How Should I Respond to Criticism in Marriage?

Search Your Heart

No one likes criticism. Even the most well-intended criticism can be difficult to receive, even more so when it comes from a spouse. But Dr. David Powlison believes it provides an opportunity to see clearly the sin struggles in our own hearts. As a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF), he encourages husbands and wives to realize their need for God's mercy as a foundation for pursuing the skill of listening and the qualities of peace.

David has been practicing biblical counseling for over 30 years and has written numerous articles on counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology. His books include Speaking Truth in Love, Seeing with New Eyes, Power Encounters, and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context

David started with three responses that describe human beings when facing criticism:
  • Fight—Do I fight back?
  • Flight—Do I retreat to escapism?
  • Fright—Do I freeze out of a fear of conflict?
These can help provide the framework for interpreting the ways in which we may be responding poorly in our interactions with others.

Did any of David's comments change the ways you think about responding to criticism in your own life? If so, how?
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As you reflect on your past experiences, how have you tended to respond to conflict? Which of the categories above best describes the ways in which you have responded? How did it impact your relationship with your spouse? What would you like to have done differently?
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David talked about how criticism leads to "hard reckoning" with our own hearts. In other words, if viewed rightly, criticism can provide us with the opportunity to see clearly the sinful tendencies of our hearts through the ways we respond. Can you identify any sinful tendencies in the ways you have responded to criticism? If so, what are they? How do these reveal your need for the mercy of God?
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When we focus on the ways we respond to criticism, it brings to light the ways in which we need God's mercy. As David said, when we find mercy it changes the ways we react to criticism by giving us the humility to listen to our spouses in pursuit of peace.

Would you consider listening a personal strength? If not, why? What are some of the obstacles that keep you from listening well, especially in times of criticism?
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Can you think of a time in the past where you listened well to criticism from your spouse? What were you able to learn about yourself as a result? What were you able to learn about your spouse? In what ways can you see the skill of listening being one that opens the door to deeper conversations in your marriage?
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James 3:17 (ESV)

17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

David said that when we receive mercy it changes us so that we embrace the qualities of peaceableness. Rather than reacting sinfully, out of humility we strive to speak words that bring peace. How well do you pursue peace in times of criticism with your spouse? What are some of the barriers that keep you from discussing your failings or those of your spouse without accusation and condemnation? What steps will you take in surrendering these to God?
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Only when we recognize the sinfulness in our hearts are we able to experience the mercy of God. Responding well to criticism begins by taking inventory of our own selves and considering the ways in which we a trying to operate apart from His mercy. As David said, you can only learn this by being willing to fail and trusting God to pick you up again. No matter how you respond to criticism today, there is hope. Take the bold steps of offering God your sinful tendencies and allowing Him to transform you by His mercy.

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