Dr. John Gottman’s research identified four behaviors destructive to relationships. These behaviors predicted relationship instability and unhappiness. He coined them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Let’s do a deep dive into the first horsemen.  

The First Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism

Criticism is the first because it is the one that usually comes tromping in first. Often, when someone has a complaint to share with their partner, they do so by describing their partner and what their partner did wrong, which is critical. When criticism is used to bring up a concern, it sets the tone for the entire discussion. In fact, Dr. Gottman found that the way a conversation starts determines the outcome of that conversation with 96% accuracy. In other words, if you start a conversation with criticism, chances are good it will not end well and you will leave the conversation feeling worse than before. However, if your conversation is on track in the first three minutes, the conversation will likely end well. 

This is why it is so crucial to bring up a concern gently without criticism. But before we get to the antidote, let’s talk some more about ways partners criticize one another. It’s my experience that many times people are not even aware they are being critical. Therefore, the first step to eradicating criticism from your relationship is identifying it. The following are some ways criticism may show up in your relationship:  

Exaggerated statements

Most of the time, when someone is being critical,  they will be expressing a concern using words of exaggeration, such as “always,”  “never,” “constantly,” or “all the time.” People do this in an effort to make their point and communicate how frustrated or upset they feel. For example, maybe you come home and there are dirty dishes on the counter for the third day in a row. So, you say, “You never do the dishes! You are always so lazy.” You are trying to communicate how frustrated you feel that the dishes aren’t done again.  However, what your partner hears is that there is something wrong with them.  Usually, this will cause them to think of examples that counter your statement  (such as the one time in the past week they did do the dishes) and this is what they will share in their response. This will, of course, leave you feeling unheard and even more frustrated. 

“Why” questions

“Why didn’t you do the dishes today?” “Why” questions often get overlooked as criticism because they are not always meant critically. For example, you may genuinely be curious as to why the dishes aren’t done. However, your partner is most likely going to hear it as you saying that there is something wrong with them for not doing the dishes. This is especially true if you and your partner are in a negative perspective with one another.  Therefore, it is generally just best to stay away from the why questions altogether.  

Making a joke about your partner’s “flaws”

Joking with your partner about something you don’t like about them or wish was different can seem harmless or even playful, but is usually a passive-aggressive way of saying what you want without being direct. It is rare for someone to make a joke about someone that doesn’t include at least a hint of truth in it. And, even if you believe there isn’t any truth in your joke, your partner may hear it that way. Your partner will feel particularly criticized (and probably a little embarrassed) if you make them the butt of a joke in front of others.  

“Should” statements

“Should” statements directed towards yourself can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety. “Should” statements directed toward others, such as your partner, will lead them to feel judged and shamed. For example,  saying, “You should have known I would want the dishes done” or “You shouldn’t load the dishwasher that way” implies that you know best and there is something wrong with them for not knowing. 

Fixing something your partner did “wrong”

That’s right. Criticism can also show up in the form of non-verbal communication. For example, perhaps you and your partner load the dishwasher differently, and you believe your way is the best way.  So, after they loaded the dishwasher, you come in and “fix” what they did.  

This will send the message that your partner did it wrong and your way is the right way. The feeling of criticism will be exacerbated if you are visibly annoyed or  irritated as you are “fixing their wrongdoing.”  

Concerns shared from a place of anger and resentment

 If you approach your partner with a concern from a place of anger and resentment, they will hear it critically regardless of how you express it. The criticism will be in your tone. You must do the work of de-escalating and tuning into you (your inner feelings and needs) before coming to your partner.  

The Antidote to Criticism

Criticism is prevalent in relationships because it is a way for us to express our concerns without being vulnerable. It is a defended form of expression, and relationships can’t be successful from a place of defense. You must be vulnerable in your relationship for it to work. To do this, shift your perspective from what you don’t like externally (i.e., your partner’s behavior) to what is happening internally (i.e., how you feel and what you need). If you do not do this work, your partner will be unable to hear you and your needs will not be met. 

To get started, it can be helpful to follow Gottman’s antidote to criticism: the  Gentle Start-Up. The Gentle Start-Up consists of the following three steps: 

(1) I  feel… (2) about what… (3) I need…. 

Within every concern, there is a wish or need. If you can identify what that is, you can communicate it to your partner in a way they can hear. This will give you the best chance of getting your needs met.  

Final Thought

So, next time you feel upset about something your partner did (or failed to do)  give yourself some time to de-escalate, tune into your internal world and identify your vulnerable feelings and core needs. Then find some time to communicate these to your partner. When you come from this place of self-reflection, self-awareness, and vulnerability, it will dramatically change the communication patterns in your relationship and will set you and your partner up for relationship success.

Every Horsemen has an antidote. Learn them all in the Relationship Coach: How to Make Your Relationship Work.

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