Criticism: The Gateway To Marriage Misery
In marriage, one thing is a given: At some point, you and your partner are going to disagree on something.
It might be something small like where to eat for dinner on your next date night, what brand of toothpaste to buy, or which Netflix show to stream next. Or it could be something big like how to manage your finances, how you’re going to spend your holidays, or how often you’d like to have sex and who should initiate.
It’s impossible for two people with completely different upbringings, backgrounds, and family dynamics to agree on everything in life all the time.
Learning to navigate these moments of stress and conflict is what separates the masters of marriage from the disasters.
As a matter of fact, there’s been a HUGE amount of research done on marital conflict, and researchers have found that how you handle these disagreements – both big and small – has the biggest impact on whether or not you stay together as a couple… and if you stay together, whether or not you have a happy marriage, or a miserable one.
Dr. John Gottman, whose work we’ll be referencing throughout this challenge, has built a mathematical model that can predict divorce with a 91% accuracy, and one of the key factors in his model is how a couple deals with conflict.
This is a big deal!
My goal over the next few weeks is to introduce you to the Four Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse.
I’ll show you how these horsemen will derail and destroy your marriage… and how to deal with them when they inevitably show up. (Because they ABSOLUTELY will.)
Your Primary Objective over the next 4 weeks is to identify at least one bad conflict habit that you bring to the relationship, and create an action plan to change that habit.
The Four Horsemen are the things Dr. Gottman looks for when he’s trying to predict divorce.
No relationship is immune to the Four Horsemen. So, if I talk about one and you’re like, “Hey… that’s me… I do that.” there’s no reason to freak out.
My goal here is to help you identify, and start to change these habits to get your marriage headed in the right direction.
Today, we are going to start with the first horseman: Criticism
Have you ever experienced something like this…
You’re having a great time with your partner. You’re laughing and getting along. You’re feeling good… and then, out of the blue, you feel criticized.
When something like this happens, do you shut down?
Do you get angry?
Do you immediately turn off and change your behavior?
Do you get defensive?
Criticism is a super sneaky relationship killer.
Often it starts off with good intentions.
“I’m just going to let my partner know how they could improve so our relationship can be better!”
We expect our partner to show up to a conversation with a notepad and say, “Wow, thanks for letting me know I’m defective in all these ways! I’m going to go work on this. Maybe next week we can get together and you can tell me more things about me that make you miserable?”
Criticism kills your partner’s most attractive qualities. It shuts down their ability to feel confident, passionate, authentic, and emotionally available.
These are the exact qualities that cause people to fall in love, and stay in love!
Criticism is different than complaining.
Complaining is when you bring up a behavior or action that bothers you.
Criticism is when you attack or blame someone’s character.
Complaining stays specific, sticking to isolated incidents…
Criticism is almost always based on generalizations based on specific incidents… using words like “you always” or “you never”.
Complaining is an attempt to improve the relationship.
Criticism tears your partner down and blames them for your problems.
Here’s an example:
Giving Criticism vs. Complaints
Suzy and Kent have been married for a few years. Kent and Suzy both hate washing dishes, so they tend to pile up. Kent decided it was his turn to wash dishes and spent 45 minutes cleaning the pile.
Just as he finished, Suzy walked into the kitchen and poured herself a cup of milk and made herself a plate of cookies to munch on while they watched a show on Netflix.
When she was done, she left the dirty plate and cup on the coffee table.
Kent was majorly irritated. He said, “What the heck?! You always do this! You’re so disrespectful. You know I just spent the last 30 minutes cleaning all the dishes, and then you go make more dishes dirty and just leave them out? You’re so freaking disrespectful!”
Can you spot the criticism? Kent attacked Suzy’s character using statements that were a direct attack on Suzy and her character rather than the behavior he wanted her to change.
Did you also notice the harsh startup that we talked about yesterday? If you did, good job!
Now here’s an example of a different way Ken could have handled this situation.
“Hey Babe, I just worked really hard to clean the kitchen. It would mean a lot to me if you would clean up your dishes before bed.”
See the difference?
First, there’s a soft startup. Then you see Ken’s polite request for her to correct a behavior without making it about her being defective as a human being.
By avoiding giving criticism, you keep your partner open and responsive to the qualities that allow for attraction, connection, and love to flourish and thrive.
Receiving A Complaint
Don’t forget, the door swings both ways. Sometimes you’ll be bringing up the complaints you have about your partner’s behavior in the relationship… but sometimes your partner is going to have complaints about your behavior!
Not being able to handle your partner making a complaint against your behavior is just as damaging to your relationship as delivering a criticism.
If your partner delivers a complaint, take ownership and be responsible for whatever you can regarding your behavior.
When you don’t agree with your partner, it’s easy to diminish your partner. You can think or say things like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or, “What’s the matter with you? If that bothers you, you’re the problem, not me.”
Another common reaction is to internalize the complaint and make it personal when it’s not. “I am a terrible wife. I just can’t do anything right, I guess. I’m such a failure.”
We become self-critical. We turn our partner’s genuine attempt to connect with us and improve the relationship into a negative and damaging experience. Suddenly your partner has to move their focus from the behavior to trying to make you feel better about yourself.
Instead of shifting the focus to yourself by becoming self-critical, or to your partner by dismissing or belittling their perspective when they offer a complaint, keep the focus on the issue at hand.
Suzy from the example above could say something like, “Hey, thanks for the reminder! I’ll put my cup and plate away. I really appreciate that you did the dishes. You’re awesome.”
See how easy that was? Now you can go to bed in a good mood and maybe even have some sexy times!
Apply The Lesson
Your Application Exercise for today is to Learn to complain without blaming. We’ll provide a few examples of very common criticisms… Take the time to re-write them as complaints instead. Don’t use words like “You always…” or “You never…” Focus on critiquing the behavior, not your partner or their character.
If your partner begins to get defensive, one of the best things you can do is calmly notice it and let them know with kindness that you’re not trying to be critical of them.
This post was previously published on Growth Marriage.
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