Managing Criticism and Defensiveness in Relationships

It seems that most couples struggle with criticism, though some tolerate it better than others. Nevertheless, criticism of, or from, your partner will happen periodically. This post provides an alternative way to manage criticism that may help sidestep defensiveness. Here are some common options when we want to be critical of our partner:

  1. Keep our mouths shut, and say nothing. Besides, we all were told that if we didn’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything, right? (This one probably fell in to the category of “do as I say, don’t do as I do.”)
  2. Provide unvarnished criticism, regardless of the impact it may have on our partner, and ultimately on the relationship. If it leads to defensiveness, an argument, a fight, so be it, just deal with it.
  3. Sugarcoat it, water it down, either because you can’t deal with your reaction to your partner’s reaction to your critical remark, or you want to protect your partner from his/her feelings that surely will arise from being criticized. (“You can’t handle the truth!”) Maybe there is an alternative, an option that satisfies both sides of a chronically thorny equation: On the one hand, how to get your point across without selling yourself out, while on the other hand lowering the odds of running in to defensiveness.

Enter the complaint. Sit alongside that of criticism, let us compare the two, see how they differ, and why it matters. A complaint is about the one complaining, and a criticism is about the other, the listener. Or, the complaint is about me, and a criticism is about you. Take a guess as to which one will usually be easier for the listener to hear: the complaint. Why? A complaint is not about the listener, and therefore tends to lower the risk of listener defensiveness.

Not only that, if I’m talking about me (instead of you) I have a much better chance of being understood. The goal of transforming a criticism into a complaint is to increase the odds of the speaker being heard and understood, while simultaneously reducing the odds of the listener being defensive. Ultimately, the goal of the process is to preserve the closeness and intimacy of the relationship.

Consider the following vignette: On long road trips, the majority of the driving is done by the same partner. One of the difficulties for the passenger is that the driver tends to speed—we’re talking about 90 mph to 95 mph versus the limit of 75 mph. They have never had an accident, nor a speeding ticket, but they are constantly bickering about the speed and the danger. The driver doesn’t understand what the “big deal” is, and the passenger doesn’t think the driver cares about the passenger.

The passenger criticizes: “You are the worst driver ever! For you, it’s all about the speed and the thrill! You have no respect for the fact that you might get us both killed!  And one of these days you will get a ticket—it’s only a matter of time! You have no respect for what it’s like being a passenger when you’re the driver! Nobody likes the way you drive!”

In this case, there is a lot of accusation, attack and judgment, while focusing on the driver/listener.

The passenger complains: “When you drive 95 mph, I feel so scared! I’m am so afraid of speed, that I literally sit in sheer terror when I look at the speedometer, and when I see us pass other cars at what feels like warp speed! And when I tell you how I feel about all of this, it seems to me it doesn’t matter to you. Please understand I am not telling you what to do or not do, I am telling you how I feel and why. After this last trip, I am going to have to re-think whether or not I can drive with you on long trips. I may have to fly and meet you there.

In this instance, the main focus is the passenger, feeling states, and possible decisions about future travel the passenger might make based on experience. There is no attack, judgmental attitude or accusation.

Re-read each one again. The main difference between them is that the critical one is all about the driver, and the complaint is all about the passenger. Bottom line, which way would you rather hear the speaker? No doubt, some of you who are less conflict averse will prefer the direct criticism, or at least might not be derailed by it. Others may want to hone their skill of complaining.

And by the way, complaining is NOT the same as whining! Complaints require that you talk about yourself, not your partner. Complaints are NOT “I” statements. Complaints are descriptive statements about your experience which, indeed, may contain the word “you,” such as, “… when you drive 95 mph I feel scared!” The purpose of the complaint is to detail your experience, make it real for the listener. While generally not responding favorably to demands, listeners do tend to respond more favorably to hearing the speaker’s experiences and behavioral changes the speaker makes in response to their experiences.

Why? Because when I become aware of the impact of my behavior on you, I can then access empathy or compassion for you. That often results in behavior change because ultimately I do not want you to feel bad. On the other hand, while being criticized, which is often experienced as an attack, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to simultaneously feel empathic. Attack triggers the fight or flight response, not the compassion response.

Is it possible to be critical without attacking? Certainly, but it takes couples working out a system they can both agree on, practice, become comfortable with, and trust. In the meantime, try developing the art of the complaint. Remember—it requires you to talk about yourself, take responsibility for yourself, while not attempting to change your partner.

© Copyright 2011 by Jim Hutt, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Amanda

    February 23rd, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    I do not handle criticism very well at all and I know this about myself. It puts me very much on edge and I get very defensive.

  • Asif

    April 3rd, 2019 at 2:11 PM

    I am sincerely trying to understand.
    In all your life, as far as you can remember, whenever you have felt hurt for being criticized by anyone, have you ever gained from any of all of those incidents?

  • S.Philips

    February 23rd, 2011 at 7:44 PM

    No matter what the situation,if you do not want to anger your wife,sugar-coat your criticism! ;)
    Better yet,say it in a way that it doesn’t seem like criticism.But be sure you don’t sound sarcastic in the process!

    A relationship is a complex thing and treading with caution is always advised.


    February 23rd, 2011 at 10:45 PM

    Amanda, join the club, and thank you for your honesty. So, try the following the next time you are being criticized: Take a deep breath, and ask the person criticizing you to tell you what they experience when you, Amanda, are doing whatever it is they are criticizing you for. Then just listen, listen, listen, and say nothing.

  • rick

    February 24th, 2011 at 4:19 AM

    if you say “hey,you’re wrong”, even a little kid will rebel! nobody wants to be told they’re wrong even if they are. that’s how we humans are wired. it’s always better to have a discussion and tell your partner in a sweet manner what is not right rather than being brash about it!

  • KJP

    February 24th, 2011 at 5:35 AM

    Many of us would do well to not always take offense when someone offers us criticism but to listen to what they have to say fairly and honestly and decide if there is any truth in what they say. You never know- there may be a very valuable life lesson hidden somewhere in that criticism that you can take away and grow and learn from. I know that this is not our first instinct when someone criticizes, but perhaps we can do more with that than previously.

  • DF

    February 24th, 2011 at 7:41 PM

    A moderate approach is what I believe works best…I would like o tell my partner what the matter really is without actually camouflaging it but would like to say it in a calm manner and make sure I don’t blow my top off…

  • kim

    February 25th, 2011 at 4:02 AM

    we’re all very good speakers when it comes to arguing and not too many at good at listening. if all of us learn to be good listeners at the time of an argument,many of these arguments will not occur at all!

  • lauren d

    February 25th, 2011 at 5:46 AM

    One thing that is critical here that I feel has been overlooked is that while there are ways to manage getting crtitcized there are also better ways to give criticism as well. Some people just have no tact at all and when they are criticizing under the guise of it being constructive that is not the tone or the vibe that you may get from that at all. So people in those positions of power who have the chance to be a lot more critical than the rest of us maybe it is time for them to think about how they are handling those situations as well. Maybe if you came off a little nicer then we could take all of that a little better too.

  • Asif

    April 3rd, 2019 at 2:06 PM

    You may be pointing to an interesting principle here! The relationship matters! People in power should as a principle tolerate any criticism directed toward them, and exert compassion and mercy when criticizing those over whom they have power. The intent of the person receiving criticism also matters here. A deliberately malevolent person deserves raw criticism.

  • steveh

    February 26th, 2011 at 6:19 AM

    The important thing about managing criticism is that this is something that is going to serve you well throughout your life, in many different situations. If you think that this is something that will only help you in personal relationships then you are wrong. There will definitely be times in both your personal and professional life where you will encounter criticism and no it is never fun but you have to be able to deal with it and find a way to make something good out of it.

  • Helen

    March 1st, 2011 at 10:31 AM

    Jim, I loved this article! Thanks very much for that. I have a hard time talking to my partner about how I feel when I’m unhappy with his behavior without jumping on the criticism bandwagon. Seeing how to voice it as a complaint is enlightening! Next time I have something to say, I’ll try that.

  • Lizzie

    March 1st, 2011 at 8:49 PM

    You get criticism and you get outright attacks. I’ve read some pieces on controversial subjects where the writers were insulted rather than the points being debated by those commenting on it. It’s okay to criticize a person in the proper manner. When that criticism degenerates into nothing but insults, you’re just being an idiot.

  • Elena B

    June 16th, 2018 at 12:55 AM

    ….you’re just being an idiot. Love this!

  • Brianna

    March 4th, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    Unless the individual is going to get in a heap of trouble or they ask for feedback, I feel it’s a good idea to not share criticism or complaints at all with your partner. You’ve got to live together, right? Keep it as harmonious as possible and conflict to a minimum.

  • jessica

    March 4th, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    Sugar coating anything is just grounds for another argument. If my partner sugarcoats things with me, I find it highly offensive. I don’t like it when he’s talking to me like I’m ten. Come back and talk to me when you can handle a grownup conversation, honey.

  • Jim Hutt, Ph.D.

    April 14th, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    I really appreciate all the great comments about my post by all of you! As you can see, each of you has your own way of understanding what criticism is, your ability to handle it, and how to use it.

    Typically, the criticism isn’t the problem, necessarily, it is the defensiveness in response to it. Funny thing is, usually the one handing out the criticism ends up frustrated because the message they are trying to send gets rejected as soon as the listener feels defensive.

    In my 30 years experience working with couples it has become clear to me that it is a joint effort–if I want to criticize someone, I have a better chance of it being heard if I put it out there in a form it can likely be heard. That doesn’t mean I necessarily sugar coat it. Jessica is right–that may be experienced as condescending.

    (NOTE: In my post above, it looks as though I may be recommending sugar coating–I am not. My intent was to point out that sugar coating is one of the options that people choose, why they choose it, and why it isn’t particularly effective.)

    What ever your beliefs are about criticism. keep experimenting with it. Good things can result from that.

  • Mimi M

    October 25th, 2016 at 7:10 AM

    I have learned a lot from you about how to deal with criticism giving and being on the receiving end of it. You have answered a lot of my questions about being criticsized. Some of us dishes out, but can’t take back. I will definitely try using some of your ways you suggested to go about it. I just loved your article of this whole thing on criticism.

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