The Healthy Way To Respond To Criticism From Your Partner

Whether you feel their critique is valid or completely out of left field, this is how to productively handle the discussion.

Man and woman having a calm, engaged discussion

The great thing about having a partner is that you never have to be alone. There’s always someone to give support, encouragement, and feedback.

That last one is also where it can get dicey. The words can be positive, and then at other times, not so much. Their criticism might be spot-on and well-deserved, but it’s rarely something you want to hear.

“It flies in the face of collaboration or cooperation,” says Pat Love, relationship expert and author of Five Forces Destroying Your Relationship You Probably Never Heard Of. “It says, ‘I know better than you.’”

Criticism is necessary. But no one wants to be judged. It’s often taken as a threat, and even though it’s not do-or-die, you go into your defensive crouch and may bust out one of three go-to moves in order to “survive”:

  1. You snap back. (Doesn’t work.)
  2. You stay silent and avoid the subject. (Nope. Doesn’t work.)
  3. You get into a debate and tell your partner how they’ve been less than perfect. (Really doesn’t work.)

The occasional criticism is inevitable, especially when you have kids and your spouse is wholly invested in you and the relationship. The work lies not in making the comments disappear, but in responding to their critiques in a productive way, because here’s another truth: What your partner says might be correct. If you shut off that possibility, you don’t improve. Open yourself up to the idea and you can.

So, what’s the healthiest, most productive way to respond to criticism? Listening to their concerns is helpful, as is owning up to your part in the matter. But there are some branching paths to follow. For instance, what if you think their criticism is invalid? Well, no one said this would be easy. But there’s an appropriate response to use in the moment.

Consider this your “So you’re being criticized…” cheat sheet. Study it, learn it, and think back to it the next time you’re asked to hear things about yourself you might not like. Chances are, it’ll prove useful.

How To Respond To Criticism

Listen. It’s always about listening, and the goal is to put your partner’s need to say something over your need to say something. They pick up on your attentiveness and “it may take the edge off,” says Michael S. Bishop, marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas. Is it necessarily fun? No. You’re hearing criticism, but you listen to people who are less meaningful than your partner all the time at work, so this isn’t out of your wheelhouse.

When you give that focus, you’ll learn one of a few things. Your spouse might have a point. They might be mad about something else, and when you realize you’re not the actual target, you can step back and let them offload. The criticism, in your opinion, might be unfounded and when you let them talk, they might hear that themselves. But even if they don’t, you’ve listened completely and that’s validating in itself. Plus, it just makes good sense to let them have the floor without interruption. And then it will end and you have to respond with something more than a blank look and shrug. What you say depends on what you’ve just heard.

If the criticism has any merit ...

Own Your Part. Say anything like, “You’re right. I screwed up. That’s totally fair.” Most likely the tension ends immediately because you’ve let go of the rope. You’ve also conveyed, “I take you as a person seriously,” Bishop says, and that’s big on the validation scale.

Love adds that you can even follow with, “What’s something I can do to help you right now?,” which moves the conversation further ahead. If you sense an unrelated issue is bothering them, you can ask, “Is there something else going on?” Just avoid, “What’s really the issue?” You’re trying to be too smart and it comes off as dismissive. “That really implies that the first thing wasn’t real,” she says.

If you’re confused …

Ask Questions. It keeps the conversation going, and you can preface things with, “I’m not seeing what you’re seeing,” Bishop says, and then, ask, “Can you give me some examples?” “Do you feel it happens all the time?” “Is there something I’m doing that’s not helping?”

By doing so, you’re neither refuting nor counter-attacking with, “Oh you think you’re the only one …?” You’re just teasing out more information and maybe you discover there’s a misunderstanding, but you’re at least getting on the same page.

But if you believe the criticism is off-base …

Wait Until They’re Done. Then ask if you can respond. You haven’t cut them off, which is usually appreciated. When you speak, remain tentative and use qualifying statements, while focusing on your perception, Bishop says. “I could be wrong and I might have missed something, but it seems like I might have a different take.”

You’re showing deference, remaining polite and staying calm. They’re all hard to pull off, but however you are, “your partner responds in kind,” he says.

And if you find yourself getting too worked up…

Back away. Their comments might not be huge, but it hits you wrong for whatever reason. Try to get out, “I can tell this matters but I can’t do this right now.” You can also say, “This is super hard for me to hear.” “A helpful phrase,” says Sarah Epstein, licensed marriage and family therapist in Dallas and author of Love in the Time of Medical School, to acknowledge what’s going on internally and that what they’ve said has sunk in to some degree.

The key part is that if you call the timeout, it’s on you to reconvene and be ready to talk. If you don’t, you’re breeding more frustration and distrust. “The fear is we’ll never come back to it. It will never be a good time,” she says.

When you return, you can ask them to repeat what they said. Usually nothing comes out as intensely the second time, because your partner has had time to think and they come back knowing you’re going to listen.

“You’re just giving yourself the best chance to succeed in the conversation,” Epstein says.

And then in the future …

Promote Yourself. When you’ve done something based on what your partner has said, point it out in a genuine way. They’ll realize that you’re willing to talk, listen and try. “It calms them and gives them confidence,” Love says.

And do it even if you screwed up. Shoot a text with, “Forgot the water bottle again. I’ll get it eventually.” Forgetting to do something is still a kind of remembering and rather than making them remind you, you’re heading off the problem and showing them that improving as a spouse is your prime concern.

“That commitment makes us better people,” she says.