Communication Killers: Criticism

Toxic man yelling

Criticism – The 1st Horseman

  1. the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.

Criticism is when you judge a person’s character instead of just their behavior. In the context of relationships, it’s like character assassination. While the least damaging of the Four Horsemen, Criticism is still destructive to a relationship because it attempts to paint the other person as completely bad. You often hear exclusive language like “You always” or “You never” when criticism is happening. This paints your partner as not just doing something bad, but as consistently being bad.

What Criticism Looks Like in Relationships

Criticism is judging a person’s character, which can be hurtful and lead to defensiveness or contempt. It’s normal and healthy to complain about someone’s behavior, but it becomes critical (ie criticism) when you attack the person’s character. Criticism often involves “exclusive” language that includes words like, “always” and “never.” It may also take the form of an accusation, “You’re driving slow just to make me mad.”

What to Do About It: The Soft or Gentle Startup

The first three minutes of a conflict discussion predict the outcome with 98% accuracy. When a person starts with criticism (a “harsh startup”), the other person is likely to respond with their own horseman, usually defensiveness or contempt. This situation has a 98% probability of the conflict not being managed successfully and becoming worse. However, if the couple is able to recognize the criticism, action can be taken to get back on track. By apologizing, or even simply showing awareness of the criticism, couples can let go of the mistake and continue the conversation.

With a gentle startup, a tone of connection and understanding is established right off the bat. This helps your partner stay in an open, non-defensive place because they are less likely to perceive an attack. Softened startups often involve statements of the other person’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings, then asking how you can help. Expressing a sense of togetherness reaffirms that you are a team and that they are not alone. The soft or gentle startup creates a 98% likelihood of a successful outcome.

Building stronger relationships

While criticism is toxic to a relationship, working to keep it at bay helps prevent the other three horsemen from showing up. Remember, when a couple is arguing, they are trying unsuccessfully to have a conversation. Try to be curious about the criticism by finding what the complaint behind it is. By building constructive conversation skills people in relationships learn to let go of grudges, hear one another, and repair hurt feelings when they happen

  • Criticism is judging a person’s character. It is character assassination and is toxic.
  • Complaints are focused on behavior, not the person. Complaints in this context are healthy when they are communicated effectively. In other words, complaining in this context is not the same thing as whining or nagging.

Each of the horsemen, including criticism, tends to arise when a person does not feel heard and understood. Communicating your feelings and needs in an open and honest way, even if uncomfortable, helps couples feel closer and more at ease with vulnerability. It is this vulnerability that gives couples the opportunity to feel closer and to build trust.

It is not uncommon to hear people refer to couples as in a partnership or as being a team. This solidarity is the result of effective dialogue that minimizes the occurrence of the horsemen. Should criticism arise, acknowledge it and make a repair attempt to mend hurt feelings.

Next time you feel frustrated and tempted to criticize your partner, try initiating a gentle start-up. You might be pleasantly surprised by the positive responses and improved understanding you elicit by expressing your needs in a constructive manner. Together, you can apply this knowledge to make conflict discussions more productive, nurturing, and likely to achieve mutually satisfactory resolutions.

There are many other approaches to the softened startup, and the Gottman Method Couples Counseling helps you find methods that work in your unique relationship.

*Updated July 10, 2023

To learn more about red flags to look out for and how to fix them, please visit my Couples Counseling page.

Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.

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