Understanding and Overcoming Criticism in Relationships

Drs. John and Julie Gottman described Criticism as one of the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse in relationships. Criticism is different from complaining or expressing a legitimate concern. Criticism is a form of negative communication that focuses on pointing out and highlighting flaws. It also underlines shortcomings or mistakes in the other person rather than addressing a specific behaviour. It is as if you are judging your partner from a place of moral superiority, pointing out their flaws and evaluating their character based on those. 

For example, you would say, “you are always so irresponsible and never think about how your actions affect me”. While you could say “I was upset when you were late for our date last night”. The first statement is a criticism of the person’s character, while the second statement is a complaint about a specific behaviour.

Criticism can be very harmful to relationships. When one partner criticises the other, the recipient usually becomes defensive in an attempt to protect their character. Sometimes the defensive partner might respond with a counterattack. This usually lead to an escalation of negative communication resulting in a vicious cycle difficult for the couples. Criticism can also lead to a lack of emotional safety in a relationship. When one partner constantly criticises the other, it can make the other person feel like they can’t be themselves. They may start to censor themselves to avoid criticism. This can lead to a lack of genuineness in the relationship, which is important for intimacy. 

Drs. John and Julie Gottman believe the antidote to criticism is a gentle start-up. This is when you describe your feeling when your partner does that particular behaviour. Instead of attacking your partner’s character, try to express your concerns and needs in a non-blaming way. For example, instead of saying, “You’re always so irresponsible,” try saying, “I was really upset when you were late last night because I was looking forward to spending time together.”

“The antidote to criticism is a gentle start-up, which is when you describe your feeling, in response to what your partner has done, rather than focusing on their character.”

If you believe your communication needs to improve, I can support you in identifying and managing the patterns of criticism in your relationship. I can also guide you in learning how to communicate more effectively and healthily and build deeper emotional connections with each other. 

I wish you all the best.

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