When you first fall in love, it’s as if your partner can do no wrong—even their breath smells like a bed of roses in the morning. Then, as both of you come down from Cloud 9, and your rose-colored glasses become more transparent, you begin to notice certain “faults” and differences in your partner. Things that once even seemed like endearing qualities, suddenly drive you up the walls. Now instead of letting things slide, you find yourself nagging and nitpicking them.
While conflict is common and normal in any relationship, could the constant nitpicking, nagging and passive-aggressive behavior be chipping away at your relationship?
“To the extent that all relationships often undergo an adjustment period, critical comments and nitpicking are more common when more time has passed and the initial excitement and romance have started to fade as the couple adjusts to a more realistic view of one another,” said Scott Bartlett, LCSW, case management director at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “Critical comments about behaviors that are real threats to the relationship, like substance abuse or infidelity, need to be discussed. However, criticizing someone’s personality traits, their physical characteristics or their very being can be very damaging to a relationship.”
The downfall of nitpicking
Simply put: Criticism is an ineffective method to “help” someone improve. Pointing out your partner’s errors or flaws is demeaning and a sign that you don’t respect them—even if you have good intentions. If nitpicking continues and isn’t addressed, it can create growing resentment and irreconcilable differences, especially if it happens in front of other people.
If you’ve gotten in the habit of nitpicking or keeping tabs of your partner’s shortcomings, here are a couple of things you can do to help save your relationship.
When you’re the nitpicker
1. Ask yourself why you feel compelled to nitpick, nag or complain. The key to stopping is to understand what is fueling the critical behavior in the first place. “Often this is rooted in your own anxiety or a core belief that says, ‘I’m not happy or feel good unless my partner does XYZ or stops doing XYZ,’” Bartlett said. It can be about what you learned about intimate relationships from your parents growing up or the belief you can’t adjust or accept your partner for who they are.
2. Identify why you’re trying to change your partner and ask yourself if it’s reasonable—does it matter. Is your nitpicking likely to change anything? More often than not, you’ll probably find yourself answering with, “No, not really.” There’s a good chance the nitpicking is just your poor attempt to get some other need met—be it attention, to feel heard or even supported. It’s important to learn how to pick your battles and save your arguments for bigger issues. While no marriage is conflict-free, it’s how you handle them that makes the difference.
When you’re being nitpicked
If your partner is nitpicky and nags, it’s important to talk about the issue at hand. Scott Bartlett shared the following steps you can take to nip it in the bud:
- Initially, check your understanding of what is being said to you. Either summarize or repeat as close as possible (even word-for-word) what you heard your partner say and check to be sure you got it right. Check for your understanding of how you perceive your partner is feeling about the issue by asking.
- Share what you know to be the objective facts about the situation.
- Next, tell your partner about your own perception or interpretation of the issue/behavior that you’re being criticized about.
- If you are aware of a personal feeling or emotion about this, express this to your partner.
- Then, share anything you want to have happen or a goal, if you have one. It could be to ask them to stop criticizing. Or you can share what you want for the other person, such as “What I want for you is XYZ.”
- Finally, make a commitment to take action, if indicated. You can say, “I will do XYZ by [time frame/deadline].”
When nitpicking crosses the line
“Any time the relationship looks like it’s facing a threat is a good time to seek professional counseling,” Bartlett said. “If one or both of you need to renegotiate the terms of your relationship, in terms of what is acceptable or unacceptable, a third party can help guide your conversations.”
Counseling can also help you and your partner improve your communication styles to reduce resistance and tension, as well as provide a model to resolve conflicts. Coming to a personal understanding of what you’re doing to make your partner change can be an important step in stopping the behavior. And when it comes to physical or emotional safety, outside counseling is essential to intervene and prevent harm.
“It takes five positive encounters to counteract one negative encounter you have with your partner,” Bartlett said. Remember this the next time you’re tempted to start nitpicking.