Subtle Ways You May Not Even Notice You're Belittling Your Partner

No matter how much you love and respect your partner, you can end up accidentally hurting them by making judgments, exchanging harsh words, or subtly belittling your partner. Although the word itself doesn't sound too scary, belittling is a form of psychological and emotional abuse that can have lasting effects on a person's mental well-being. 

Some people purposefully wield belittling behaviors like a manipulative weapon or employ them as a way to fix their partner's flaws and bad habits. Others belittle their partner unintentionally by questioning their partner's decisions, refusing to compromise, or correcting their partner in front of other people. Perhaps you like to give your partner advice they didn't ask for or find yourself constantly interjecting your own thoughts and opinions when they talk. On the surface, you think you're being helpful and supportive. In reality, you may leave your partner feeling annoyed at best and worthless at worst.

Belittling behaviors can be hard to identify unless you know to look for them, but they cause irreparable damage to your relationship if left unchecked. Here are some subtle ways you may not even notice you're belittling your partner and, most importantly, how to change these behaviors for good.

Why belittling behavior is dangerous

Belittling is a negative form of thinking, speaking, or acting that causes harm to another person's self-esteem. What makes belittling behavior so dangerous is that it's often done unconsciously. After all, most people don't set out to make their partner feel bad, lonely, or small. On the contrary, they usually think they are helping. However, over time, the effects of continuous criticism, unsolicited advice, and unwanted problem-solving may cause your partner to feel unimportant and disrespected.

Belittling behavior is also dangerous because it can take many forms. Belittling can look like outright criticism and public put-downs, but it can be simply disregarding your partner's opinions and emotions. Sometimes, it can take the form of a repeated but misguided joke that doesn't sit well with your partner. Belittling can also look like a failure to recognize when your partner does something amazing. When done with intent, these behaviors can be used as a dangerous controlling tactic to dominate one's partner and help mask the belittler's feelings of emotional fragility, vulnerability, or insecurity.

You criticize your partner

Criticism (not to be confused with verbal abuse) is a toxic belittling behavior that erodes a healthy relationship. According to The Gottman Institute, criticism is a common way for people to find an explanation for their own negative feelings. To account for personal feelings of frustration or disappointment, they may purposefully look for and keep track of their partner's mistakes, forming a pattern and finding fault with them.

The logic of criticism is that if you can get your partner to change the things or behaviors that bother you, then you'll feel better. For example, if your partner never washes the dishes when they say they will, you may criticize their ability to follow through with anything. It becomes an attack on their character rather than the fact that you feel unsupported with house chores. "A lot of people express criticism because they feel a vague sense of discomfort or displeasure, but the thing they complain about is rarely what's causing the dissatisfaction," psychology professor David Ludden, Ph.D., tells Refinery29. "That's what they're focusing their attention on, because even they don't know for sure what's bothering them."

Criticizing your partner is unlikely to make them change their ways and can actually make them feel attacked and defensive. This means you have to take a different approach when you are unhappy with something in your relationship. Addressing problems with "I feel" statements and approaching solutions with a kind and positive attitude will achieve far better results.

You tell mean-spirited jokes at your partner's expense

Having a good sense of humor is an attractive trait with universal appeal because it allows for connection, shared intimacy, and fun, ultimately strengthening the bonds of your relationship. It can even help manage conflict, act as a buffer against stress, and resolve disagreements.

Professor Jeffrey Hall, associate professor of communication studies at The University of Kansas, notes that a shared sense of humor can affirm your relationship and bring you closer together. However, making your partner the butt of every joke is never good. "Having an aggressive sense of humor is a bad sign for the relationship in general, but it is worse if the style of humor is used in the relationship," Hall says. "If you think that your partner tells mean-spirited jokes, then it is likely you've seen that firsthand in your relationship."

You may view your jokes and teasing as a harmless way to show your love — and it often starts out that way. However, if your teasing becomes a way for you to say something negative, direct the focus away from yourself in a tough conversation, or tends to snowball into a big argument, it may be hurting your partner. When you tease or make jokes, do so in a way that compliments your partner. Be sure to only make jokes about things your partner can laugh about, and never use humor to attack them or point out their flaws, especially when you're in public.

You make trivializing remarks

Trivializing is a subtle form of belittling behavior that minimizes your partner's accomplishments, experiences, or feelings. This might come in the form of statements like, "You're so sensitive" or "You're overreacting" during arguments. It can also look like mockery or putting down your partner's dreams. People who trivialize others often do so as a way to cope with their own sense of envy or feelings of inferiority.

A common form of trivializing is known as gaslighting. Psychoanalyst Babita Spinelli, L.P., tells MBG Relationships, "It's a manipulation where someone (the gaslighter) dismisses your perception of reality or causes you to question your judgment or perception of reality." In romantic relationships, gaslighting can sound like, "That never happened," "You are so needy," or "I only said that because I love you." Over time, small gaslighting comments like these can snowball, causing people to lose their own sense of identity and experience mental health conditions like anxiety or depression.

You manipulate your partner to get your way

In addition to gaslighting, there are a number of manipulative tactics one might use in their relationship to exert power or control. Lying to your partner is a form of manipulation, as is blaming them for things that aren't their fault. Giving the silent treatment or withholding affection when your partner does something that hurts you is also a form of emotional manipulation — especially when it's used to force your partner to do something you want to do or accept blame for something they don't need to apologize for.

Manipulation can sound like, "If you really loved me, you would propose to me right now" or "I want to talk to you about this, but you never listen, so what's the point?" Remarks like this imply that your partner doesn't care about you or that they don't value you and your time. 

This type of talk often comes from a place of fear that your partner really doesn't care. If you grew up in a home where you had to manipulate others to get your basic needs met, you may unconsciously use those learned behaviors to avoid tricky conversations or get what you want. However, even if done unintentionally, manipulating your partner to get your way will cause the connection in your relationship to wither, forcing a lack of trust and safety and a general feeling of discontent on both sides.

You correct the way they do things

No two people do things exactly the same way, yet it's easy to fall into a pattern of belief that the way you do things is the only correct option. It works perfectly for you, so why shouldn't your partner adopt the same methods? While there might not be anything inherently wrong with the way your partner does a certain chore or drives, for example, if you feel the way you fold the laundry or back out of the driveway is the best and only way, you may find yourself correcting them. In doing so, you may be causing your partner to feel defensive, which puts you both in a cycle of negative, unproductive conflict.

Of course, there are times when it may be necessary to address a particular behavior of your partner for the health and well-being of you and your relationship. Instead of correcting your partner in an attempt to fix this behavior, try to do what Gottman Clinical Director Dr. Don Cole calls attuning. "[Attuning is to] attend to your partner's emotions, turn towards their attempts to interact, tolerate the differences between the two of you, understand your partner's point of view, respond non-defensively and engage emotionally," he explains to Candidly. This way, the focus remains on the connection you and your partner share and allows for vulnerability and open, honest communication.

You interrupt or talk over your partner often

Chances are good that you've interrupted your partner once or twice throughout your relationship, as they've probably done to you. When this happened, you probably didn't intend to be rude. You might have been eager or passionate about the subject and wanted to make yourself heard. But if your habitual style of communication results in constantly cutting your partner off when they speak, interrupting them to interject your own opinions, or talking over them until they stop talking, you may be unknowingly treading into belittling territory.

Interrupting can be a hurtful behavior because it makes the other person feel ignored, unheard, or uncared for. Constant interruptions may also give your partner the impression that you don't value what they have to say, which can make them feel unimportant. In addition, interrupting shuts down any chance for effective communication and the connectedness it inspires.

If you find yourself interrupting your partner, particularly during tough conversations, there are several ways you can modify your behavior that support your partner's needs. Actively listen when your partner is talking by maintaining eye contact, nodding, and summarizing their point before responding with your own point. Make mental notes of your concerns or disagreements but wait to express them until it is your turn to speak. Take deep breaths to help you feel calm and slow down your reactions. Taking these small steps will show your partner you care about what they have to say.

You regularly offer unsolicited advice

Most people give advice because they want to be helpful. They care about their partner's happiness and want to offer suggestions that can help solve their problem or guide them toward a positive solution. However, if you tend to give unsolicited advice, also known as advice that your partner didn't explicitly ask for, you may be annoying your partner and undermining their ability to work through problems on their own. This can ultimately damage your relationship. If your partner is complaining about something outside of your relationship, they may just want to be heard or process their feelings. Your unsolicited advice may come off as critical instead of helpful.

Next time you want to offer your partner some advice, ask permission first. Opening a dialogue with remarks like, "Are you open to suggestions?" or "Can I tell you about what works for me?" will show that you want to be supportive of your partner. It also gives them the opportunity to deny your help if they aren't looking for advice. You can also provide support without giving any advice at all. Discussing the solutions your partner has already come up with is an option, as is asking questions to help them process the situation on their own.

You nitpick their every move

Nitpicking is a subtle belittling behavior where you focus all of your attention on tiny, trivial details or irrelevant issues and bring them to your partner's attention. When someone nitpicks their partner, they are finding faults with their partner or highlighting areas of dissatisfaction based on something that their partner did or didn't do. It can look like excessive complaining, pointing out minor annoyances, or having high expectations out of line with reality. This type of fussy, critical behavior often shows up in people who have a hard time expressing their emotions and who bottle up their anger instead of calmly communicating their needs. It can also be a subtle sign of disrespect.

Although it's easy to point out all your partner's flaws and habits, nitpicking has serious negative outcomes in relationships. In addition to causing arguments, nitpicking leads to decreased intimacy, a lack of trust, and can give your partner low self-esteem. They may feel demeaned or embarrassed. Over time, both you and your partner may begin to foster feelings of resentment as a result of the constant nitpicking, which will lead to a reduction in overall relationship satisfaction. It's important to operate from a place of kindness and support, using compliments and understanding when talking about the things that rub you the wrong way. Acceptance of your partner's quirks and learning how to let the little stuff go will also help.

You regularly compare your partner to others

Comparison is a normal part of the human experience. In some instances, it can help us improve ourselves and identify what we want. But comparing your partner or your relationship to others can have devastating and harmful results, too. For example, you may observe that other relationships are more intimate or loving than yours. As a result, you may come to the conclusion that your relationship will get that way someday, that you are better than the other couple, or that your relationship is lacking.

A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that comparing your relationship to other relationships has negative effects on both your and your partner's happiness. It not only leads to lower relationship satisfaction but directly impacts your partner's self-esteem and perceptions. "Our studies provide the first evidence that people do compare their partner to others with significant consequences for the relationship," Ph.D. candidate Sabrina Thai, one of the authors of the study, explains to PsyPost. "People who are low in self-partner overlap have difficulty maintaining positive partner perceptions following threatening comparisons of their partner to others. This may be a key source of stress and conflict in people's relationships."

You respond with passive aggression

Does this sound familiar: Your partner forgets you made plans together and tells you they're going out with their friends? Understandably, you're hurt, but when they ask if you are okay, you reply with a frosty and passive-aggressive "I'm fine."

According to the Mayo Clinic, passive-aggressive behavior is when a person indirectly expresses negative feelings rather than just stating them plainly. It allows for the individual to avoid confrontation but communicates clear displeasure, something that causes the person on the receiving end to feel confused, angry, or distrustful of their partner. Passive aggression normally comes in the form of a sullen or hostile attitude, making excuses, backhanded compliments, or complaining about being underappreciated. It can look like ghosting, giving someone the silent treatment, or outright sarcasm.

What makes this behavior so dangerous in a relationship is that it allows you to hide your anger from your partner but not communicate it properly. Therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC, tells MBG Relationships, "Often, it develops when people believe they need to control, hide, disguise, or deny their anger in order to preserve their relationships with others." In the long run, passive aggression only serves to hurt both parties. You don't get what you need and your partner is frustrated, feeling like they did something wrong or having to act as a mind reader. Honest, kind, and open communication when you are upset is always the best way to express your dissatisfaction, and correcting passive-aggressive behavior is possible.

How to stop belittling your partner

If you notice yourself belittling your partner, or they bring certain negative behaviors to your attention, addressing the issue with a sincere apology is always a good place to start. Remember that your partner has a right to express if something you've done or said hurt their feelings, just as you do if they hurt yours. 

Even if you didn't intend to belittle them, an apology may be necessary to reestablish the connection you share. "To preserve or re-establish connections with other people, you have to let go of concerns about right and wrong and try instead to understand the other person's experience," Dr. Ronald Siegel tells Harvard Health. Take responsibility for your actions, express your remorse, and offer to make amends by acknowledging the other person's hurt.

After apologizing, it is your responsibility to really listen to the problem your partner brings up, so you can avoid a repeat offense, whether that is respecting a boundary or avoiding making jokes at their expense. You may have to take some time to reflect on your impulses and behavior to determine why you do the things you do. You'll also need to decide how you want to act in your relationship moving forward, and observe if your behavioral changes bring about any positive changes to your relationship. It may not be easy work, but the potential happiness for both you and your partner is worth the effort.