Couple Therapy / Emotions and Reactions That Get Your Relationship Into Trouble: Criticism

John Gottman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington, has spent over twenty years studying 2,000 married couples to understand what brings relationships to succeed or fail. He believes that being able to predict what emotions and reactions tend to get couples into troubles is key to improving a marriage’s chances.

According to Gottman, there are four really negative ways of interacting with each other that sabotage the attempts to communicate with your partner and over time can get the couple into serious trouble. He calls them ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’: they are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. As these behaviours become more frequent, the partners will find themselves caught up in a sense of negativity and tension in their relationship, to the point that they may become unable to respond to each other’s efforts at peacemaking and attempts at re-establishing emotional connection. The emotional distance that develops, if not addressed, will eventually bring the couple to separate.

In this brief article we will examine criticism in more depth.

At a first glance, there may not seem to be much difference between complaining and criticising. Criticism however involves attacking someone’s personality or character – rather than a specific behaviour – usually with blame. Very few couples can completely avoid criticising each other now and then, even in healthy marriages. Criticising someone is only a small leap beyond complaining, which is actually a much healthier activity in relationships.

Airing a complaint, and therefore expressing anger and disagreement, may not be pleasant, but in the long term it makes the relationship stronger than suppressing the complaint. Problems may arise when you feel that your complaints are not heard, or if you never clearly express them, and your partner continues to repeat the offending behaviour. It is likely that over time your complaints will escalate, and each successive complaint will be accompanied by a list of prior unresolved grievances. It will lead at some point to you blaming your partner and being critical of his or her personality rather than of a specific deed, and if you have been suppressing your complaints over time, they may then explode in a torrent of criticism.

So how do you differentiate between compaint and criticism? Generally speaking, a criticism entails blaming, accusing, making a personal attack. A complaint on the other side is a negative comment about something you wish were otherwise. To make things simple, Gottman suggests that usually complaints start with ‘I’, while criticisms with ‘you’.

‘I wanted to leave before 5pm so we could drive in daylight’ is a complaint. ‘You should have got ready faster, you know I wanted to leave by 5pm’ is a criticism.  The difference may seem very minimal, but the impact when being on the receiving end of criticism is far worse, and it’s far more likely than a complaint to make your partner react defensively and emotionally withdraw from you.

A common form of criticism is to explicitly pass judgment on your partner: 'You should be ashamed of how you treated my mother', or to bring up a long list of complaints, which feels like criticism of your partner’s personality because the list is so overwhelming and pervasive.

Unlike complaints, criticisms tend to be generalisations, so a telltale sign that you’ve slipped from complaining to criticising is if you find yourself using phrases like 'you never' or 'you always' when addressing your partner.

If this is what is happening right now in your relationship, it’s really important that you break this cycle before it permanently damages your relationship. There are books available to help address the issue, but it may be helpful to work on this with the assistance of a couple therapist.

Reference: Gottman, John (2007) Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, London: Bloomsbury Publishing

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London, WC2A
Written by Mila Palma, MA, UKCP, BACP reg. Psychotherapist, Certified EFT therapist
London, WC2A

I run TherapyTime Group Practice in central London from 2009 to 2020 and over the years I developed a particular interest and expertise in working with people who are struggling with relationship problems and associated anxiety, stress and life crises. I offer individual psychotherapy as well as cou...

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