Ugh, criticism! We’ve all been on the receiving end of criticism and we know it usually doesn’t feel great.
Criticism is one of Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: behaviors that occur between partners which research shows can be predictors of divorce. Gottman defines criticism as a character attack, which implies there is something globally wrong with someone. It is not just a complaint, but rather aims at who your partner is at their core. As you can imagine, this often leads to defensiveness. While criticism can be a predictor of divorce, how criticism is managed determines the success or failure of the relationship.
Recognize that criticism and feedback are different. Expressing a complaint focuses on you and how you feel about something, while criticism places blame on your partner. We’re all human and we are bound to experience criticism in our relationship at some point. It will happen, but it is important to make sure it does not become a pattern. Here are a few ways to express yourself effectively, without feeding into the blame game:
- Use a gentle start-up: Another tried-and-true Gottman method. This skill communicates respect and places focus on your feelings. You can use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to avoid blame. “You always ________ or You never ________, “ places blame and creates defensiveness off the bat. Focus on stating what you need rather than blaming your partner for what you are not receiving to more effectively be heard and get your needs met.
- “You” statement: “You never help with the dishes. You are so selfish!”
- “I” statement: “I know I was grouchy tonight. I’m feeling overwhelmed with doing all of the dishes. Could you help me tomorrow?”
2. Focus on how to improve: Sometimes we need to give feedback to make changes. Use specific behavior, not character traits to suggest improvements. Describe what you’re seeing. This will help you be specific about what you would like to change in the future.
3. Express appreciation: Soften your feedback by also showing some appreciation. Don’t be afraid to point out a positive when giving feedback. Even when you’re upset or in conflict, you still love your partner! Showing that helps create warmth in the midst of difficult conversations and makes requests feel less combative.
Great job if you’re incorporating some of these tips already! Be intentional and always communicate respect. Conflict is never easy, but working on how you communicate will make it occur less over time.
If you or you and your partner would like some help managing conflict or criticism, please book with one of our expert couples counselors.
Written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.