Dr. Gottman identified what he refers to as “The Four Horsemen” that lead to divorce and relationship demise. Criticism is the most commonly seen amongst the four. In my experience, it is the one that further exacerbates the other Four Horsemen – defensiveness, contempt, and stone walling.
Criticisms are simply “wishes” that a partner holds. Yet, due to built-up hurt and resentment, couples slip into negative sentiment override. These couples no longer give one another the benefit of the doubt. So, they stop asking questions for clarification which leads to assumptions. The assumptions, which are often negative, lead to a response rather than a discussion. Because of this, what we wish for is not communicated nor heard.
Communicating a Wish Vs. Communicating Criticism
Communicating a wish vs. communicating criticism can make a difference in whether a partner’s request or complaint is heard. If healthy dialogue is to happen, a couple need to learn how to approach their partner in effective ways. When a couple can accomplish this, they set themselves up for success for listening to understand rather than listening to respond.
“Ugh! I can’t do everything in the morning with these kids! I have to work too ya know! You always get to go to work and do nothing around here while I do everything! You’re such a lazy parent!”
Criticisms are an attack on a person’s character rather than the behavior. Furthermore, criticisms are an assault on your partner. The communication identifies the partner as an enemy rather than an ally. As in the example above, criticism involves many “you” statements and often there is negative labeling of the other person – “lazy.”
Most couples who engage in criticism are sharing with their partners what they “don’t want” rather than what they “do want” or “need” from them. Sharing in this way does not communicate the need. In fact, this is what leads to the other partner responding with defensiveness, contempt, or stonewalling.
“Are you serious right now! I do plenty around here and it isn’t seen!” – Defensiveness
Insert eye roll. “Yeah, I know… I’m the worst. – Contempt
Partner continues to get ready with no response or acknowledgement. – Stonewalling
The Antidote to Criticism
The Antidote to criticism is what Dr. Gottman refers to as a Gentle Start Up where the approach is softer. Identify and convey your feelings to your partner using “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Furthermore, expressing a positive “need” is pertinent to successful communication in these situations. The more specific you can be in identifying your need, the better. Thinking of criticisms as wishes can help to facilitate the use of this antidote.
“I feel so overwhelmed most mornings with all that needs to be done. It feels chaotic in the mornings and I become aggravated which impacts how my own day begins at work. I wish that you could help more in the morning with getting the kids ready. What I need is for you to feed or dress them before you leave for work. It would help me to feel less stressed.”
“I feel so overwhelmed.” – Feeling
“I wish you could help more in the morning.” – Need
“I need you to feed or dress them.” – Specific Need
“It would help me to feel less stressed.” – Ally vs. Enemy
Expressing Needs is the Key to Success
It takes time to learn how to better communicate our wants, needs and wishes. This is especially true if a couple is in Negative Sentiment Override. In the beginning of a relationship, a couple tends to use “positive comps.” With positive comps, couples compare their partner in positive ways. Ie. “My husband would never think not to include me in an important decision.” “I’m lucky, my wife loves to cook and is great at it.” They give the benefit of the doubt and are more likely to ask questions for clarification before jumping to conclusions.
Negative feelings can be uncomfortable. It is a natural human behavior to scan the environment for what may be causing a person to feel this way. Overtime this can form a habit, whereby when experiencing negativity, a person searches for why they feel so bad. In these instances, a person will then begin to look for other people’s mistakes. They do this to account for their own disappointments or negative emotions.
Communicating in successful and effective ways is not an easy task. It requires you to be self-aware and insightful. Identifying and understanding your own emotions is key to turning criticisms into wishes. Once you can accomplish this, your wishes can become your reality.