In my work as a couples therapist, I’ve seen the destructive effect of criticism on relationships.
A criticism may sound like this:
“You never want to do anything with me or join me in things that I enjoy doing. You’re just inconsiderate and selfish.”
Criticism attacks the character of the person, and it can aggressively spiral downward into larger, more difficult-to-repair problems.
It hurts both the receiver and the criticizer by immediately putting the receiver in a defensive position while drawing the critic farther away from a place of empathy and understanding.
Over time, each one could find themselves feeling more distant and isolated, perhaps even living parallel lives rather than building a life together.
Ultimately, this “drift” apart from one another is one of the leading risks for divorce.
Unfortunately, our brains are wired to remember the bad (critical comments) more than the good.
Scientists call it “negativity bias,” with the theory being that negative news impacts our brain more significantly than positive news and, thus, preserves our species by enabling humans to remember anything that can kill us or harm us.
The negative bias, combined with the snowball effect of criticism, creates a nearly impossible atmosphere for a happy relationship.
Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, lack of empathy, and judgmental comments are among the top relationship-busting behaviors , according to The Gottman Institute, which is famed for its couples workshops that have been clinically proven to save marriages.
At Gottman workshop retreats, certified Gottman therapists teach and help couples to practice, practice, practice the antidote to criticism:
Instead of criticism, a partner offers a complaint that focuses on a specific behavior, without blame,
using statements that express one’s own feelings and ask for a positive need or desire to be met. A person must be willing to honestly self-examine and discover what lies beneath the criticism.
Usually, a criticism is tied to a deeper need that must be understood and effectively expressed by the partner.
In the earlier example of criticism, I’ve seen numerous people find positive responses from their partner when they learn to tenderly express their innermost feelings beneath those harsh, critical words. Their desire may be to simply spend time with their loved one, to connect.
Couples learn to sincerely express feelings like, “I feel alive and complete when you are with me, sharing moments together. I need you. I want you to be by my side. You make everything more fun and enjoyable. Please, let’s make time for each other.”
This can feel scary to do, especially if the relationship feels tense or distant, because you are putting yourself “out there” — making yourself vulnerable.
However, starting softly, rather than with criticism, predicts positive outcomes for relationships.
Is this approach really worth the effort to a marriage or relationship?
Consider a comment I overheard at the Gottman marriage retreat I recently hosted in Colorado. It came from a valet attendant at our venue, The Cliff House.
The valet did not know that we were presenting a relationship workshop in the hotel conference room when he said to a member of my support team:
“I don’t know what you’re doing in there, but whatever it is – it’s amazing! I have never seen couples so connected and so attentive to each other. They all look so in love. Whatever you’re doing in there, keep doing it!”