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A judgmental partner can fatally damage a relationship. However, what may not be evident to the couples involved is that a tendency towards judgment is deeply rooted in childhood. This root cause of the judgmental behavior needs to be examined and corrected for the relationship to improve.

Eleanor and her partner Maria came to me for couples therapy because their relationship was in serious trouble. Eleanor, 35 years old, was constantly critical towards Maria. Generally, the root cause of this judgment is that one of the partners has incorporated a harsh parent ego state, which he or she projects onto the spouse. Projection is a defense mechanism where you project a part of yourself onto your partner.

Eleanor’s self-esteem took a terrible hit in childhood. She grew up with a nagging and rigid mother, who was often mean and critical of her. Her mother said things like, “A B in Spanish is okay, but why didn’t you get an A,” or “I’m surprised you didn’t get an A+ on your essay like your cousin Judy did,” to 11-year-old Eleanor. It was devastating to Eleanor.

A more nurturing mother might have said to her, “Wow you did a great job in Spanish. I’m proud of you. I know you can get any grade you set your mind to.” Eleanor was deprived of the love and support she so desperately needed as a child.

Eleanor did everything she could to try to please her mother. Sadly, it never worked. Over time, Eleanor internalized her mother’s messages and also became harsh and critical of herself. When she would get an A minus in math, Eleanor would berate herself for not getting an A, even if only one child in the class got an A. She compared herself to everyone and constantly found herself to be falling short. Her childhood was long term training in perfectionism which required some relationship counseling to kick this habit to the curb.

What adults say to kids can be highly damaging. This is because kids incorporate (into their brains), how their primary caretakers talk to them. Over time, as those kids grow up, they say to themselves that they are incapable, unintelligent, or even unlovable. This innate criticality can become the foundation for depressive tendencies if other variables are operative.

What then also happens is that most highly self-critical people are also critical of their partner or spouse, as Eleanor was towards Maria. Again, this is projection, and it must be worked through if the relationship is going to be saved.

The following is a dialogue between Eleanor and Maria in a couples counseling session.

Eleanor: I wish you were not depressed and would have more energy for doing things. You call it depression and I call it lazy.

This was hurtful to Maria, who really did struggle with some depression as it ran in her family. Eleanor herself in fact had a lazy streak and was actually “reading her own mail” when she spoke to Maria.

Maria: My doctor recommended I consider taking some medication as I’ve been having trouble sleeping. You try and diagnosis and do not even understand depression. Besides, you would get depressed living with you too.

Maria is talking to Eleanor in a critical tone and not sharing much about how she really feels. Instead she puts her down in an insensitive way. This pattern is often the start of conversations going nowhere. As time passed, Maria became more and more resentful and thought seriously about leaving the troubled relationship.

One day, Maria finally went to Eleanor and said she’d had enough. She was moving out. She spoke up for herself, saying, “I’m fed up with all your judgmental attacks on me, and I’ve reached the end of my rope. I often feel I have a harsh teacher hovering over me ready to find one fault when there are nine good things.”

This resulted in several fights between Eleanor and Maria. Finally, Eleanor was able to admit that she was very judgmental. She apologized to Maria. They decided, after a fairly grown-up conversation, that they would engage in couples therapy. In their work with me they were able to partly save their relationship.

Eleanor also spent time in individual relationship therapy, where she learned to cultivate a more nurturing part of her personality that would replace some of her judgmental aspects. It is when we relate to ourselves well that we can relate to others the same. Eleanor needed to learn this lesson.

Getting Started With Positive Self-Talk

Do you know you’re highly critical and judgmental of yourself and others? If so, what can you do about it?

A good and healthy place to start is to design a nurturing parent script, which is a series of new positive messages to yourself. You then begin to practice thinking about your strengths, talents and relationship skills. Below is one script message that Eleanor wrote to herself to help her begin practicing when she noticed she was beating herself up. Over time, she developed a new script but she had to be mindful when stress built up as then she was inclined to dump on herself. Below are her words from her nurturing script:

“You are a beautiful woman.  Your strengths are your motivation and determination to create the life you want. You love yourself each day by focusing on your strengths and what you have to look forward to.  You add up and celebrate small, but healthy, steps you are making. You are incredible. You’re amazing. I will not give up on you until I get you what you want.”

Here you can see Eleanor learning to make kind statements to herself which she needed to work on daily to replace the old critical messages she would say internally. The bottom line is Eleanor needed to learn to value herself, which took some dedicated work after so many years of incorporating her mother’s critical messages. She had to work tenaciously to catch herself in the “clubber” and switch to making affirmations and talking to herself in a positive and nurturing way. I had her practice her nurturing self talk in couples therapy and as part of her homework.

Decide on loving mantras you will repeat throughout your day. Pretend you are a loving, caring mother and try to imagine what you would say to your child. It can be something short like, “You are an exceptional woman” or “You are amazing and can do anything you set your mind to.” I encourage people to think big and to “fake it till they make it.” In other words, it may take you a while to believe in your affirmations, but keep practicing until they sink into your subconscious.

The Challenge of Discovering the Fundamentals

Another problem Eleanor and Maria experienced was trouble having fun. Eleanor in particular did not learn to experience fun as a child growing up and defined herself as a “workaholic.” She could not relax under the constant criticism of her insensitive mother.

Eleanor and Maria needed to be able to have fun together for the relationship to last. We spent time having Eleanor brainstorm about activities that she might enjoy.

She came up with the following list:

  1. river rafting
  2. playing tennis
  3. dancing
  4. going to the theater
  5. bridge
  6. hiking with Maria
  7. joining Toastmasters
  8. designing garments.

This list helped restore Eleanor’s hope in her ability to have fun. Maria was relieved that they had things they could do together, after thinking before that Eleanor would never be able to relax. I could see the two of them beginning to have more fun in their relationship counseling.

Eleanor had dancing on her list. She had had some experience with dancing growing up. Eleanor decided to take Latin dancing because she loved music by Ricky Martin, Luis Miguel,  Enrique Iglesias, and others. There was a Rumba class that was being offered in her neighborhood. During the first few classes, she was so nervous she could barely participate. She worried about every move that she made. Eleanor found it very hard to follow as she was so rigid and wanted to control her partner, which does not work well in ballroom dancing. One night Eleanor got to dance with the teacher Julio, who had a strong lead and, what do you know? To her amazement, Eleanor started having fun. Julio kept her moving with a faster Enrique Iglesias track. He was so strong and had such great rhythm that Eleanor gave in and found it was fun to let go. It was not long after that Maria joined Eleanor for the next salsa series. The two of them had a ball dancing and laughing together! In fact, they spent half of one couples therapy session talking about how much they liked the class.

If you’re one of those people who is missing out on the world of fun, you want to remember my motto “Let’s Make it Fun, That’s How We Get Things Done.” Go ahead and make up your list of fun activities! Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find everything on the list fun right away. You are going to need to experiment to discover what is fun. You may think you will like mountain biking but you really hate it! On the other hand, you may not know whether you like playing board games, but then find yourself having a great time during a family game like Monopoly. I have people experiment with having fun through improvisation in the couples therapy.

Realize that you may likely feel resistance to doing something fun and find yourself making statements  such as “I don’t really want to go dancing, I can go later, like next week.” That sort of resistance is to be expected. I hear it a lot. What you want to do is fight back with the adult part of you. You can say to yourself things like “Negative thinking is normal when trying new things and I am not paying attention to those messages.” Negative messages can be thought of as a positive sign as they indicate you are going out of your comfort zone as that is how you grow. The challenge is to step outside of yourself and get objective about how you are talking to yourself. Only then can you be part of a partnership that is healthy.

A Good Homework Assignment

Experiment with scheduling 3-15 minute periods of fun into your day after you get something important done. For example, Lily did some online shopping after she got her legal briefs complete. Harry lifted weights when he was done submitting bills to his clients. R.J. listened to some hip hop while he got his car waxed and cleaned, and then treated himself to a bowl of his favorite ice cream. Rachel went to the neighborhood thrift store for a little shopping after she was done with her morning patients.

A smart tool is to sign up for a 6-week class because once you have paid the money you will likely go. Also, you want to start to find something that feels pleasurable and then move onto fun. That will help you to ease into it if you are not comfortable at first with letting yourself unwind. Most people who do not know how to have fun live in what is called an “adapted child state.” Their free natural child is either suppressed or repressed. Suppression is when the feelings are close to the surface and repression is when they are cut off from consciousness. I also had to learn to have fun and it is a super wise investment in your long term health and contributes to a balanced life. It is also such an important investment in your relationships.

Eleanor and Maria are still working on parts of their relationship, but Eleanor is far less critical of Maria now, and they enjoy long hikes, go river rafting with friends, and do many more fun things together, which has strengthened their relationship. They finished couples  therapy years ago and were signed up for a local dance competition when I last checked in with them.