It is a rare for a couple to show up for counselling acknowledging the need to change their respective selves in order to improve their relationship. More often than not, there’s a lot of finger pointing and blaming of the other person. For these people, attending couples counselling is about finding ways to get the other person to change their behaviour. Usually there’s been a lot of effort and energy expended to try to get the partner to change including directing complaints and criticism at him or her.
The difference between criticism and a complaint
According to internationally renowned relationship researcher and best-selling author, John Gottman, there is a world of difference between a complaint and criticism. A complaint addresses or focuses on your partner’s specific action or behaviour. Criticism is more global and is a form of negativity which attacks your partner’s character or personality rather than his or her behaviour itself. Gottman named criticism as one of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a metaphor used to describe counter-productive behaviours which predict relationship failure.
Here is an example of the difference between criticism and a complaint:
Criticism: “You never think about me…it’s always about yourself. I can’t believe that I married someone so selfish!"
Complaint: “Why do you spend so much time on the computer rather than with me?"
Criticism is very common in relationships but it is a problem when it becomes pervasive. Whilst complaints are certainly less toxic than criticism, they can easily turn into criticism over time when needs are left unmet.
Why is criticism so toxic to a relationship?
Long-term, chronic criticism is destructive to a relationship because it produces the actual opposite effect of what we seek when we are loved and when we love somebody which is to feel good about ourselves. To be loved and admired taps into our basic need to be regarded as lovable, worthy and valuable. Just think about it. When we fall in love, it’s not so much about the other person (although Hollywood would have us believe otherwise) but about the positive feelings generated by the context which you have both co-created. This is usually during the honeymoon phase or at the start of the relationship. And if as a result of being with someone (who constantly criticises you), you end up feeling so much of the time, unloved, uncared for, de-valued and inadequate, that is, awful about yourself, you no longer want to remain in that relationship.
The emotional need/s behind criticism
What’s really important to understand about criticism is that it actually sits on top of a pile of disappointments, unmet needs and of unfulfilled longings. Behind the criticism, there is usually a wish. When your partner criticises you for never doing something, what he or she is also trying to tell you is that they wish you would do it.
Why do we criticise rather than state our wish?
Often the person who is being critical has made attempts to indicate what it is that he or she wants from their partner but has received nothing in return. Many dejected partners have started out gentle and ended angry and defeated. So rather than experience the vulnerability of putting themselves out there and asking the question again and risking that their wish may be disregarded, they prefer to express anger rather than experience the hurt that comes from having their requests unmet. And yet the more one expresses anger, the more one pushes their partner away. That’s how a vicious cycle of negative escalation starts and is maintained.
“If he loved me …he would know without me asking”
There is another version of this. At times I hear a client say, “If he loved me, he would know what I want without me having to ask”. Someone who says this is expecting his/her partner to engage in mind-reading, something which most of us are not very good at. This then leads to a lot of disappointment and frustration. It is important to understand where such an expectation comes from.
Being in an emotionally committed relationship tends to bring out our anxieties about closeness and distance. In this context, we can easily get caught up by childhood neediness of being loved and accepted. The merging of our bodies through sex and ultimately our lives can all too easily take us back to a time when like a newborn child, nurturing from our caretaker was on tap and we never had to ask for anything. We can bring the same need into our primary relationship by expecting that it be a one-way street designed to meet our needs for attention and approval. The key here is to cease blurring the boundaries in your relationship and work on being a separate person from your partner and expressing such separateness. This entails communicating your feelings in a non-blaming way and asking for your needs to be met.
Steps towards change
It is not easy to change behaviour which has become automatic or habitual. Nevertheless an effort must be made to behave differently if you want a different outcome. The following are steps you can take:
1. Respond rather than react: When you are in critical mode, you are constantly reacting and are rarely reflective. Reflection or thinking through your response requires a bit of distance between what your partner says and does and what you say or do in reply. Take a moment to think about what it is that this person meant (and it’s best to check first if you are uncertain) rather than automatically assuming that what the other person said or did was meant to be hurtful.
2. Leave the “always” or “never” out of it: Stay with the request and avoid the negativity that comes with launching into a long list of things that never happen or always happen.
3. Make a request: Simply state your wish. Here are examples of how to turn a complaint into a request:
Complaint: “I’m always the one who does the cooking even though most nights I’m really tired after work…you never do the cooking. I’m sick and tired of being asked what’s for dinner”.
Request: “You know, work has been really busy lately and most nights I’m exhausted by the time I get home. I need your help with organising our weekday meals. I would like to talk to you about how to share the load.”
Complaint: “Why do I have to be the one who organises everything…I even have to organise what to do on my own birthday…why can’t you be more like my friends’ husbands?”
Request: “It would mean a lot to me if you made plans to celebrate my birthday. I loved it when you used to surprise me with romantic dinner date. Now when you don’t, I feel disappointed…”
Take a moment to notice the difference in the nature and tone of each of these statements. Think about what it is you wish from your partner and then consider which approach is more likely to get what you want.
Material for this post was taken from the following sources:
- Gottman, J. & Silver, N. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Orion, 1999.
- Esther Perel’s Youtube video: Stop Bickering. It's Killing Your Relationship. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl7AcgjCyLU&t=95s
- Brown, J. Growing Yourself Up – How to Bring Your Best to All of Life’s Relationships. Exisle Publishing Pty Ltd, 2012.