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My Girlfriend Wants To Stop Being Critical But Doesn't Know How

Question:

My girlfriend and I have been dating for about 11 months, and during this time we have a history of problems but we always pulled through together. Recently we finally started not arguing whatsoever and were happy, however she found herself getting angry and sarcastic with me much faster than before, but not as frequently. She knows shes doing this, and she cant stop it, but she wants to. During a walk we took she yelled and snapped at me, while I kept trying to make peace, and later on she apologized and told me she was thinking to herself "Ok -her name-, stop… Why arent you stopping?" She cant control it and she called out to me for help by asking me to tell her to stop snapping at me when she does it. Well we all know that makes people madder. How can I help her? What ideas can I give her to help herself? We thought of professional help, but she and I want to see if we can fix it ourselves before we take that step. Please help me, we need this help badly.

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Answer:

In my experience, partners like yours are not helpless to stop criticizing. They are instead in the grip of a deeply ingrained habit of criticizing, and/or a deeply ingrained belief that they’re entitled to be critical. There may be a part of them which wants to stop being critical towards a loved one, but there is a more deeply ingrained part that isn’t ready to care about changing. At the same time, the habit of being critical is ingrained so that even if they want 100% to not be critical, to change means that they must be hyper-conscious of what they are doing all the time, which is a very difficult and exhausting thing to do. It’s hard work to change, and much easier to just keep on doing what you’ve been doing. So they go about their merry way being critical, and experience themselves as being helpless to stop what they are doing, when in reality, they are perfectly able to stop in the moment if they exert their will to do so every time they notice they are being critical, but choose not to do so.

Right now, your girlfriend has framed the situation as her being unable to alter her behavior. She doesn’t want to take responsibility for it, and is actually asking you to take responsibility for it! I don’t think there will be much chance of change happening here until your girlfriend wholly accepts that she is the one who is acting this behavior out, and that she is the only one who can change the behavior.

It’s not wrong for her to ask you for help. It will truly be hard for her to notice what she is doing, whereas it will be easy for you to notice. So you are in a good position to call her attention to the fact that she is being critical. As you point out, however, unless she is in a very humble place when you point this out to her, she is going to use it as an excuse for being more critical towards you. Which puts you in a bad position. I think you should offer to help her, but in so doing, I also think you need to be thoughtful that you don’t accept responsibility for making the problem stop. You can tell her she is being critical in a loving and non judgemental voice, and hopefully she can hear it without reacting to it. To the extent that she cannot receive your feedback graciously, you’re learning what life will be like if you marry this woman.

Your girlfriend is refusing to take responsibility for her own actions. She may believe that she is entitled to criticize you for whatever reason. So long as this belief remains intact, she is unlikely to change. I’d see if having a conversation with her on this topic; a non-judgemental exploration of what it is that she might believe about being critical towards a partner; is a possibility. Where does the pattern come from? Was this a family pattern modeled by her parents? When she is being critical, what sorts of thoughts are going through her head? Does she appreciate that there are consequences to her actions? What are the consequences of her actions in your relationship? There are also questions for you to explore. Is it possible that she can behave badly enough towards you that you will leave her? Do you get angry and upset when she is critical towards you? What is your family communication pattern? The more that you both can map out what is keeping this behavior of hers going and, importantly, both of you owning your own contributions to the problem, the better chance you have of helping the problem to resolve.

I certainly appreciate that you want to try to work this out on your own, and good luck to you in making that happen. If you get stuck, however, don’t wait too long before hiring a couples counselor. As a reasonably objective third party to your issues, a counselor or therapist is in a good position to help you explore the issue without fighting about it.  Also, anger management may be a useful sort of therapy for your girlfriend to participate in on her own.  From your description, this relationship is important to you both, and may have a long term future, if you can overcome some of these problems.

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