself trustworthy to encourage your spouse’s courage.
Practice acceptance, appreciation, and courage to find yourself on the pathway to a loving intimate relationship.