Don’t Get On That Horse!

Criticism, One of the Four Horsemen.

“Stay grounded,” I said to the couple in my office. “Don’t get on that horse.”

What horse was in my third-floor office? This time it was Criticism, one of the Four Horsemen identified by Dr. John Gottman that predicts divorce or instability in a relationship. The others are Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.

Despite best intentions and high motivation for making things better, it is so easy to saddle up and ride one of these destructive forces as we interact with our loved ones.

In fact, research shows that even happy couples use Criticism at times. The trick is to get off that “horse” as quickly as possible, and ground yourself and the relationship with a sincere attempt to repair things. It’s also important to replace Criticism with a softer alternative of using Complaints or Bids.

Each of these Horsemen can be very subtle or very obvious.

Criticism feels like an attack, but sometimes you may not see it coming until it has already hit you, because the words are spoken calmly or with a soft voice. Criticism can be as subtle as describing your partner’s behaviors or words, rather than focusing on describing your own perspective or reality. Criticism blames or attacks another’s character. It has a negative, harsh quality to it.

Words like “you always” or “you never” lead into Criticism with an air of finality. If not outright said, Criticism often has the underlying tone of “What’s wrong with you?”

Even knowing this and teaching couples for over a decade about the Horsemen and their Antidotes, I’m all too familiar personally with how quickly we can hop on the Criticism horse and be trapped in conflict again.

Just recently, I heard, too late to retract them, the words escape my mouth: “What were you thinking?” I had said it to my husband.

I sheepishly cringed, knowing he knew as well as I did that those words were harsh and critical. So what is a person to do when emotions rise and the words fly out of our mouths? What are the Antidotes to Criticism?

First, we recognize it when it’s happening. Then, we replace the Criticism with a Complaint and Bid. And finally, we make Repairs.

1. Recognize:

Learning to recognize Criticism in all its subtleties often requires having it pointed out to us as it’s happening. For the partner who must point it out, that is hard to do without sounding critical. One benefit of counseling is that the therapist can help couples notice the Criticism and steer them toward the reparation process.

Cautions such as “stay grounded” or “be careful, you’re moving in on Criticism” alert them. Then, a reminder to “turn what you’re saying to focus more on describing yourself” is often all that is needed to heighten awareness and help couples begin to change long-standing habits.

At home, without a therapist, getting off the “horse” is more of a challenge, even for me, as I pointed out earlier. Without my therapist hat, I don’t have the buffer it provides between my emotions and actions.

So, I ask for help, by asking my family to (gently) point out to me when I sound mean, grumpy or critical. This way, I can refocus and rethink what I’m trying to say and speak more effectively. A Repair can be as simple as, “That sounded harsh, can you rephrase that, please?”

Knowing what to say or do instead of criticizing is crucial to successfully changing the way we talk and relate to one another.

2. Complaint and Bid:

How do I say what needs to be said and not ride off on Criticism? Especially when I’m feeling critical or angry or upset?

The Masters of Relationships – the couples whom Gottman researchers categorized as stable and happy in their relationship – make specific “Don’t Get On That Horse!” Complaints without harshness or blaming.

Masters still bring up problems as they arise, but in a softer, gentler manner. They often front the Complaint with appreciation or give the other person the benefit of the doubt. They say, “You may not be able to do anything about this” or “I’m sure you didn’t realize or mean to … . ,” or “I appreciate your help with this.”

A Complaint addresses the problem between the couple and allows them to kick it around, gently back and forth – like kicking around a soccer ball with a partner. Both can examine and work on the problem together, even if disagreement exists.

Conversely, Criticism is equal to a person kicking his partner around, rather than the problem (the soccer ball).

With a Complaint I want to convey, “You, I love. This problem, not so much.” Complaining addresses a specific action, event or behavior that is upsetting and describes my own reaction, reality or point of view, rather than my partner’s actions.

Statements begin with “I feel” or “I think” rather than “You are” or “You do” statements. If your Complaint includes a Bid for what you need or want, you are helping your partner know how to respond more effectively.

Working with couples, I often find myself coaching them to “move through the Complaint, all the way to the Bid.” In fact, I’ve often found going straight to making a Bid for what I want or need is even more effective than making the entire Complaint. This requires some tongue biting! But the satisfaction of being heard and receiving the needed response, makes it worthwhile.

3. Repair:

Finally, since even Masters find themselves criticizing at times, knowing how to make a Repair is vital to healthy relationships. The Repair can come from either the speaker or the listener in the interaction.

I’m all too conscious of how often I wish I could take back words like “what were you thinking?” or the many statements that begin with “you did,” “you didn’t,” “you need to” and “you should.” Those words are easy to say.

The hard part is humbling myself and voicing my intent to make the Repair by saying, “Sorry. That came out too harshly.” “Whoops, can I try that again?” Or, “What I meant to say is: I need/want/would appreciate it if … .”

But the listener is not helpless or inert. An effective Repair can also sound like the listener saying, “I’m feeling criticized. Could you please try saying that differently?” Or, “I need you to speak more softly/kindly to me.”

I have nothing against horses, per se. They just don’t fit well in my office, or in my home for that matter. Climbing on as the Horseman of Criticism, you’re bound to get thrown – and possibly break something in the relationship. Better instead to stabilize that “horse” when you see it, corral it with a softer Complaint or a Bid, and then clean up any messes with a Repair.

Was this Blog helpful? If so, I highly recommend my couples weekend workshop: The Art and Science of Love, created by the Gottman Institute. Information and exercises are presented in an organized, cohesive manner. It’s a wonderful investment in your love life, and will truly strengthen your relationship!