The Relationship Between Criticism, Control, and Vulnerability

Ryan Ginn Relationships

There’s an ongoing dynamic in my marriage where I have a need for things to be orderly around the house. While my wife isn’t necessarily messy, she has different priorities when it comes to being clean. Whenever the house environment feels too chaotic and disorderly for me, a judgemental part of me takes over and starts to control her through criticism in order to get my needs met. This obviously negatively affects my wife and our relationship because she’ll feel uncomfortable and judged for leaving a pair of shoes on the floor, while she’s busy trying to take care of our daughter and do everything else she does.

When I began to reflect on this dynamic, I realized that underneath the part of me that’s trying to control my environment, is an even deeper part that that feels vulnerable and fearful about things and people in an apparent state of chaos. A disorderly house is a manifestation of this, so my inherent protective measures come into play — the coping mechanism I developed to deal with these feelings as a child. The minute I step into this judgemental, controlling aspect of myself, I lose a sense of being relational and collaborative and treat my wife like an object who’s getting in the way of my needs being met. This is not good for closeness, intimacy or depth in our relationship. 

The protective measures of the psyche.

we all have protective measures our psyche developed to defend against hurt as a result of the childhood we had, and the family members we grew up with. We tend to think they are us, when really they are just a part of us. They get in the way of deep connection and intimate relationships because when this part of us is in action, it inherently protects and pushes away the thing we’ve deemed threatening, which is usually the other person. The problem is not that these protective measures exist — they literally helped us survive after all — it’s that we don’t need them anymore. All we need to do is vulnerably share our feelings with our partner. 

The real problem is not being in touch with our own vulnerability. 

In my case, instead of contacting the underlying fear going on for me, I went straight at her with criticism and judgment, which of course blew up in my face. “I’m doing my best!” was her natural, defensive response. It was only later when I did contact the vulnerability of admitting that I had a need, a want for more order in the house and asked for it without the judgment that she was able to hear me and share her own challenge around managing everything involved in taking care of the house with a little mess manufacturer that is our 4-year-old daughter scuttling around the place all day.

There was an intimacy that came out of us both sharing our challenges, versus me just trying to push her towards better behavior. It’s still a challenge for me to pause and actually talk to my wife, not the impediment to some perfect life where everything is in order all the time. I wish I could tell you it’s a one and done sort of thing, but this kind of stuff takes a great deal of patience and restraint.

So what’s the solution? 

The solution to this is to become aware of what your protective measures are, whether it’s distancing or blaming; criticizing or victimizing and choose instead to default to vulnerability, to recognize that you are in this relationship with another person and you can both work together to discover a win-win solution.

We can retreat to our own private island and make a case around why the other person should do what we want them to, then come with a rational proposal and maybe get them to change their behavior, but the other feels like a poorly performing employee versus a dearly held lover.  Needless to say, that’s likely going to create some serious resentment on the other end.   

A practice to get you started. 

Consider a sticky situation in your relationship and ask yourself, “Am I relating from a part of me that is trying to control the other person or am I relating from the bigger me that is open, curious, flexible and willing to be self-reflective about where I am coming from”. The result is going to ultimately be more effective in getting you what you want.