This relationship concept comes from Dr. John Gottman. He’s a researcher who was able to predict with high accuracy whether a couple would stay together or divorce after watching them have a conflictual discussion for just three minutes. He identified four elements that are likely to lead to relationship dissolution with couples, which he termed the “four horseman of the apocalypse.” Criticism is one of them.
An important starting point is understanding the difference between criticism and complaints.
Complaints are a healthy and necessary part of relationships – they’re a way for you to express your needs and help your partner meet those needs. If you were complaining about the dishes not being done, you might say, “I thought we had agreed you would do the dishes last night. I’m disappointed that didn’t happen.” Notice the complaint is focused on a singular act or behavior and how that behavior impacted you. Your partner is able to see that help with the dishes is important to you and he/she knows what to do next time to help you feel like your needs are being met.
Criticism is more generalized and is an attack on your partner’s character – who and what they are as a person. It often includes words such as never and always, and sounds something like, “You promised to do the dishes and you didn’t! You never follow through with helping out around here because you’re always too busy just thinking of yourself! You don’t care about me or helping me keep this house clean!” In this instance, your partner still gets that you’re upset (as with a complaint) but they are left feeling like who they are is the problem, which is much more difficult to fix or react calmly to, rather than something they did or did not do. Criticism focuses on your partner’s personhood. When you criticize, you are labeling your partner with certain attributes, making an attack on their personality or character.
Criticism is characterized by a frequent, tearing down of who your partner is. It includes false generalizations (e.g. “You don’t care about me”) and leaves your partner puzzled about how to change their character, rather than a certain behavior. Complaints are a constructive way to get your partner to change specific behaviors; they contain truths that direct your partner in knowing how to help you in the future.
Often, your partner will feel like they can’t ever do anything right – that all of their efforts are either in vain or go unnoticed. Also, when you are critical of your partner, it puts him/her on the defense. Because you are not just complaining about one isolated incident, but are attacking them as a person, it tells them that there is something problematic about who and what they are, rather than a complaint about something they did or didn’t do. When your partner feels like they have to defend their identity, it becomes nearly impossible for them to hear whatever sort of request or complaint you may be trying to get across through your criticism.
What to do instead…
So rather than making general, blanket statements, focus on specific instances or behaviors that pertain to a certain event. This might sound like, “I got frustrated when the house was a mess last night and you didn’t help clean up. I would like your help doing the dishes next time.” Another way to avoid criticism is to speak using “I statements.” Such statements focus on how an event affected you personally and keeps you from criticizing your partner. In this way, you can still talk to your partner about what is bothering you. You can even voice complaints or make requests, but you do it in a way that allows your partner to listen and understand because they don’t feel like they need to defend against the attack that is inherent in criticisms.
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Written by: Steph