During my time as a developing couples therapist, I have seen criticism happen between partners more often than not. Dr. John Gottman, a well known researcher for marital success and divorce prediction, found that criticism is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that can predict a relationship’s failure. Which means that if you or your partner are criticizing each other, your relationship may be on its way to ruin. Luckily, Dr. Gottman was also kind enough to provide antidotes for these Four Horsemen (including criticism). You can read more about each of the Four Horsemen and there antidotes.
Criticism acts as a mask for what one person is trying to say to the other. Criticism can look different ways. For example, a partner may say “You always..” or “You never..” regarding a failure to meet the other partner’s expectations for the relationship. Or, criticism may look like an attack against someone’s character. This sounds something like, “You are so lazy!” In both cases, the criticizing partner is trying to send the message that there is a problem with the other partner that needs to be addressed. But, for the partner receiving the criticism, it can sound like their partner is just trying to be mean. This evolves into a cycle where one partner criticizes and the other partner is left wondering why they keep getting attacked. In some cases, the partner receiving criticism responds in defensiveness or stonewalling (two other horsemen of the apocalypse).
What can I do if I am the one that is criticizing?
If you are the one that is criticizing, there is an antidote! For example, if you find yourself constantly telling your partner “You never make time for me!”, there is a hidden message that you are trying to tell him/her. The antidote to this criticism would be, “I miss you since you started working later. Can we find a way to make more time together?” The difference between these two ways of communicating is that you take ownership for the way that you are feeling by saying “I miss you” instead of communicating a personal attack. In addition, you ask for what you need by asking for more time together. Now, the receiving partner knows how you are feeling and knows what to do to fix it.
Let’s move on to the one that may sound difficult to find the antidote for – “You are so lazy!” Just like in the previous example, there is a hidden message. The antidote may look like this – “I am worried about everything that we need to get done this weekend. Can you help me by taking the trash out?” Again, you take ownership by communicating your feelings of worry. Then you ask for what you need by asking them to take the trash out. To simplify the formula for the antidote to criticism: say how you feel, then what you need.
What if I am the one being criticized?
If you are the partner that has been receiving the criticism, keep an eye out for your partner’s hidden message. Pay attention to what your partner may be trying to say to you rather than reacting as you usually would. Also, if you have fallen into the habit of becoming defensive or stonewalling (ignoring) try to do one of the following:
If you have been defensive, it is usually a form of self protection and a way to deflect blame back to your partner. Instead of fueling the fire of the argument, try taking responsibility for a part of the criticism (even if it is only a small part of the criticism). For example, if your partner calls you lazy, try responding, “I am sorry I have not been as on top of the chores lately. I could have made time to take out the trash this morning.” This way, your partner can see that you are taking responsibility and addressing the complaint. Additionally, it will help them to calm down and get out of the attack mode. Even though you may be thinking, “Well, you didn’t wash the dishes last night!” That response would not work towards resolving the argument.
If you have the habit of stonewalling (ignoring), it is typically the result of having an intense physiological reaction and shutting down. Instead of stonewalling, try letting your partner know that you need some time to calm down. After, take a short break to distract yourself from the argument. During that time, avoid negative thoughts about your partner or about yourself as the “victim.” Rather, take time to do something relaxing like reading or listening to music. When you feel that you have calmed down physiologically, it may be a good time to re-approach the conversation. But, this time, you will come into the conversation with a more calm and solution-oriented mindset.
Whether you are the partner in the relationship that is doing the criticizing or if you are the partner being criticized, there is hope! If you are criticizing, make sure to take ownership for how you feel then ask for what you need from your partner. If you are the one being criticized, take responsibility for at least a part of the criticism, avoid deflecting blame back to your partner, and address your partner’s complaint. At the end of the day, try to make sure your conversations are leading towards understanding rather than blaming.
Chris Cummins is an intern with The Marriage and Family Clinic. He focuses on working with substance abuse and couples in high conflict. Chris enjoys hiking, traveling, and spending time with his family.