Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we would like to give you the opportunity to practice what you’ve learned about criticism this week. On Monday, we explained the difference between a complaint and a criticism. Remember: a complaint is about a specific issue, while a criticism is an attack on your partner’s character. On Wednesday, we discussed the difference (and importance) between criticizing expressing a negative need vs. complaining using a positive need. 

When you have time this weekend, try out the following exercise to practice fighting off the first horseman. Read the exchanges below and try to find a complaint to replace the criticism made by the first person in each pair. Come up with a statement they could make to express their feelings as a positive need. If you’d like, try this activity with your partner, and work together to save these couples from the arrival of the first horseman! Here’s an example:

Janine: “When I ask you to meet me, you’re always ridiculously late – don’t be so unreliable and insensitive!”

Greg: “I’m not insensitive or unreliable. Stop overreacting.”

Alternative for Janine: “I wish that when we made plans to meet somewhere, you would make it more of a priority effort to make it on time.”
Now it’s your turn! We have provided sample responses at the bottom, which you can refer to after you complete the activity on your own. (no peeking!)

  1. Phoebe: “You never call me back or respond to my text messages.”
    Brent: “Tell me about a single time this has happened!”
  2. Ben: “You’re always bossing me around and you never let me make decisions.”
    Rory: “I do too! Last night, you got to pick the show we watched.”
  3. Marshall: “You’re so demanding. I can’t always be at home on time when I’m this busy at work!”
    Holly: “I’m not demanding, I barely ever ask you for anything.”
  4. Karen: “You never clean up after yourself. You’re so careless!”
    Jim: “Yes I do! You’re the one who always leaves the dishes in the sink.”
  5. Linda: “You’re always going out with your friends when I ask you for help.”
    Wesley: “What are you talking about? I do everything around the house because you’re the one who’s out all the time.”
  6. Loren: “You never take me out dancing like you used to. You used to be so fun. What happened?”
    Hayden: “I don’t have time for this right now.”

Here are some sample responses:

  1. Phoebe: “It would mean a lot to me if you took a moment to respond to me when I call or text you, even if it’s to tell me that you are busy and will call me later.”
  2. Ben: “I would really like it if I could choose the show we watch tonight.”
  3. Marshall: “I know it sucks, but I have a huge deadline coming up at work, and I may have to stay at the office late some days this week. After this is over, I will take an afternoon off next week and we can go for a drive.” 
  4. Karen: “I’m feeling really stressed and would really appreciate it if you helped me clean up tonight.”
  5. Linda: “I would really appreciate it if you spent some time here with me and helped with some projects we need to get done tonight.”
  6. Loren: “I would love it if you took me out sometime soon – maybe we could see a show or go dancing?”

We hope that this exercise is helpful to you. If you can begin to identify ways in which to convert critical statements into complaints using a positive need, you will be able to practice communicating with your partner you in a healthier manner!

More in The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen: Criticism Weekend Homework Assignment
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.