Raised by critical parents? Is it hurting your relationship?

partner conflict

If you grew up in a household where criticism and contempt were a natural part of your daily life, there’s a very strong chance that it will have an impact on your adult self – not least in terms of romantic relationships. 

Worse still, you probably haven’t even noticed the psychological changes that the difficult relationship with your parents has caused. After all, those impacts have taken a toll over many years of criticism and contempt while the majority of changes to your emotional rationale occur subconsciously. 

Whether the situation is making you depressed and reckless or simply incapable of working through criticism from your partner, help is available. This guide should provide the answers you need to key questions, such as;

  • Why does parental criticism impact my adult self?
  • What type of parental criticism may have impacted me?
  • How does it take a toll on adult relationships?
  • What can I do to give my relationship a better chance?

The impact of critical parents

A little criticism is to be expected in life and can be an amazing tool that helps us grow as people. It allows us to reflect on past mistakes and learn how to improve various aspects of our lives. In childhood, it can be great for developing healthier behavioral habits. As for adult life, it aids our ability to process information and build stronger interactions with other people.

However, too much criticism, especially when it is underpinned by contempt, can begin to alter our psychological makeup. This is particularly noticeable when the negative responses come from a loved one. 

Research by Binghamton University’s psychology department in the UK found that overly critical parents harm their children in various ways, including but not limited to;

  • An increased risk of anxiety and depression,
  • Reduced response to emotional facial expressions.
  • General self-doubt and reduced appreciation of positive expressions,
  • An impact on communication and processing emotions.

Furthermore, it is fair to suggest that high levels of criticism in childhood will encourage individuals to keep problems to themselves due to the fear of inciting further criticism. This can subsequently make you less likely to express yourself – creatively or emotionally.

We are all unique and handle criticism in different ways. So, the noticeable impacts of parental criticism can vary greatly from one person to the next. Nonetheless, studies show that 39% of people feel degraded when someone points out their mistakes while almost everyone who is exposed to daily criticism throughout their formative years is likely to be affected in some shape or form.

The two types of critical parents

Criticism can take many forms and appear in many situations. When coming from parents, criticisms may focus on your failure to fulfill your potential, a response to your behavior, an attack on your personality, or an expression of disappointment that you did not complete a task as expected.

Generally speaking, though, criticism can be split into two clear categories;

  • Criticism that is presented with good intentions. The parent is trying to inspire or motivate you in one form or another. Despite the positive meaning, though, overly critical parents actively have the reverse impact on their kids. 
  • Criticism that is designed to control you or belittle you. This is more openly harmful and can be just as damaging as physical abuse. This is the type of abuse that will be underpinned by contempt, jealousy, or hatred.

Long-term exposure to criticism naturally brings negativity to your life, and it remains long into adult life whether your parents continue to criticize you as an adult or not. Likewise, those underlying problems can surface when you are grieving for a lost parent. Whichever type of criticism you were exposed to, learning to appreciate its influence on your psychological development is vital.

Otherwise, it can affect all aspects of your adult self, including romantic relationships.

How does this affect your current adult relationships?

Studies show that around one-in-two marriages end in divorce or separation. While it would be wildly inaccurate to state that criticism during childhood is the main source of problems, it is easily one of the most underappreciated issues to affect adult relationships.

The direct impacts of overly critical parents on your relationships include but are not limited to;

  • Over analyzing small criticisms, which turns them into far bigger issues than they need to be. 
  • Not acting in a natural way due to fear of criticism, which ultimately builds up to put a huge strain on the relationship through no fault of your partner. 
  • An inferiority complex or fear that nothing you do will ever be enough to satisfy your partner.
  • An unwillingness to discuss situations because you are subconsciously shielding yourself from potential criticism.

Left untreated, the underlying issues can slowly but surely cause major problems for your romantic relationships as you struggle to process emotional responses while your partner will feel unable to fully support you.

How to manage relationships after being raised by critical parents

Overly critical parenting is unlikely to be as big of an issue in future generations as society now understands the full impact of emotional turmoil. However, it was a common parenting method for many years, so you aren’t alone in facing this issue. As such, it is rarely beneficial to blame your parents. Instead, you must learn to accept the situation and put an end to the stranglehold it has on your relationships.

Before thinking about your relationship, you must first learn to focus on yourself. Under half of the 6.8 million Americans with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) gain treatment for it. If a life of being criticized has caused anxiety and/or co-occurring issues, you must seek help with this.

Once you understand the impact that criticism has had on your adult self, you can start to focus on key factors that will aid your relationship, such as;

  • Sharing your emotions with your partner,
  • Becoming open to natural constructive criticism without letting it rule your relationship,
  • Feeling confident to make constructive criticisms that will benefit your relationship,
  • Processing situations together and working as a couple.

Many of those issues will additionally benefit other aspects of your life, such as working relationships. While a commitment to addressing the issues as a couple will put you in a strong position, the best results are seen when you are supported by professional treatment. Alayna Baillod and the Self Care Impact Counseling team are here to help with dedicated strategies aimed at supporting couples where one – or both – of you grew up with overly critical parents. 

The Gottman methodology

A plethora of tools and psychological exercises may be used to help couples repair their relationships when a childhood of criticism is at play. However, the Gottman methodology is one of the most effective. It was invented by psychologist couple Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, delivering personalized results for couples battling a host of problems. Dealing with the impact of critical parents, either in childhood or adult life, is one area where the benefits can be huge.

This is because the Gottman method focuses on four pillars (known as the four horsemen) to help couples through a combination of joint and individual therapy sessions. They are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. The Gottman method can help tackle each of those issues as detailed below:

  • Criticism – it should be natural for partners to make their feelings known, especially when telling their lover what they expect in a relationship. However, presenting this info in a constructive manner rather than attacking the other person is vital. Sessions focus on building healthy communication.
  • Contempt – contempt is extremely harmful to a relationship, not least because it attempts to assert dominance while making the other person feel uneasy. Contempt may be learned from parents too, so you may be inadvertently guilty of belittling or mocking your partner without realizing it. Counseling helps focus on positive features and prevents minor conflicts from becoming major issues in the relationship.
  • Defensiveness – defensiveness can manifest itself as making excuses, shifting the blame, or otherwise responding to criticism in an unproductive manner. It is a protective mechanism that may have been needed in childhood, but not now. Learning to process minor complaints and move on from them in a productive way is crucial.
  • Stonewalling – stonewalling is another response mechanism, usually used in relation to contempt. It essentially means switching off from the conversation. Again, it can be necessary in childhood if you had overly critical parents. Sadly, in an adult relationship, stonewalling stops you from ever-changing to put things right.

Given that poor communication (65%) and unresolved conflict (43%) are the chief reasons for couples breaking up, the value of putting this right is clear. A mutual understanding of how past criticisms have impacted you, along with a dedicated focus on working through current and future problems with clarity and support, will lead you to greatness. 

The final word

We are all influenced by the people around us, especially in childhood when our brains are like informational sponges. So, if you’ve been affected by critical parents, you are certainly not alone. Nonetheless, if you have found that it has impacted your relationship, now is the time to act.

The fact you’ve identified the source of your emotional and communication problems is a fantastic starting point, providing a solid platform to build upon. With the help of Self Care Impact Counseling’s dedicated couples and marriage counseling services, you can get relationships back on track. Call 720) 551-4553 to learn more today!