How Do We Stop Our Inner Critics From Dating Our Spouses?

by Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC

cartoon characters fightingWhat are inner critics and what do they have to do with being parents? As importantly, how do they impact my relationship with my spouse?

Inner critics are those negative voices in our heads that speak in absolutes, prohibitions, commands and insults like:

"You always [or never] do that!"
"Don't you dare say [or do] that!"
"You should [or shouldn't] think that!"
"That was a really stupid thing to do or think or say!"

I love the description of inner critics that I learned in coaching school, only Co-Active Coaching© calls them saboteurs.

The saboteur is an aspect of our personalities devoted to the status quo, which means it gets riled up by changes in our lives, either those we choose or the ones that choose us.

Saboteurs know that when events are shifting, when we're growing internally, or when both inner and outer changes occur -- like when we're pregnant and when we become parents -- our fears and insecurities often surface. When that happens, our inner critics have a heyday.

For some of us, saboteurs lay in wait for big changes, like becoming a parent for the first time. For others, they pop up in mini-transitions, like our virgin voyage strapping a newborn into a car-seat.

My saboteur shouted at me non-stop while I fumbled with those straps for the first time. "They're not tight enough! She's going to get injured! You should have bought that other seat, the one designed for morons!" To be honest, though my daughter's in a bigger seat now, sometimes my saboteur still yells at me about the straps.

Whatever circumstances trigger our inner critics, if those parts of us try to co-parent with our spouse's inner critic, it's a recipe for relationship conflict, not to mention icky parenting (yes, I believe icky is a technical term).

Why? Because saboteurs talk in absolutes, prohibitions, commands and insults. Put two of them together and we become autopilot parents who speak a language that makes it hard to hear each other and impossible to work as a team.

Plus, inner critics can stress out our kids, newborns included, who wonder what the heck happened to their real parents, the ones who were here a minute ago.

Meet Sue and Rob

She has a daughter from a first marriage. He's a new dad to their baby boy. A week after their son's birth, they were arguing about stuff like:

Rob is struggling to insert a replacement tube into the diaper pail.

Sue: "Give me that. I've done it before. I can do it again."
Rob: "Maybe you should do it every time, since I seem incapable."
Sue: "Maybe I should."
Rob: "Fine!"
Sue: "Fine!"

So, who exactly is arguing here? Turns out, when she's faced with new challenges, especially as a parent, Sue's "I-should-do-everything" inner critic likes to show up; when Rob ventures into new territory, especially in relationships, his "I'm-a-total-screw-up-so-why-bother" saboteur often yells at him.

In a way, Rob's and Sue's saboteurs seem so well matched you'd think they'd avoid conflicts; meaning, if their inner critics had their way, Sue can do everything and Rob can stop trying to do anything new.

The only problem is that Sue doesn't really want to be controlling and prefers that she and Rob share duties and co-parent together. Plus, Rob genuinely wants to be involved and knows he can be a great dad, if only his inner critic would shut up.

Taming Inner Critics

So, how do we prevent our inner critics from going on bad dates with our spouses and trying to co-parent with them?

  1. Spend some time identifying your most vocal and powerful saboteurs
  2. Describe them to your spouse/partner and ask them to do the same
  3. Be honest with each other about how our inner critics are impacting our relationship and parenting; or how we're concerned they might in the future
  4. Come up with a game plan on how to respond individually, and as a team, when one or both of us notices an inner critic, or two, or six in the room
  5. Maybe give them fictional names, silly names, names that when we, or our spouse calls them out, we both laugh instead of react defensively

Our saboteurs are very familiar parts of us; so familiar, it's sometimes hard to name them and harder still to tame them. But it's worth the effort to keep our relationships from lapsing into autopilot, and to protect our babies from icky parenting, saboteur-style.

*Not their real names

Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a professional relationship coach and founder of Parent Alliance®, a resource for expectant couples and parents with young children who are committed to ensuring their relationships thrive after they have kids. Rhona received her training from the Coaches Training Institute and the Center for Right Relationship and is accrediated by The International Coach Federation. She is mom to a pre-schooler and will be welcoming her second child this summer. From her office in Los Angeles, Rhona coaches couples across North America.

Copyright © Rhona Berens. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.