This week on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we will continue The Four Horsemen series by digging deeper into the first horseman of the apocalypse: criticism. Before we do so, however, we’d like to remind you of its definition and antidote.

As we wrote in our blog last Wednesday, criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint! The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack – it is an attack on your partner at the core. In effect, you are dismantling his or her whole being when you criticize. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity.

Here is an example to help you distinguish between the two:

Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!”

Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”

As we explained on Friday, the antidote to criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need from your partner in this situation?

Criticism: “You never pay any attention to me! All you care about is watching that stupid TV show!”

Antidote: “I’m feeling isolated and lonely tonight. Can we please talk about my day?”

In order to connect with your partner in a healthy way, there must be real communication. Remember: in many situations, making your intentions clear can allow both of you to avoid needlessly hurting each other’s feelings. It’s imperative that you express your feelings honestly, even when it’s hard – even when it makes you feel vulnerable. Instead of vilifying each other, the two of you can become a team, able to soothe one another and give each other comfort. When you are a team, and you don’t attack each other, you learn to build and maintain loving support and trust.

Fighting off your urge to criticize can hold defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling at bay. Not only can the elimination of critical ad-hominem attacks prevent defensive, critical, and stonewalling responses from your partner, but it can also prevent flooding for both of you – the overwhelming of all cognitive systems in extreme physiological arousal. Remember from our discussion offlooding: When physiological arousal accompanies relationship conflict, it may lead to: (a) a decrease in one’s ability to take in information (reduced hearing, reduced peripheral vision, problems with shifting attention away from a defensive posture), (b) an increase in defensiveness, (c) a reduction in the ability for creative problem solving, and (d) a reduction in the ability to listen and empathize.

Look forward to Wednesday’s posting, as we will explore criticism  further and discuss its negative effects on relationships.

More in The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen: Criticism
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.