During relationship expert John Gottman’s research he has found 4 behaviours that couples in failing marriages exhibit: criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness and contempt. Gottman titled these behaviours the “4 Horseman of the Apocolypse” as they often signal that the end of the relationship is near if things do not change. In my work with couples, I often share the four horseman to help them avoid these communication flubs and improve their chances for marital success.
Luckily, couples can learn to avoid the 4 horseman through learning “antidotes” to each.
Let’s focus on the first horseman, “Critcism”. You can identify criticism when you notice yourself putting the problem within the person. When you criticise you go beyond complaining about an event or behaviour and you attack your partner’s character.
I frequently see criticism in my office and have found that it is easily changed when a couple is equipped with tools and words to use to better express their frustrations or anger. I share some of the most helpful tools I have found in my practice.
The use of “I” statements
You can easily spot criticism if the statement begins with “you”. For example, “YOU always do that thing I don’t like” or “YOU’RE so lazy!” These types of statements often elicit defensiveness and probably will not take you very far in an important conversation. Beginning a statement with “I” followed by a feeling and the word “about” is more likely to create change.
Example: ” I feel really frustrated about the dirty dishes”.
State a positive need
How many times do you catch yourself saying what you don’t like about your partner? It’s incredibly common and also incredibly critical. We say things like ” I don’t like when you leave your towels on the floor”. Stating what you don’t like will likely cause your partner to shut down. Rather, give your partner direction to be successful with you – state what it is that you DO need.
Example: “I need you to clean up your towels”.
Recognise your role
When couples criticise they are often blaming the entire relational issue on the partner. However, the truth is that it always takes two to tango. Recognising your role takes high levels of self awareness but it can make it far easier to address issues. Let your partner know where you think you’ve contributed to the problem.
Example: “I feel frustrated about the dishes being left in the sink. However, I also recognise we haven’t ever really talked about this issue”.
The Rule of similarity
Next time you go to criticise your partner try to pause and remember a time you did something similar. Are you upset that your partner has not done the dishes? Then try to a remember a time when your roommate was upset with you for chore issues. Remembering times when you’ve acted similarly can help to develop empathy and understanding.
Learn to listen
When I watch couples talk I often notice that they try to beat each other to the punch. They will prematurely shut down or criticise their partner when he or she is talking. Often this is out of discomfort or fear but it has major implications. The biggest issue is that they often end up criticising and shutting down their partner during a moment that could have been used to connect and learn. When your partner is speaking wait until after they’ve finished to respond and see what you learn.
Elizabeth Earnshaw works with individuals,couples, and families and is the founder of A Better Life Therapy. Elizabeth specialises in couples experiencing distress due to a betrayal or commitment issues, supporting individuals through the end of their relationships, grief and trauma issues, anxiety, and self esteem. Whether you are experiencing anxiety, depression, or are just stuck in a life transition, she can help.You can follow her on Twitter @
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