Criticism: How bad is it?

“I can’t believe you forgot to take out the trash again.”

“You never buy me flowers.”

“You always think of yourself first.”

Sometimes such exasperated comments come out so easily, don’t they? Unfortunately, they’re all examples of Gottman’s first “horseman”, which, if used regularly, can be extremely problematic in a relationship.

Criticism is different from complaints, though, in that criticism attacks the other’s character and is often judgmental whereas complaints focus on the specific behavior that is bothersome and is non-judgmental.  Comments to express betrayal of trust are also common forms of criticism. See the difference here:

Criticism: “You never spend any time with me.”

Complaint: “I wish you would spend more time with me. I feel lonely when I go out by myself.”

Criticism: “I knew you wouldn’t deposit that check like I asked you to.”

Complaint: “I’m frustrated you didn’t deposit the check I gave you because I’m very busy the next couple of days and may not make it to the bank.”

You might notice that the complaints sound much softer whereas criticisms tend to have a jolt or an abrasive quality to them. Complaints are very healthy for a relationship because they can help you to express dissatisfaction in a nonjudgmental way. They can also help your partner to understand what your needs are and how they aren’t being met.

Criticism almost always arises because of pent-up frustration that isn’t expressed. Often, one partner is suffering in silence while the other is oblivious to the escalating anger. Women are more likely than men to use criticism as a way to express their irritation, especially when they’ve been pushed over the edge. This is especially true of South Asian women who are culturally taught to be extremely accommodating to others, especially partners, and who regularly put their needs after everyone else’s. Flexibility and accommodation are undoubtedly very positive qualities to have in a successful relationship. However, repeatedly holding onto frustrations of unmet needs because you prioritize others can lead to serious problems in the relationship.

Next time, how to stop the cycle and prevent the problem from escalating!

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