Criticism is a way of attacking our partner’s character instead of addressing specific issues.
Relationship therapist John Gottman has worked with married couples for decades to discover the best behavioral indications of impending divorce. He refers to four particularly toxic habits as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He has seen in his studies that when any combination of these behaviors dominates husband and wife interactions, divorce occurs. These behaviors are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
Criticism: You are the problem!
When one criticizes their spouse, they are not expressing a need or a complaint. Criticism specifically attacks a person’s character. For example, a wife may be upset if her husband is not playing with their toddler. She can address that in one of two ways. She can say, “Why aren’t you playing with our son? You never take time with him even when I ask you!” Or, she could take a gentler approach. “Honey, I’d really appreciate it if you played with our son. I know you’re exhausted but it would mean so much to me.”
Criticism leaves no space for respect, understanding, or appreciation. It is a means of communicating that we believe our spouse is the issue rather than their behavior. In a marriage, that’s not a sustainable way of addressing problems. No one wants to fight a battle they feel like they can’t win. You should never be fighting your spouse anyway—much less making them feel like there’s no way out of conflict!
Criticism has been found to be toxic to marriage. No one can live in a situation they feel they cannot improve in. A husband or wife (or both) cannot feel like they cannot do good enough for the other. We cannot feel like we have to prove our value to each other. It will cause the toxin to spread to every area of our marriage and kill us both.
Antidote: I need, I feel.
Unfortunately, it’s natural to be angry and communicate incorrectly. Fortunately, every toxin has an antidote. Addressing problems instead of character flaws will keep criticism out of your marriage. To ensure you’re expressing a complaint instead of criticizing, use the phrases I need and I feel.
I need is especially helpful for husbands to hear. Men want to be needed, to feel like they can fix a problem, and be called upon by their wives. When women learn to use this phrase instead of condemning their men for not doing something, the change is radical. Men are renewed by a sense of purpose instead of shut down by disappointment.
I feel appeals to women. We are empathetic creatures who take emotions very seriously. When men express to us what they’re feeling, we can understand them. We want to be let into their inner worlds so we can bond with them.
We are spouses, not opponents.
No one should ever be criticized in their marriage. Our homes are not boxing rings where we try to see who can hit the hardest or last the longest. Nurture your marriage, address your problems, express your needs and feelings. Keep the toxin out.