Finding the Good in Each Other and Avoiding Criticism

July 15th, 2011

When couples start to experience conflict, emotions run high and sometimes feelings can get hurt. A common way to handle disagreements is for couples to start criticizing each other out of anger and frustration. John Gottman, a prominent couple communication researcher, named criticism as the first negative conflict management style of his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that can destroy marriages. Though criticism is a common management style, it can be very harmful to the relationship.

Criticism is different than complaining. Complaining is a statement of anger or disagreement such as, “I am upset that you didn’t offer me any ice cream.” (Yes, that is something I really said.) Criticism on the other hand is attacking a person’s character or personality with blame such as, “You never offer me ice cream and only think about yourself. You don’t care about me.” (I hope I never said that version!)

Though complaining is normal in relationships by talking about disagreements and coming up with solutions (i.e., my husband now offers me ice cream when he’s dishing himself some), criticism can be harmful and hurtful because it becomes a personal attack.

Gottman said, “Being critical is not evil; it can begin innocently enough and is often the expression of pent-up, unresolved anger…Problems occur when criticism becomes so pervasive—or one partner is so sensitive to it—it corrodes the marriage.”

One way to avoid criticism is not to start the sentence with, “You always” or “You never” or just plain “You.” This is pushing blame onto your partner and saying he or she has a personality defect which is most likely not the case. Instead, start by saying “I am” or “I feel” to show that you are upset with something that happened. This is not an easy thing to change. When something has been practiced for so long it can be a hard habit to break. But with time and effort it is possible to change.

Here is one technique I think can help break the habit of criticism. Instead of finding ways to hurt and criticize your partner, try and focus on reasons why you love and enjoy being with your partner. All the energy that you use to find flaws can be used for good when we are focusing on what makes your partner special.

I know for me this has probably been the best advice I’ve gotten for my marriage. But I know I still need a lot of practice! When I get upset, I am prone to stew and stuff my anger. While I’m stewing, I start thinking about all the reasons why I’m mad and what my husband did wrong. Then I remember my mom telling me once when my husband and I were just dating that during a fight you should make a list of all the reasons why you love your partner. I thought about that for some time and pretty much deemed it impossible because I allowed myself to be so upset. But then when I actually tried it, it really worked! It helped bring me back down to reality and realize how irrational I was being, not how horrible my husband was. And it allowed me to talk calmly to him about how I feel and what we needed to do to fix our problems. So now before the stew starts boiling, I turn down the heat by shifting to thoughts about the good things in our relationship.

Do you have any advice about how to avoid criticism? How do you try to avoid being critical in your relationship? And what do you do if your partner starts becoming critical towards you? Tell us about it in the comments!