Criticism is easy. Our brains are analytical, problem-solving engines eager to engage with ideas and experiences. But as ready as we are to dole out criticism, receiving it is more complicated. The old saying holds that criticism is easy to dish out and hard to take doesn’t tell the whole story. People respond to criticism in a variety of ways, including rejecting it and learning from it. But when people hear criticism from their partners in long-term relationships, they often fall at extremes.
Criticism, notes Illinois marriage and family therapist Kate Engler, is a consistent topic for the couples she counsels and that people rarely see middle ground when it comes to receiving criticism from their partners. “People either read everything as critical, even if it's just feedback meant in a gentle way or people just absorb everything and stay in a constant shame spiral,” she says.
As we all need to recognize, criticism is a crucial component of relationships. We must talk to one another about everything from annoying habits to serious issues. Therefore, couples need to learn how to navigate criticism and discern between when someone — particularly their partner — is being unfair in their criticism and when said criticism is valid. While there isn’t a silver bullet, couples counselors say there are several notable warning signs of unfair criticism and recommend steps to address them. Here’s what unfair criticism looks like — and what proper criticism requires.
1. Unfair Criticism Attacks Character
Most of the time, it’s reasonable to find fault with actions and choices and other things people can control. If your spouse thinks you shirk on household responsibilities, spend frivolously, lose your temper too easily and so forth, they have every right to address their grievance with you. But they cross a line if they act like that’s all you are.
“An unfair criticism would be to see a mistake as a personality flaw,” California couples therapist Emily Heard says, adding that words like ‘never’ and ‘always’ can be red flags of conflating behavior with character.
2. Unfair Criticism Doesn’t Try to Help
North Carolina couples therapist Greg Cheney says fair criticism aims for a productive outcome, such as getting a partner to tackle more household responsibilities or be more present during family time. The goal of unfair criticism is just to make the person feel bad.
“The key to telling valid criticism and unfair criticism apart is to evaluate if the criticism can be connected to a productive outcome for the relationship,” he says.
Outcome-oriented criticism can still hurt if it’s indelicately worded, like if your spouse says you’re folding laundry in a stupid way. Nevertheless, the thin sliver of prescriptive instruction keeps it just barely in fair territory, unlike crossing the line by saying you’re too stupid to fold laundry.
3. Unfair Criticisms Dwell on Shortcomings
Valid criticisms focus on what needs to be improved, rather than how your actions define you. They're directed at one's actions and do not weaponize any failures or shortcomings to attack the other party. So, instead of "You're not very good at this," a valid criticism will sound like "Your methods need work as they make you seem ineffective." This ensures nobody is reduced to their own failures and improvement is the primary goal. It also turns the entire interaction positive and actionable and makes each other's criticisms non-threatening and welcomed, which helps maintain the strength of the relationship.
4. Unfair Criticism Usually Lacks Specifics
As a general rule of thumb, criticism cuts like a scalpel when it’s fair and shreds like a chainsaw when it’s not.
“Unfair criticisms are common among relationship dynamics that lack effective communication; they often sound like generalizations and are rarely constructive because they lack specifics,” says therapist and life coach Sam Nabil. Fair criticism drives towards a goal, like improved behavior or a changed perspective, which takes thought to be effective.
5. Unfair Criticism Shifts Blame
In toxic relationships, criticism is often a tool used to shift blame or gain leverage over a partner.
“Narcissists will blame someone for things that are totally out of the other person's control,” Engler says. “They’ll say ‘you made me so mad that I had to hit our kid.”
If someone’s criticism seems like an attempt to squirm out of taking responsibility for their own actions, it needs to be recognized as a red flag, not just for the argument but the relationship as a whole.
6. Unfair Critics Try to Force You to Agree
Sometimes a criticism just doesn’t ring true. You hear what the person is saying but it’s just off base. In an unhealthy interaction, the critic doesn’t budge and tries to force you to agree.
In a healthy interaction, each person has room to push back on their judgment and explain their perspective. After all, you’re both human. Either one of you could be wrong.
“Just because a criticism is being shared, does not mean a person needs to agree with it,” says Massachusetts marriage and family therapist Omar Ruiz.
7. Unfair Critics Ignore Struggles
If a person is struggling with a mental or physical health issue, that issue is off the table for criticism unless concerns are expressed in a compassionate framework.
“It's one thing to say, I'm worried about you and your health or I'm worried your anxiety seems to be impacting the way you're living your life,” Engler says. But it’s another to criticize the condition itself.
How To Deal With Unfair Criticism
Self-reflection, per Engler, is a helpful first step for responding to criticism. You need to avoid two extremes: being defensive and rejecting the validity of the criticism, and accepting all criticism as true unquestionably. So you need to be receptive to criticism while also prepared to do a quick gut check about the criticism you’re receiving.
Once you’re comfortable with the differences between fair and unfair criticism you can explain what kind of constructive criticism you’re willing to engage with. If your partner or anyone else is trying to express a valid problem and show what needs to be changed, they need to put in some effort and build an effective argument.
“It takes a really delicate balance between staying open enough to be honest with yourself but also feeling confident enough to run the criticism through an internal filter and ask ‘does this make sense?’” she says.