Being too critical: Why it's toxic in relationships

Discover what toxic criticism looks like; how it can hurt your relationships, and what to do about it.

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Constructive criticism, if used the right way, can be a powerful tool for personal growth and enhance relationship satisfaction. 1 However, when criticism becomes excessive and destructive, it can turn toxic, damaging the emotional bond between partners.

In this article, we’ll delve into why being overly critical can be harmful in relationships and how to address this issue.

For more helpful advice on dealing with conflicts and challenges in relationships check out our comprehensive guide!

Why being too critical is toxic in relationships

Criticism, when constructive, can serve as a catalyst for growth. However, when it morphs into an endless barrage of negative commentary, it becomes toxic. Over-criticism has profound, sometimes overlooked, effects on relationships.

Let’s dive deeper to understand the impacts of consistent negative criticism.

1. It harms the self-esteem of the person being criticized

When one partner constantly hears about their perceived flaws, it chips away at their self-worth. Each critique acts as a reminder that they aren’t “good enough” or that they’re failing in some way. Over time, this can lead to feelings of inadequacy, reducing their confidence not only in the relationship but in other areas of life.

2. It fosters resentment

Imagine always feeling underappreciated or constantly being reminded of your mistakes. Resentment would inevitably build. Instead of viewing their partner as a source of comfort and support, the criticized individual might start seeing them as an adversary. This resentment can then manifest in passive-aggressive behaviors, further straining the relationship.

3. It damages communication

Instead of encouraging open dialogue, consistent criticism creates an environment where the criticized partner may feel apprehensive about sharing feelings or concerns, fearing additional disapproval. This stifles open communication, which is crucial for a healthy relationship, leading to misunderstandings and further disconnect.

4. It creates a cycle of negativity

Over time, relentless criticism can establish a pervasive atmosphere of negativity. Instead of focusing on the positives or working constructively to resolve issues, both partners might get stuck in a loop of blame and defensiveness, making it harder to move past conflicts and find resolutions.

5. Constant criticism can be a form of emotional abuse

While not all criticism is abusive, a relentless barrage can certainly be. When one partner uses criticism to control, belittle, or consistently make the other feel inferior, it crosses a line. Emotional abuse, often subtle, can have long-lasting traumatic effects, similar to physical abuse.

In a study from 1990, 230 women were interviewed regarding emotional and physical abuse in their relationship. Verbal harrassment/criticism was among the most common types of emotional abuse in romantic relationships. 2

When does criticism become toxic?

Criticism isn’t inherently harmful; it’s the nature and frequency that determines its impact. But how can one discern the line between constructive feedback and toxic criticism? Let’s explore some red flags.

1. Personal attacks

Criticism becomes particularly damaging when it shifts from addressing specific actions or behaviors to attacking a person’s character. Comments like “You’re so lazy” or “You’re always so careless” are less about feedback and more about demeaning the individual, which can leave lasting scars on one’s self-worth.

2. Excessive criticism

Everyone makes mistakes, but when minor missteps are incessantly pointed out, it becomes excessive. It’s the difference between occasionally addressing concerns and constantly finding faults. This ceaseless focus on flaws can make the person feel perpetually under the microscope, leading to anxiety and self-doubt.

3. Public humiliation

Another telltale sign of toxic criticism is when it’s aired publicly, with the intent to embarrass or demean the partner in front of others. Such actions not only undermine the individual’s confidence but also reflect a lack of respect and consideration within the relationship. Criticisms, especially those that touch on sensitive topics, should be discussed privately, ensuring both partners feel safe and respected.

Discover what constructive criticism looks like and why it’s crucial in relationships!

How to address toxic criticism in relationships

Destructive criticism can eat away at the foundation of even the strongest relationships. It’s important to address any issues of toxicity within a relationship as soon as possible. Here are some tips for dealing with toxic criticism:

1. Speak up

Open communication is key. If you feel hurt by your partner’s words, let them know. Use “I” statements, like “I feel hurt when…” to express your feelings without assigning blame. This approach can pave the way for understanding and resolution.

Discover important rules of open dialogue for effective communication!

2. Set boundaries

Everyone has the right to be treated with respect and dignity. Set clear boundaries about what kind of feedback is acceptable and how it should be delivered. Establishing these guidelines can help prevent future instances of hurtful criticism.

Learn how to set healthy boundaries in your relationship!

3. Seek outside support

Sometimes, the dynamics of toxic criticism can be challenging to navigate alone. Seeking support from a professional therapist or counselor can offer fresh perspectives and strategies to address the issue.

Healthy communication habits are crucial for any relationship to thrive. Check out our guide for couples on communication in a relationship to build a strong foundation.

  1. Gottman, J. M., & Krokoff, L. J. (1989). Marital interaction and satisfaction: A longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(1), 47–52. ↩︎

  2. Follingstad, D. R., Rutledge, L. L., Van Den Berg, B. J., Hause, E. S., & Polek, D. S. (1990). The role of emotional abuse in physically abusive relationships. Journal of Family Violence, 5(2), 107–120. ↩︎

Author picture of Amy Clark
Relationship Expert

Amy Clark

Amy Clark is a freelance writer who writes about relationships, marriage, and family. She has been happily married for over ten years and loves her husband and three kids. Before …

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