In my last blog, I spoke about defensiveness in relationships: what it looks like, its impact and alternatives. This week I’m talking about criticism, since it is inseparable from defensiveness.

By now, you may know that I respect the work of Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher and author on marriage. His research showed that criticism is one of the biggest predictors of divorce.

I personally have struggled in my own relationships with learning to be less critical. If stuff is bugging me, am I not supposed to say so?

I didn’t want to be the kind of partner who just stuffs feelings. But then how can I bring things up without making him defensive?

The best thing I ever learned about relationships is the difference between criticism and complaints. This simple distinction allowed me to be able transform the way I communicate with my husband and it has been, thankfully, well received.

Criticism tends to generalize character traits, personality, and patterns of behavior. It is usually expressed in a “You statement” rather than an “I statement.” And it comes across as accusatory and finger-pointing.

Here’s an example: You are getting ready for work in the morning, and looking forward to making that delicious healthy juice in your awesome new juicer. But you find it clogged from the night before when your partner used it. You only have 15 minutes and have to choose between being late for work, or getting the juice you really wanted. You may be super annoyed. Criticism sounds like this: “You never clean up after yourself,” or “You always just leave stuff and don’t think about other people!”

A complaint on the other hand, is raising an issue about a specific, single incident, by stating your feelings and the facts. It does not include bringing up patterns of behavior or describing character flaws. For the above example, a complaint would be: “I’m bummed you didn’t clean out the juicer, because I was so looking forward to my juice this morning.” A complaint just provides information about your feelings and how they relate to the specific behaviors of your partner.

To see if you are being critical when bringing something up, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my tone loud, angry or blaming? If so, try lowering the volume or softening you tone. How you say something is just as important that what you’re saying.
  • Are you using words like “always” or “never?” If so, remember this is not useful information, and only tends to assassinate your partner’s character. Try being more specific, such as: “On Tuesday when you came home late . . .”
  • Are you using “You statements?” If so, try starting your sentences with “I.” For example instead of saying “You were late,” say “I felt worried when you were late.” This change in wording takes responsibility for your own emotional response, and gives specific information your partner can choose to consider.
  • Are you focusing on personality rather than behavior? Instead of saying “You seem kind of self-absorbed,” try identifying specific behavior, such as: “I felt hurt when you forgot my birthday.”
  • Are you focused on the past rather than the present situation? If so, bring yourself back to the immediate issue, concern or behavior. Try to avoid going down the laundry list of complaints and just stick to one thing at a time.

In addition to the technical aspects of bringing up complaints, try looking at the underlying emotional pieces that cause us to criticize. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I talking about myself? Whatever qualities you criticize could remind you of a disowned part of yourself that you can’t tolerate. Sometimes we even choose partners who clearly embody those parts of us, so that we can point the finger outside ourselves. Is this happening for you?
  • Would I rather be right or feel close?  If you decide on the latter, actively remember the things you like about your partner, and also take responsibility for how you might have contributed to whatever upsets you–however small.
  • What is the desire beneath the criticism? Often there is an unmet need underlying our complaints. Perhaps “You are always late” actually means “I’m scared you won’t come back.” If this applies to you, turn your unmet need into a respectful request.

After you have dealt with the technical and emotional aspects of criticism, remember that if done correctly, complaints can strengthen a relationship. They can provide your partner with more specific information to help him or her better understand you and your feelings. Just don’t let it become a habit!

I welcome your own insights into criticism, or things you have found helpful in your life and relationships. I would love to hear them!

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