John and Mary’s neighbors have grown accustomed to the signs of discord—one or both of them getting a little loud, slamming doors, and on the occasions where they are both in the yard, a chilling silence. It can go on for days.
It starts when Mary feels unimportant and tells John his friends are more important to him than she is, or when John feels frustrated and tells Mary how inconsiderate it was that she bought the wrong kind of shaving cream…once again.
It starts when one of them criticizes the other.
The Gottman Institute speaks of the four negative forms of communication—indicators of the decline of a relationship—called “The Four Horsemen.” They are: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Today, we’ll take a deeper look at Criticism.
When Mary tells John he cares more about his friends than he does about her, she is, essentially, telling John he is wrong. The same is true when John tells Mary she is inconsiderate. The message is not just that you have done wrong, but rather that you are wrong.
At the heart of criticism is a complaint—and they are actually two sides of the same coin. One is destructive, the other constructive. Both have a valuable message about a need or want.
Criticisms are statements about who the other person is, rather than what they have done or said. A complaint—the other side of the coin—is a statement of what you want or need instead.
Criticism means the speaker is in attack mode, which probably means they are triggered or what we term emotionally flooded—their ability to communicate well is compromised.
When we feel criticized, we want to respond. The impulse is to say Yeah, well, but here is how I feel about it…. Basically to defend or deflect the criticism. How you feel about it is just as valid, but it is not productive to try to have that conversation when someone is flooded.
What is important, in dealing with either side of the coin, is to express appreciation that the other has brought this up. Oh, I know—it’s hard and risky to move toward conflict! Still, I encourage you to express appreciation, then ask open-ended questions to help you understand the problem behavior and how it impacted your partner.
Mary could tell John that she’s feeling lonely and unimportant, and ask him to spend more time with her.
John could thank Mary for picking up the shaving cream, and tell her that he is frustrated when she buys the wrong brand repeatedly.
Regardless of how it is phrased, John and Mary have received feedback from their partner. How should they respond?
We inevitably do or say things that displease our partner. When that happens, it is important to remember that part of the “glue” of our relationship is to remain loving, while holding ourselves and each other accountable.
John or Mary might say, Thank you for telling me (Or reminding me… or holding me accountable). ?How does it make you feel? What do you need me to say or do instead?
Understanding the difference between criticizing and complaining can make a major difference in your relationship, assuming your goal is to maintain the relationship.
Part of being a mature adult is the ability to choose your responses and reactions, even when you don’t like what you hear from your partner.
If you already know the answers, saying thank you and expressing appreciation is enough.
If your partner is in attack mode, they are probably not able to absorb your side. They took the risk to bring up the problem. This is their moment, let them have it.
Appreciate and acknowledge their side, and find another time when they are no longer triggered and emotionally flooded to raise the topic again and ask that complaints be brought up more gently in the future.
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