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

What are Inner Critics and what do they have to do with becoming parents and raising kids? As importantly, what do they have to do with my relationship with my spouse?

Inner Critics are those negative voices in our heads that speak in absolutes, prohibitions, commands & insults….
“You always [or never] do that!”
“Don’t you dare say 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 have kids–our fears and insecurities 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 1st 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 1st 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 & 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, our 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.

Take Joe and Rob*: Joe has a daughter from a marriage to woman when he was younger; Rob’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.
Joe: “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 of doing it.”
Joe: “Maybe I should.”
Rob: “Fine!”
Joe: “Fine!”

So, who exactly is arguing here? Turns out, when Joe’s faced with new challenges, especially as a parent, his 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 Joe’s Saboteurs seem so well matched you’d think they’d avoid conflicts; meaning, if their Inner Critics had their way, Joe can do everything and Rob can stop trying to do anything new.

The only problem is that Joe doesn’t really want to be controlling and prefers that he 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 shut up.

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 will do so 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; and
(5) Maybe give them fictional names, silly names, names that when we, or our spouse, calls them out, we both start to 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.

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