Is Criticism Wrecking Your Relationship?

Through his research, Dr. John Gottman found that distressed couples tend to use destructive behaviors in their conflict discussions, which leads to conflict escalation. He calls these behaviors the “four horsemen,” after the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse. They include criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. In this blog, I’ll focus on the first of the four horsemen, criticism.

Criticism happens whenever we turn a problem into a negative personality flaw of our partner.  We tend to use words like “always” and “never.”  Here’s an example of the difference between talking about the problem and using criticism:

  • Talking about the problem: I’m disappointed that you just charged our account when we just talked about cutting back on spending.
  • Criticism: Turning the problem into a personality flaw: You are so irresponsible! We’ll never be able to pay down this debt if you have anything to do with it.
The problem with criticism is that it makes it next to impossible for our partner to be able to respond to us in a helpful, problem-solving manner.  Criticism can easily trigger shame in our partner and lead to defensive responses that can quickly escalate into a fight.

Both men and women criticize, but statistically, women tend to criticize a bit more than men do.  Women are also more likely to attempt to initiate a difficult conversation.  Notice I say “attempt,” because when a difficult topic is started with criticism, the conversation will often result in a fight in which neither partner feels heard or understood.

The antidote to criticism is to be gentle with how topics are initiated and talk about your own feelings.

Couples who are really good at fighting fairly are generally very soft and gentle with how they bring up difficult topics.They talk about the problem and not about the person. And they are cautious about using words like “always” and “never.”

Check out Dr. Wendy Dickinson’s video on how to bring up difficult topics by using a softer startup, and check back for the remainder of this series on the “four horsemen” of destructive behaviors in relationships.


Jackie Dunagan, LAMFT