- “You’re always playing video games. You don’t care to spend any time with me.”
- “I’m sick of doing the dishes and cleaning the house when I come home tired from work. You are home all day, why can’t you clean up after yourself?”
- “You never listen to anything I say so I’m done talking.”
- “When is the last time you initiated sex? I don’t see how this will work if you don’t put in any effort in our relationship.”
- “You are so inconsiderate! You lock yourself down in the basement everyday to work and you don’t even bother to come up even once to ask if I need a break or help with the kids.”
- “Why does everything have to be your way? Loosen up!”
If any of the above statements sound familiar to you, you and/or your partner might have a tendency towards being critical of the other. As Gottman would describe them, criticisms tend to be global statements which convey a negative sentiment about a person. Anytime you catch yourself using phrases like “you always”, “you never”, or any other kind of absolute statement, recognize you’re pointing out a fault in your partner’s character because you’re indicating that if they are always or never doing something, then they must have a faulty part in their personality. Most people on the receiving end of such criticisms would agree this doesn’t sit well with them.
Additionally, saying words like “always” or “never” shifts your partner’s focus on defending themselves by pointing out exceptions to when they did or didn’t do something. This takes away from their ability to focus on understanding what you might be trying to convey to them.
A conversation that starts with a criticism is bound to go south. This is what Gottman would refer to as a harsh start-up, which is another sign he has found to predict divorce (Gottman & Silver, 2000). In his “Love Lab” research, Gottman observed when a partner began a conversation with a criticism, an attack, or an otherwise mean comment, the conversation typically escalated towards conflict. This created angry and hurt feelings, and usually led to no resolve at the end of the interaction.
This is no different than what I observe among couples in my practice. Whenever I notice one partner start a conversation with a statement that somehow puts the other partner down, it immediately sparks a reaction from the other partner. Whether the reaction is loud and angry or silent and disengaged, the tension escalates quickly.
Some of you may be wondering by now, “How am I supposed to talk to my partner when I am feeling frustrated or upset about something?”
The answer is, try to communicate your feelings in the form of a complaint. A complaint lands softer than a criticism. However, you have to be mindful of how you are forming your complaint because it can easily cross over into criticism. Gottman identifies three components which can help you communicate your complaint most effectively:
- A specific incident
- Your feeling(s) about it
- An explicit need or request
To demonstrate, let’s take the examples of the six criticisms at the start of this section and turn them into complaints:
- “I noticed while I was waiting to spend time with you last night, you chose to play video games for two hours (specific incident). I felt disconnected and alone (feeling). I understand you need to decompress after a stressful day at work. Would you also be willing to set some time aside for us to be together in the evenings before we go to bed (explicit request)?”
- “I’m feeling frustrated right now (feeling). I just finished cleaning up the pile of dishes in the sink and putting away the toys in the family room (specific incident). When I come home, I am usually exhausted (feeling) and all I want to do is relax and spend time with my family (need). Can we discuss a better way to share these responsibilities (explicit request)?
- “It makes me feel like I’m not important (feeling) when I am talking to you and you are distracted by what the baby is doing (specific incident). Can you please give me your undivided attention for a few minutes (specific request)? I need someone to talk to right now (need). And if now is not a good time, can you please let me know when we can talk (specific request)?”
- “I felt disappointed (feeling) last night when I initiated sex and you told me you were too tired and went to sleep (specific incident). I feel alone and confused (feeling) because I don’t know what’s happening between us. I think it’s important for us to address this and figure it out together (need).”
- “I didn’t feel this way before Arlo was born but now it makes me resentful (feeling) when I see you lock yourself down in the basement and work all day (specific incident). I am alone caring for him and I need your support (need). It would be so helpful if you can come upstairs during your lunch hour so I can catch a break. Is that something you’d be willing to do (specific request)?
- “I feel angry (feeling) when you’re raising your voice at me right now (specific incident). I understand you like things a certain way but it’s important for me to feel respected too (need). I need to know my voice and my way of doing things also matters in this relationship (need).
You are probably thinking, “Who talks like this?! This isn’t realistic!”
I agree it may feel unnatural to speak in this manner for some of you. However, I also argue it feels unnatural because you are not in the habit of communicating this way. Once you make the effort to develop the habit, you will begin to communicate in a manner similar to the examples above but in words that come more naturally to you. And the truth is, expressing a complaint does not necessarily mean your conversation will not turn into an argument. It very well can, however, my experience working with couples is when both partners practice communicating in the manner I presented, there are fewer opportunities for either partner to become triggered and reactive. Thus, conversations don’t become as heated as they normally would.
Willingness and consistent practice from both partners is key to creating long-lasting positive changes in your communication cycle. Think of it this way: if you have something to say, why not make it count by learning how to express yourself in a way which increases your chances of being heard and understood? It might not be easy in the beginning – it might even feel awkward or uncomfortable. Eventually, it will come more naturally to you and hopefully become second nature to communicate this way. Give it a try!