Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we would like to continue Monday’s discussion on criticism. It is a natural human endeavor for people to seek an explanation for their negativeaffective states and for their positive affective states. Therefore, it is natural for people to develop a negative habit of mind, searching for why they feel so bad. They naturally develop the habit of mind to scan their environment for other people’s transgressions and mistakes to account for their own annoyances or disappointments. It is also natural for people to stockpile their partner’s mistakes in the service of avoiding conflict. When they stockpile, they then search for underlying patterns in these irritating partner habits, and come up with an explanation that is their final “You” statement of blame, e.g. “You’re always talking about yourself, you don’t care about me at all!” 

To learn to replace criticisms and ad-hominem attacks with complaints, you must move from blame to stating a positive need. Behind every complaint lays a wish, a longing. To work towards constructive solutions and mutual fulfillment, you must both make an effort to let go of grudges and bitterness. You must give your partner the opportunity to try to “fix it.” Instead of attacking with “You” statements and immediately putting your partner on the defensive, you must allow them to do something that may make a difference. Instead of communicating  “negative need,” try communicating a “positive” one.

We understand that this can be very difficult. According to Dr. Gottman, “People don’t usually think about what they need or what will remedy the situation. They think negatively about what their partner should stop doing to ease their own irritation or disappointment. But the positive need is a way that their partner can shine for them.” Here’s an example:
Negative Need: 
Jenny: You talked about yourself for the entire length of dinner.
Rob: I did NOT.
Positive Need:
Jenny: I would love it if you asked me about my day.
Rob: I had no idea you felt that way. How was your day?
Try this one at home! You may be surprised by the improvement of responses you elicit from each other. You may experience a change in the quality of your mutual understanding. By working together, the two of you can learn to apply this knowledge to make conflict discussions more productive, healthy, and more likely to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution. On Friday, we will share an exercise that will help you to practice this skill of expressing a positive need.

More in The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen: Criticism Part II
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.