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"I’ll Never Be Enough": Living With a Critical Partner

7 types of child-parent interactions that may influence future relationships.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

In my four decades of practice as a relationship therapist, I have met many people who are on the other end of partners who continuously degrade and invalidate them.

As they allow those partners to continue debasing them, they become less able to hold on to their own self-esteem and value, making them easy prey for similar relationships in the future.

Though some of these people submit to these derogatory behaviors in all of their relationships, many only endure them with an intimate partner. Whatever confidence and success they have in the outside world gives way to accepting continuous verbal abuse in their emotionally attached partnerships.

What causes people who are often confident in their other relationships to stay in those where their self-worth is constantly attacked? What makes them change their behaviors in these more important connections?

Most all of the answers lie in early childhood teachings. Children are dependent on others for emotional and physical survival. The approval or disdain of parental figures teaches them whether or not they are worth keeping or rejected. Their adult intimate relationships are the most similar to those earlier connections and have a greater capability to trigger them.

If you find yourself in this kind of dilemma and want to heal, you must learn what causes you to feel so vulnerable to partners who recreate those original relationships and why you are attracted to them.

The following seven childhood relationship interactions are the most likely culprits:

1. “Never-Enough” Parents

There are many parents who believe that their children will not do their best unless they keep “raising the bar.” Whether in athletics, academics, social popularity, or other behaviors, they keep telling their children that they can always do better than they do. They truly believe that their children will achieve more if they are continually invalidated in what they have accomplished. Concurrently, if they are praised too much, they might not try as hard.

People who have been treated this way as children often end up relentlessly pushing themselves as adults and pick partners who will constantly remind them of how they could have done better. It feels familiar.

2. Controlling the Level of Criticism

Children raised by parents who are highly critical of them live in expectation and fear of the next put-down.

They find a way around that anxiety by purposefully underperforming. They believe that, in some way, they will be more in control of the criticism when it is inadvertently coming. They know they could do much better, but withhold that level of performance to keep the bar low. It is a way of “drawing the fire” they can endure and feeling more in control.

3. Pedestalizing

If children are treated as if they are lucky to get what they get, they will expect their intimate partners to be superior, as their parents once were. Once that hierarchy is set as a given, they must continue proving their worth to be “allowed to stay” in the relationship. They even may try to anticipate what their partners want in advance so that they can ensure inclusion by paying forward.

They live in fear of being replaced if someone better comes along. But, if they keep trying hard, stay loyal to the other’s wants, keep looking up to them, and never fail to remember their place, they will hopefully be too valuable to dump.

4. Martyrdom

Sadly, there are some people who learned as a child that their only self-respect and sense of nobility comes from being able to bear relationships in which they are not appreciated or validated. Although they suffer from being unfairly taken advantage of, they pride themselves that they can tolerate the situation and keep giving. They may even perceive themselves as better than their partners in some way because they are able to “take it” and still continue to serve.

This behavior in adult relationships is often a replay of what they saw in their parents’ relationship or how either of their parents behaved with the other.

5. Feeling Undeserving

If a person has been taught that praise is undeserved, he or she may unconsciously seek out relationships that repeat that pattern. As a result, they choose partners who are never satisfied with anything and who consistently point out their errors and inadequacies.

If anyone in their early lives contradicted those self-defeating beliefs and patterns, they might be able to fight back if they pick those kinds of advocates as partners. But childhood teachings are hard to shrug off if they are not identified and challenged early. Sadly, then, in most cases, they find themselves the easy prey of those who will also see them the same way.

6. Fear That Desires Will Be Crushed if They Are Expressed

Children who are raised to be controlled by expressing vulnerability tend to keep their true desires hidden for fear they will be used to control them. If, as adults, they do not share what they want or what is important to them, their partners cannot hold those desires as a way to keep them in line.

They may defend or argue about the current critiquing they are enduring, but they will not risk that their vulnerabilities and inner needs will be subject to put-downs. As long as the people on the other end of them are criticizing what is evident, they will not have access to anything that might hurt more if taken away.

7. Feeling That Negative Feedback Is the Only Thing They Can Trust

In a very different kind of scenario, there are people who are raised by parents who never find fault of any kind and overly praise their children. They tell them that anyone who is disappointed or critical of them just doesn’t know what they are talking about.

If, as they grow up, they have repeated experiences of not being praised as they were, they are confused. Now those childhood pedestalizing experiences don’t work outside of the bubble in which they were raised. They then not only stop seeking praise but also only believe people who “tell them the truth,” and they can no longer trust compliments or praise of any kind.

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