Criticism in Partnered Relationships

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Volume 16, Number 8

There is an extensive body of research literature linking the quality of relationships to health. This includes the benefits of social support in periods of stress, the harmful impact of loneliness, and the advantages of having a partner who is happy. Relationships that have at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions are known to be stronger and more satisfying.

A just-published study in Health Psychology specifically examined the link between the quality of the relationship in partnered couples (married, living as married, or having an intimate/sexual/romantic partner) and risk of death over the subsequent five years. The study sample came from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project and consisted of 1,734 adults ranging in age from 57 to 85 at Time One. Five years later at Time Two, approximately 10% of the sample was deceased.

Relationship quality was measured with four questions, each using a three-point scale ranging from “hardly ever or never” to “often.” The two positive queries were whether one could open up to the partner to talk about worries and whether one could rely on the partner. The two negative queries were whether one felt the partner made too many demands, and whether the partner criticized her/him.

The study investigators, Drs. Jamila Bookwala and Trent Gaugler of Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania, found that the measure of negative relationship quality was associated with increased mortality risk. And upon further analysis, this risk was specifically related to partner criticism, rather than too many demands. For the criticism question, a 44% increased risk of death was associated with the difference between “hardly ever or never” and “some of the time,” as well as the difference between “some of the time” and “often.”

Experiencing criticism from one’s partner is stressful, and brings with it physiological stress responses. This is especially harmful for health when the criticism is chronic. Other research has found that the experience of criticism in close relationships has been linked to poorer health behaviors, such as smoking, being sedentary, and a diet higher in fat. Not surprisingly, criticism in partnered relationships has also been associated with greater risk of mental health problems.

Some conflict or disagreement is ubiquitous in relationships, but results of studies such as these point to the importance of avoiding personal or hostile criticism. Such criticism can have a snowball effect and establish unhealthy patterns or habits. Rather, it is important to develop skills to address differences of opinion in a manner that is less likely to be experienced as critical. Of course, one doesn’t control the perceptions of another person but one can learn to be assertive rather than demeaning. For example, discussing a specific behavior about which one is upset or disappointed is much more effective that is making characterological descriptions about the other (e.g., irresponsible, stupid, lazy, etc.). In disagreements, it is also wise to avoid the use of absolutes, such as “always” or “never,” because these terms are rarely true and tend to exacerbate arguments.

Emphasizing compassionate and constructive interaction patterns with one’s partner not only enhances relationship quality, it also contributes to one’s health span and life expectancy.

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