Ask Elizabeth

Elizabeth BrennanMy partner keeps accusing me of criticising him. There are things that he does that I don’t like and sometimes it annoys me.  But don’t I have the right to tell him when this happens?  Why should he think that I’m criticising him?

John Gottman, of the renowned Gottman Relationship Institute, says that certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that he calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:  Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. 

As human beings, we will always have some complaints about the person we live with.  But there is a world of difference between a complaint and a criticism.  A complaint only addresses the specific action that is undesirable whereas criticism adds on some negative words about the other’s character.

For example –

Complaint: There’s no petrol in the car.  What happened that you didn’t fill it up like you said you would?

Criticism: Why can’t you ever remember anything?  I told you a thousand times to fill up the tank, and you didn’t.

Complaint: I’m really disappointed that you don’t want sex.  I feel embarrassed now.  Please tell me when you feel too tired.

Criticism: Why are you always so selfish?  It was really nasty of you to lead me on. You should have told me earlier that you were too tired for sex.

Complaint:  We had an agreement that you would check with me before inviting anyone over for dinner.  I wanted to spend time alone with you tonight.

Criticism: Why do you keep putting your friends ahead of me?  I always come last on your list.  We were supposed to have dinner alone tonight.

Complaints focus on specific behaviour, whereas criticism ups the ante by throwing in blame and general character assassination.

Would you say you are complaining about certain behaviours of your partner or do you think you are criticising him as a person? I would hazard a guess that your comments would come more under the heading of complaint.  We all have things to  complain about the ones we live with or in a relationship with.  Just ensure that the complaint does not turn into criticism. 

Gottman’s recipe for turning a complaint into criticism:  add the line – What’s wrong with you?

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