By Katherine Caputo, Google Author
All couples clash from time to time. It’s healthy and it’s natural! What matters is not the fact that you argue – it’s how you argue that’s important.
Criticism is first and foremost. Gottman identified this as a particularly damaging behavior that can often act as a springboard to the rest. Criticism is when you attack your partner, not for what he or she has done – but for what he or she is!For example:
“You didn’t water the plants and now they’re dying!” is a critique, based on a certain behavior.
“You never water the plants – you’re so lazy!” is a criticism, and it strikes at the very heart of your partner’s sense of self.
Criticism is so damaging because it essentially tells your partner that you find them flawed, right at their core. It can lead to Contempt, when one partner deliberately seeks to make the other feel inferior through mean or disparaging comments.
Contempt is the most dangerous of the Horsemen – indeed, Gottman found it to be the single greatest predictor of divorce! It is frequently followed by Defensiveness and Stonewalling, both of which can lead to an unhappy, resentful stalemate.
Constant criticism is corrosive. It damages self-esteem, creates a spiral of unhappiness and ultimately breaks you both down.
If you do recognize Criticism riding its warhorse into your arguments, however – take heart! You’re now primed to halt it in its tracks, and banish this pernicious behavior for good.
Step #1 – Think Before You Speak
Before that cutting comment slips out, try to STOP and THINK. Ask yourself: “Will saying this help, or will it hurt?”
If you know it will hurt, then chances are that you yourself may be feeling hurt or neglected in some way, causing you to retaliate by lashing out. If this is so, then it’s time to try and identify what’s behind your dissatisfaction.
#Step 2: Open Up
Don’t make accusations – instead, open up to your partner about how you feel. Encourage your partner to open up, too. In this way, rather than alienating each other, you bring each other closer.
Same goes if you’re the one being criticized. Instead of getting defensive, or shutting your partner out (Stonewalling), recognize that there may be something deeper going on and initiate a conversation when you’re both calm.
Do not counter your partner’s attacks with an attack of your own. Instead, speak from a place of vulnerability, eg. “I feel…”. By starting with “I” instead of “You”, you’re creating a spirit of empathy, rather than conflict.
#Step 3: Don’t Criticize, Give Feedback
Confine your comments to specific actions or behaviors, eg. “I’m unhappy that you did this, because…” Express how that action made you feel, and (if appropriate), how it might be done differently in future.
Speak gently, even if you’re irritated. No-one likes to hear that they’ve done something objectionable – but if framed as feedback, rather than criticism, it’s much easier to take.
#Step 4: Compliment Often
Of course there will be times when a criticism springs unbidden to your lips. None of us is perfect! However, we all respond much better to this criticism when we feel loved and respected overall.
The trick is to outweigh the negative with a steady supply of the positive. Praise your partner whenever it’s due. Build up a reservoir of loving, supportive behavior – it’ll help your partner take critical comments on board more easily.
#Step 5: Learn To Accept
Learning to accept means willingly admitting when you’re at fault, along with accepting that your partner – like you – is not perfect. Whilst you have every right to speak out when something your partner does upsets you – and vice-versa – you do not have the right to try and mold him/her into an ideal.
Equally, your partner needs to accept you as you are, warts and all! Listen to any critiques as best you can, but if you notice these becoming attacks on your character, then it’s time to have a serious conversation.
Sometimes, talking with each other alone is not enough to ward off the Four Horsemen. If you’re caught in a vicious cycle of frustration and blame, seeking help from an experienced couple therapist may be the best solution. PARC’s expert, compassionate therapists are just a phone call away.