Relationships: Repairing the criticize-withdraw syndrome |

Relationships: Repairing the criticize-withdraw syndrome

Neil Rosenthal

Dear Neil,

Several weeks ago you wrote about the “criticize-withdraw cycle.” My marriage could be the poster child for that scenario. I am very sensitive to criticism. My husband is very sensitive to withdrawal. So when he suggests that I could do better and be less sharp with disciplining our 4-year-old, I tend to feel criticized, and my response to that is to get away from him or criticize him back.

He says that I’m not addressing the point he was trying to make, and that it hurts and angers him when I retreat from him. I say he is just being critical and judgmental, and that he makes mistakes also. So how do we get out of this?

Sensitive in Kansas

Dear Sensitive,

I once stopped at an alligator farm in the Florida Keys. I walked inside, and there in front of me were one-day-old baby alligators being kept in a bathtub. Never having seen day-old alligators before, I took a pen out of my pocket and put it in front of one of the baby alligators — and the baby lunged at it and attempted to bite it. I’m pretty sure that baby had never seen a pen before, and had no idea what it was lunging at.

We have three different brains within us. What I just described is called the reptilian brain. It’s focused on our survival —in my example, the pen was viewed as threatening. Our second brain is called the limbic system, which controls our feelings and memories. The third brain is the most sophisticated and developed of the three. It’s called the neocortex, the part of our brain that allows us to use language and be thinking, reasoning, logical and forward planning.

What you described when your husband said you can do better with your 4-year-old is that you had a reptilian response. That is, you treated that statement as a threatening, life and death — fight or flight — issue. If you were to pause — even for a second — to consider whether his statement might actually be true, that you indeed might be able to discipline your 4-year-old better, then you would then be using your more highly developed brain, and you would be able to consider options and alternatives. You might be able to find other ways of handling yourself that indeed are better and more loving than how you’re currently doing it.

Do Not Shut Down

My point is that you don’t need to shut down, withdraw or attack back, because your husband’s request isn’t a survival issue at all. Reacting or withdrawing has just become an habitual way to defend yourself from that which you don’t want to hear.

People who are easily shamed frequently feel defensive against even minor criticism. They find it intolerable to be confronted with their mistakes, and they often feel judged by others. They have an ongoing fear that they won’t measure up. They often put a lot of energy in trying to be perfect.

A Wish Behind Every Criticism

Remember this: behind every criticism is a wish. So, here’s what you could do. You could ask your husband to express what he would prefer, and to leave out all judgment, blame and criticism regardless of how valid he thinks it is. If that works, then perhaps you have found a way to change the dynamic where you feel criticized and then feel the need to withdraw or attack back.

You could also sit face to face, holding hands with your husband, and take turns answering the following questions completely: “I have been protecting myself by … I have contributed to the problems and conflicts between us by … If we were going to solve the conflicts in our relationship, then I would need to … If we were going to solve the conflicts in our relationship, then I would need for you to … The most important things you could do that would help me feel closer to you are … Please forgive me for … I forgive you for … I love that you … I love that we … ”

Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder, Colorado. His column is in its 22nd year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: He is not able to respond individually to queries.

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