She storms into the living room, basket full of wet laundry on her hip. He can tell from the look on her face that she’s not happy, and his stomach sinks as he remembers the load of clothes he forgot to move to the dryer several days before. She starts in. “You are so selfish — you always do whatever you want to do and leave all the work for me. You never think about anyone but yourself!”
In our relationships, we often feel torn between loving our partners well and standing up for ourselves. In our efforts to be heard and meet our needs, we can rely on communication strategies that hurt both our partners and relationships. Through his research on relationship health and marriage, Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute has been able to identify several communication strategies that are not only unhelpful, but can also predict separation and divorce if unchanged.
One of these harmful strategies, criticism, means bringing up a complaint you have in your relationship in such a way that you attack your partner’s character, personality, or core sense of self. Often these attacks take a specific situation or mistake and turn it into a global character flaw. Frequently, criticism uses words like “always” or “never” to intensify a complaint. For example, the specific complaint, “You didn’t take the trash out tonight,” can become the criticism, “You are so forgetful and selfish — you never take out the trash when I ask!” Left unchecked, criticism can eventually become contempt toward your partner, and contempt, expressed as sarcastic disdain, cruel joking, or general meanness and disrespect, is poison to love relationships.
Why do we criticize our partners even though it is harmful to our relationships? Often, we become critical when we feel like we haven’t been listened to or understood. Criticism is a way we crank up the volume so we will finally be heard instead of ignored — we think our criticism will really get our partner’s attention. Unfortunately, this has the exact opposite effect: Research shows that utilizing criticism sabotages our being listened to by our partners. The reason is simple: When we perceive that we are being attacked, we move into defensive mode and prepare a counterattack. Rarely has criticism ever been received with a response of understanding, empathy, and rapid behavioral change. More often, our criticism is met with denial and defensiveness: “What do you mean I’m selfish? If I hadn’t been so busy with all the odd jobs you give me around the house after I get home from a stressful day at work, maybe I could have remembered! You never appreciate me.”
This never-ending cycle of criticism and defensiveness can keep us running in circles and make it difficult to resolve our problems. To move forward, we must find different ways of talking about our needs. Gottman recommends softening our approach to conflict by taming our critical tongues so we can leave the door open for being heard and understood by our partner. Of course, this is a two-way street: Both the speaker and the listener have responsibility for the outcome of the conversation. However, reducing criticism can go a long way in helping us shift our trajectories toward more positive, productive conversations.
Here are several strategies you can utilize during conflict to help avoid criticizing your partner:
1. Calm yourself before bringing up a complaint.
When we first discover something our partners have done that hurts or annoys us, we can feel like a righteously indignant, fire-breathing dragon. While this is an understandable emotional response, it will not help you respectfully communicate your needs to your partner. Take a few deep breaths and think about what you want to say before approaching your partner. If possible, try to remember a positive memory you have of them or a trait you appreciate. This will help you take a more constructive approach, instead of an adversarial one.
2. Use I-statements.
A classic couples-counseling technique, an I-statement can help you more clearly express yourself while avoiding attacking your partner. Starting with “I feel” instead of “You are” focuses more on your feelings, experiences, and needs than what is wrong with your partner, and can sidestep the criticism/defensiveness cycle. For instance, saying, “I feel hurt and not listened to when you forget to move the laundry,” is a lot easier to receive than, “You never remember to do anything!”
3. Keep it specific.
When you complain, talk about the specific incident in question as it occurs, and avoid bringing up past difficulties or global characterizations. Avoid using the words “always” and “never” as they make sweeping statements about your partner’s character (and are easy to defend against besides). Keep your conversation focused specifically on what has just happened and don’t time travel to all the other incidents that support your claim. By dealing with things as they occur, you can limit the intensity around the problem and take a gentler approach.
4. Talk about what you need instead of what you don’t.
When we communicate during conflict, we want to give our partners a clear path toward making things right. By stating what we need instead of only saying what went wrong, we provide a constructive solution to the issue at hand. For instance, instead of saying, “Don’t you ever leave the laundry in the wash again!” try, “I need for you to double-check the wash on laundry days.”
5. Be kind!
Remember to treat your partner like someone you love and treasure. When we feel hurt or ignored, we can forget the things we value about our partner. This tunnel vision makes it easy to treat them poorly — even though we care about them deeply and don’t want to hurt them. Think of how you would want them to treat you if you were the one who made the mistake, and act accordingly. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore every problem or never voice concerns, but disrespect is never an okay (or helpful) strategy. Remember: Don’t fight to win but to make your relationship happy and healthy.