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Relationship Killers, Part 4: It’s Always Your Fault

Have you ever found yourself in a relationship where you constantly feel picked on? Do you know someone who complains about their partner's behavior, always criticizing and finding fault with everything they do? 

If so, you're not alone. This is a common complaint in relationships, and there is a psychological explanation behind this phenomenon. 

In this article, we will delve into the dynamics of constant criticism in relationships and explore strategies to break free from this destructive pattern.

The Case of Mike and Judee

To better understand the dynamics of constant criticism, let's take a closer look at the relationship between Mike and Judee.

Mike sometimes wonders why he ever got into a relationship with Judee.  On the one hand, they have lots of good times together.  On the other hand, she has a really bad personality. The problem is that she is always, always, ALWAYS, criticizing him.  She is constantly finding fault with what he does. Sometimes he is waiting for her to criticize him when he breathes.

Mike knows, of course, that sometimes he can be critical too.  But it’s always in response to Judee’s frequently inane criticisms.  He can’t just let them stand.

Judee, on the other hand, sees Mike as a procrastinator who fails to take responsibility for his mistakes. She feels like her husband picks on and finds fault with everything she does, leaving her with no choice but to criticize him.

She has always known he is sensitive to even the slightest criticism, but lately, things have gotten out of hand.  Even if she reminds him that he had promised to take out the garbage, which is piling up, he takes it as an offense and lashes out at her.

The Actor-Observer Effect

Mike and Judee's situation can be explained by a psychological concept known as the actor-observer effect. This effect refers to the tendency to attribute our own actions to external circumstances while attributing others' actions to their personality traits. In Mike's case, he sees his own behavior as a response to the situation, but when Judee does something wrong, he attributes it to her personality flaw. This cognitive bias leads to a vicious cycle of blame and resentment in the relationship.

You feel that your own actions are influenced mostly by the situation; but others' actions seem to be influenced mostly by their personality

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

If you find yourself in a relationship where constant criticism is a recurring issue, it's essential to break free from the vicious cycle. Here are some strategies to help you navigate this challenging situation:

1. Self-Reflection

Take a moment to reflect on your own behavior and acknowledge your own faults. Avoid always blaming your partner for everything that goes wrong. By recognizing your own role in the relationship dynamics, you can take steps towards positive change.

2. Open Communication

Initiate a conversation with your partner to discuss how you both feel. Discover whether you are both caught in the same cycle of blame and criticism. By openly communicating your thoughts and emotions, you can create a safe space for understanding and resolution.

3. Shared Responsibility

Emphasize that the responsibility for the problems in the relationship is shared. Avoid placing all the blame on your partner and acknowledge your own contributions to the issues at hand. This approach promotes a sense of fairness and encourages mutual accountability.

4. Neutral Approach

Watch your own behavior during conversations about touchy topics. Strive to maintain a neutral tone and avoid criticism or contempt. Frame your concerns in a constructive manner, focusing on the issue at hand rather than attacking your partner's character.

5. Awareness of Overwhelm

Pay attention to signs of overwhelm in your partner during conflict situations. Men, in particular, may experience heightened emotional and physical reactions during conflicts. If you notice your partner becoming defensive or upset, offer them space and time to calm down before continuing the conversation.

Approaching Difficult Conversations

When engaging in difficult conversations with your partner, it's crucial to approach the topic with care and sensitivity. Here are some tips to help you navigate these delicate discussions:

1. Softening Your Start-Up

Begin the conversation by showing that the responsibility for the problem is shared. Acknowledge your own role in the situation and express your feelings about the issue. This approach helps to create a non-confrontational atmosphere and encourages open dialogue.

2. Positive Phrasing

When expressing your needs to your partner, use positive phrasing. Instead of focusing on what you don't need, clearly communicate what you do need from them. This approach provides clarity and helps your partner understand how to support you.

3. Active Listening

Focus on the message your partner is trying to convey, rather than getting caught up in their tone or choice of words. Practice active listening by paraphrasing their concerns and asking for clarification. This shows your genuine interest in understanding their perspective.

4. Regaining Composure

If you find yourself becoming upset during the conversation, take a few moments to regain your composure. Practice deep breathing and reframe the situation in your mind. Instead of reacting defensively, ask your partner to clarify their needs and express your willingness to make them happy. If you see your partner is getting upset, defensive, or try to deflect the conversation, you may want to give them some time to calm down and continue some other time. You can say something like "It seems to me you are upset by what I am saying. I mean well and don't want to hurt you, but this conversation is important to me. Would you like to take some time and continue later?"

5. When in doubt, ask

Try to reframe and get clear on what you've heard. You can say, for example,  "I'd really like to do you justice and make you happy, but I feel a little lost. Can you please tell me what you need from me?"

Difficult Conversations Take Time and Practice

Constant criticism in relationships can be detrimental to the emotional well-being of both partners. By understanding the psychological dynamics behind this behavior and implementing effective communication strategies, you can break free from the vicious cycle of blame and resentment. Remember, it takes practice and patience to navigate difficult conversations successfully. With open-mindedness, empathy, and a willingness to change, you can build a healthier and more fulfilling relationship.


1. Why do some people constantly criticize their partners?

Constant criticism can stem from various underlying factors, such as personal insecurities, a need for control, or unresolved past traumas. It may also be a learned behavior from their upbringing or previous relationships.

2. How can constant criticism affect a relationship?

Constant criticism can erode trust, create resentment, and lead to a breakdown in communication. It can also negatively impact the self-esteem and confidence of the criticized partner.

3. Is constant criticism a form of emotional abuse?

Constant criticism can be a form of emotional abuse if it is used to demean, belittle, or control the other person. It is important to recognize the signs of emotional abuse and seek help if necessary.

4. How can I improve my self-esteem in the face of constant criticism?

Improving self-esteem in the face of constant criticism requires self-reflection, self-compassion, and setting healthy boundaries. Surrounding yourself with supportive people and engaging in activities that boost your self-confidence can also be helpful.

Two Techniques That Can Radically Change Your Relationship

Uncover the incredible difference you can make in your relationship by making just two simple changes.

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Interested in reading more about relationship killers? Find out about

the importance of respecting each other's differences,

the crushing impact secrets can have on our relationships, and

our tendency to focus on the negative in our partners.


Interested in unconscious thinking errors that can hurt your relationship? Find out more:

I've always known you're no good: How the confirmation bias hurts your relationship, and

When all you see is the bad: Why you tend to focus on the negative and what to do about it.

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23 thoughts on “Relationship Killers, Part 4: It’s Always Your Fault”

  1. You can observe this behavior in children as well. Possibly this is a behavior rooted in childhood that we are not even conscious of.

  2. This is a very interesting article, but would have been so much better had actual advice been given, other than the obvious “stop the cycle.” Are there exercises partners can do, tools to work through the discussion suggested? Because, quite frankly, my husband is never willing to talk if it involves anything near an admission of him doing anything wrong. If he finds himself in the wrong (almost always only if there is a third party observer) he will deflect and start picking on anything and everything about me or things I have done, and they are almost always totally unrelated!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment and for your suggestion! We really appreciate it. We will add some suggestions that will help people take concrete action.

        1. In response to the comment above we added a section with guidelines on how to have difficult conversations. Ultimately, there is no way around having a conversation with your partner so the partner knows how you feel and is given the opportunity to change their behavior.
          What would be helpful to you in addition to these guidelines?

    2. I think that the article is good for describing a certain effect, but the fact is that there are many reasons this sort of problem happens. One person may have less self awareness than the other. If stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, or contempt is occurring, that’s going to be difficult to overcome. We try to describe psychological phenomenon to learn how to change, but problems are usually more complex than one issue. I don’t think relationships work, unless both parties are extremely committed to self-improvement. Yes, that involves talking.

      1. Yes, I agree with you. You are mentioning Gottman’s Four Horsemen, but there are generally many reasons for relationship failure. Relationships are much less likely to succeed when only one party takes responsibility for their success.

        That said, breaking up can be costly for many reasons (think children, finances, etc.), and partners may want to try to save their relationship even if their “better half” is not committed to doing their part. Will they be successful? Perhaps not. Is it worth trying? Depending on what you have to lose, yes.

  3. I think we have a tendency to say “always”. The things our spouse says may occur frequently, and under similar circumstances, but always is overkill.
    When I make an observation or share an opinion, I brace to hear “No, it’s (insert opposing thought). If I share an opinion, the debate is on! I actually lightheartedly said he would have done well on a debate team in school-no reaction. He honestly thinks he knows more about/is better at skills than anybody else, hence he takes me to task for the way I see isues. He says he’s playing devil’s advocate. It’s just the 2 of us now, and it us difficult to escape his behavior. I find it at best, and demeaning at worst. I have taken to keeping conversations short, and refrain from starting them. When he bkoviates about how superior he knows he is than most of society at large, I don’t interrupt, nor do I answer. He is unphased. On the other hand, if I ask in the moment why he feels I’m wrong, he jumps into a lengthy lecture. If I say I get it and I’d rather not keep the topic going, he becomes peeved and tells me I started it! I bite my tongue so often, I fear it’ll bleed! I’m an intelligent, educated, well-rounded, quite amiable person. How can I retrieve my solid feelings of self-worth, relevance, satisfaction in deeds, and basically my identity, drive, and my sunny disposition?

    1. If your husband believes that he knows everything, and that he always needs to play devil’s advocate, then you do indeed have what could be a serious problem. There are lots of people like that, and living with them is a challenge that can become overwhelming. As he ought to know, such a belief usually stems from deep-seated insecurity. The question is whether he can hold it in check in his behavior with you, even if that is what he believes. We suggest there are three steps you can take.

      1. The first is to tell him that his oft-expressed belief in his own superiority is a problem for you and for the marriage. Ask him whether he can hold that behavior in check. If he can, then you might be able to continue on an even keel.

      2. The second step, if he cannot hold it in abeyance–meaning that the deep-seated insecurity is so severe that he is essentially a “slave” to it, even if it costs the marriage–is to ask him whether he would be willing to seek individual psychotherapy, marriage counseling, or ideally, both.

      3. If the answer to the first two steps is that he cannot hold the behavior in abeyance and that he is unwilling to do anything, then you might have to tell him that the marriage is seriously at risk. If the behavior continues, you might want to go for individual counseling, which may lead you to further steps regarding what the future holds for the marriage.

      We wish you the best of luck!

      1. Chinedu S Mbama

        Your steps are one sided, pointing only to men. It would be great if that of women are included. Remember any of the spouse could be the one causing more problems.

  4. Thank you for the advice but my wife picks faults in me always to a point I have started seeing myself as a problem I love my wife so much but this one is too much I’m deeply hurt

    1. Today’s blogpost is relevant to your comment. It is on the need for positive reinforcement–praise–in relationships. I suggest you talk to your wife and tell her the problem. You might also show her today’s blogpost and ask whether, if she feels she must be so critical, can she at least mix in some praise? Meanwhile, you should do the same. Some people are just very critical. They have what I have called in my writing a “judicial style.” See if there is any value in the critiques. Take what is valuable; ignore the rest. Consider marital counseling if that is an option. Good luck! Best, Bob

    2. Try talking to your wife about the problem. If that does not work, you may need marriage counseling. Some people who “pick” see themselves as doing the partner a favor, even when they are not!

  5. It is very upsetting to be continually told how to do everything. Sometimes my husband is angry if I don’t do something the way he told me to do it. He raises his voice and just makes the matter worse. He is so wonderful in many, many ways but he can do a hundred nice things around the house or for me and he just ruins it with his overbearing interference in many things I do. For example, we had a fight when we were covering the pool at night and he got all upset and nasty because I wasn’t “doing it right”. Every time I think about it I want to cry. He really hurts my feelings with this unnecessary behavior.

    1. This is a surprisingly common problem. Some people just are (a) very controlling and (b) convinced that their way is the right way to do things. Ideally, you will be able to talk to your husband about this issue and your need for him not to be so controlling and also convinced that his way is the right way. In these kinds of situations, marriage counseling often is advisable, because people who are controlling often do not see themselves that way. Rather, they see themselves as doing others a favor by “setting them straight.” So, if honest conversation does not work, please consider counseling. Best, Bob

  6. How to convince a husband – who thinks “he knows it all” to a marriage or relationship counselling???? It’s impossible to make him understand , there is someone better than him in anything.

    1. Robert Sternberg

      People who know it all are very hard to convince. Perhaps the key ingredient of wisdom is epistemic humility–knowing how little you know. Socrates, one of the wisest men who ever lived, showed it when he said “I know that I know nothing.” People who lack epistemic humility are both unwise and worse, lacking insight into their own lack of wisdom. I have studied relationships since the 1980s, have published many highly cited articles and books, and realize how little I know. So, if he will not go for counseling, you either can accept that you are married to someone who is unwise and probably will stay that way, or tell him that counseling is so important to you that you would stake the continuation of the marriage on it, or suggest a trial separation in the hope he will see you are serious. If he doesn’t, that tells you a lot–unfortunately, more than you might have wished to know. If, for financial, religious, or other reasons, this will not work, you may in the end have to suck it up.

        1. It’s a hard phrase, I agree. Let me rephrase what Bob was trying to say. Sometimes, unfortunately, you need to come to terms with your partner’s behavior in a relationship.

          I always advise people who are being abused that they need to get out of their relationship. That said, many people return to their abusers.

          But even if they’re not abused people have hard lives and splitting up is not always an option. Some religions/cultures frown upon divorce, some people cannot afford a separation because of financial reasons, and others believe that they need to stay together with their partner until their children are out of the house (even if that means that they themselves remain in an unhappy relationship).

          These are situations I would not wish upon anyone, but they are also relatively common. Often, in relationships as in life, there are no perfect answers.

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