In my work with couples, I often lean on the work of Dr. John Gottman, a clinician and researcher with 40 years of experience studying what makes marriages successful…and what makes them fall apart. Gottman and colleagues cite the practices of curiosity, mutual affection, and turning toward our partners’ bids for connection as relationship strengtheners. Across research, Gottman has identified what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse,” the behaviors that create the most marital strain. In this, Part One of a 4-part series, we’ll be talking about Horseman 1: Criticism.

We all have concerns and complaints to broach with our partners from time to time. This is a normal and healthy part of relationships. There is a difference, however, between complaining and criticizing, and using criticism to communicate is a great way to ensure that your conversation will spiral into a non-productive poop cauldron of dysregulation and resentment. Here’s what criticism looks like:

  • Absolute or exaggerated statements: “you always leave your clothes on the floor,” “you never have my back when your brother calls me names,” “you are constantly undermining my authority in front of the children” When we are angry or flooded, it’s easy to focus on and hammer into the thing we want changed. People rarely “always” or “never” do anything, however, and worse, presenting your argument with absolute statements is asking for your partner to search for the exceptions. Their defense will leave you feeling unheard which will feed into further criticism and the conflict will escalate from there
  • Asking “why:” while you may occasionally be genuinely curious about why your partner didn’t pay the electric bill, what “why” communicates is that there’s something inherently wrong with your partner. “Why are your shoes STILL in the hallway” easily comes across as “you are lazy and never listen to me—what is the matter with you,” particularly if you and your partner are already feeling negatively about one another
  • Using “should:” “when you folded the laundry, you should’ve sorted the kids’ clothes into piles.” Telling your partner what they ought to be doing instead of recognizing and affirming what they are doing communicates not only that they are wrong but that you are right
  • Passive aggressive praise or jokes: “it’s adorable when you let your mother do everything for you.” “Look at that precious poochy tummy. It used to be so flat!” Disguising criticism with sweet tones and words does not disguise the meaning of what you say. Think about the last time someone gave you a “complement” that made you feel icky inside; veiling our criticism with upbeat delivery is both confusing and hurtful
  • Fixing your partner’s “mistakes:” while criticism is often communicated in speech, it can also be non-verbal. If you come behind your partner and reload the dishwasher that he/she/they have just spent 20 minutes packing, there’s only one way that will be interpreted: you think that they’re doing it wrong and your way is better.

“Okay fine, Lindsey,” you say, “you’ve told me all the things I’m doing that are mucking up my relationship. What would be better to say or do instead?” So glad you asked, fair reader.

When voicing a complaint, frustration, or grievance with your partner, focus first on what you’re feeling and then figure out what you’re needing. If you can’t do either of those things, chances are you’re still flooded. Flooded means that your nervous system is in a state of arousal (which may feel like increased heartrate, sweaty palms, roaring in your ears, pit in your stomach) that is incompatible with logical, reflective thought. Another way to say flooded is “fight, flight, or freeze,” meaning the survival parts of our nervous systems have turned all the way on, kicking our social, connected, introspective parts offline. If you can’t determine what you’re feeling or needing, call a time out and give yourself time to re-regulate: take a walk around the block, snuggle your pet, take six deep breaths, watch half an episode of mindless tv. Attempting to communicate from active anger and resentment or from a “fight-flight” stance is just as detrimental as criticism itself.

Once you’ve determined what you’re feeling and needing, say it. No, really. It’s just that simple. “I feel alienated and dismissed when your brother calls me names. I need you to stand up for me the next time we’re around your family.” This way of communicating won’t necessarily *poof* all your needs met, but it will gently open the door to deeper conversation about what’s really going on. Maybe your partner will say “gosh, I haven’t thought of it that way. That must suck. I totally have your back.” Yay. Maybe you’ll get push back. But chances are that coming from a place of vulnerability will give permission for your partner to do the same. Maybe they aren’t yet willing or capable of standing up to his/her/their brother. “I try to stand up to him sometimes, but when I do, he makes fun of me. And then Dad gets in on it too, and I feel just like I did when I was a kid.” What a different conversation this is than the one that starts with an angry “you never stand up for me!” Open, vulnerable communication leaves room for exploration and collaboration. Expressing your feelings and needs allows your partner to explain why they behave the way they do. Which breeds compassion. An “I feel/I need” statement in that case might look like “I understand why you struggle in that situation. That must be hard. And it still hurts my feelings to be his target. I need to sit the next family outing out.”

Elevator Summary of Criticism, the first of the 4 Horsemen:
Criticism breeds defensiveness and anger and all but ensures that conflict will devolve
Eliminate “always,” “never,” “why,” “should,” passive aggression, and non-verbal attack.
Come to a conversation regulated, take time out to do so if you’re flooded
Use “I feel…I need” statements to voice concerns or complains

The Four Horsemen. The Gottman Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2022.