A couple of years ago I met and moved in with a charming Frenchman who was finishing up a stint with a US company, and we returned to France together when he was transferred back. Although his friends and family seem to have accepted me, and we talk a lot about a future together, I find him very different from the way he was back home. My biggest complaint is that he criticizes me constantly, even for the most insignificant things, and when I react to this, he accuses me of being oversensitive. How can I make him understand that his behavior is really eating away at the relationship?
A: Your complaint is shared by many Americans who have French partners. Until very recently, French parents used criticism as a way of civilizing and socializing their children. The theory is: tell them what’s wrong, and since they want to please, they will be stimulated to correct it. This method is also used by teachers. When the children become adults, they quite naturally perpetuate this cultural approach with those close to them, who, being accustomed to it, have developed a certain immunity to the debilitating effects of constant criticism. So you are not being personally targeted, but if you are used to American-style praise and encouragement as a way of influencing behavior, the French approach will unquestionably be very distressing.
If this is at the root of your partner’s criticism, you both should read a couple of books on how cultural differences affect relationships, and discuss how you can work together to minimize the resulting misunderstandings. For instance, how can your partner give you the message that he is unhappy about something you do, but not put you down in the process? Are there certain red-flag words that he uses for which acceptable substitutes could be found? Might you be interpreting his minor complaints in a way that is more negative than he means them to be?
Be aware, however, that constant petty criticisms can camouflage more intense dissatisfactions that are scary to articulate or even to envision; by responding to the small things, you may bypass the real issues. The next time he gets going, open up space for whatever larger complaints there may be by saying, for instance, “You say you are upset about _______, but sometimes I wonder if it’s really _______ that’s bothering you.” If something bigger does emerge, there’s a good chance that the nit-picking will diminish.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships. Tel: 184.108.40.206.