How to criticize without damaging your relationship

Reducing criticism can help the whole family.
Reducing criticism can help the whole family.

Couple therapist and marriage researcher John Gottman says there are 4 communication patterns that are so unhealthy for a marriage that when couples do them frequently, they often end up in divorce court.  These 4 patterns are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.  Gottman calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

I’ve chosen to focus here on Criticism, not just because I’m a highly experienced Criticizer myself – and know from decades of personal experience how hard it is to change that pattern! – but also because it seems to be at the root of the other 3 patterns.  Contempt is an even more serious problem than Criticism, but you don’t usually get to the point of being contemptuous until you’ve criticized for a long time.  Defensiveness is a natural and automatic reaction to feeling attacked, which often happens when we are repeatedly criticized.  And Stonewalling, or shutting down completely, is the frustrating reaction that is very often triggered by a pattern of criticism and contempt.

So, cut down on criticizing your spouse, children, siblings, employees… and weaken the other three patterns as well, while improving the chance of having a more satisfying relationship.

Susan Page, in her wonderful book Why Talking Is Not Enough, suggests that you simply try to eliminate negative comments completely for 2 straight weeks.  It’s very hard to do! and yet if you try, I think you’ll find  your whole relationship can warm up and become more loving and satisfying for you.

Gottman has an approach to eliminating criticism which is more easily sustained than simply keeping your mouth shut.  He refers to “Complaints” as a more effective strategy than Criticism when you are frustrated with someone.  Instead of criticizing (“You are always late!  You never do your chores!” etc.), try “Complaining” in this fashion:

First, state your feeling about he problem behavior: “When you are late I start to worry about your safety, and also, dinner gets cold.”  Then, tell the person what you want: “Please leave work by 6 p.m. tonight so you can be home in time for dinner, and please call me if you are going to be more than 5 minutes late.”

That way the person is less likely to feel attacked and so gets less defensive; and, it is much more likely that you’ll end up getting what you want!  The best that can be hoped for the Criticism version (“You are always late!”) is that the other person will try to prove you wrong by being on time.  It’s an approach that sometimes works, but more often leads to defensive retorts (“I am not! You’re late more often than I am!”) and also to shutting down “Stonewalling”).  At worst, the person you love may begin to delay coming home even more.

Finally, go easy on yourself.  All of us are critical sometimes, especially when the person we care about repeatedly does something that frustrates or worries us.  You don’t have to pretend to be happy with someone when you are not, but you do have a right to express your needs.  Your partner (or child or employee) may continue to react defensively at first, especially if they have felt repeatedly attacked over a period of time.  But by turning a Criticism into a Complaint, you are on your way to having a partner (or child or employee) that doesn’t argue back or shut down – and therefore you’ll probably feel a lot happier yourself.

To read more, see books by John Gottman:

The Relationship Cure;   Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

by Susan Page:  Why Talking Is Not Enough, How One of You Can Bring The Two of You Together


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