You may think your criticism of your spouse is constructive, but choose your words and tone carefully: According to renowned researcher John Gottman, criticism is one of the greatest predictors of divorce there is.
For 40 years, the University of Washington psychology professor and his team of researchers at the Gottman Institute have studied couples’ interactions to determine the key predictors of divorce — or as Gottman calls them, “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” The first sign is contempt, followed by criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling, a term for emotionally withdrawing from your partner.
Criticism is essentially an unnecessary verbal attack: Compared to constructive advice or a critique, criticism is meant to make your partner feel small, hurt and rejected. It’s the difference between your spouse feeling attacked by your request to clean up versus your spouse helping out around the house more often because you asked politely.
So how do you ensure that you get your point across without hurting your partner’s feelings? Below, marriage experts who work with couples share seven tips for kicking criticism to the curb.
1. Use a soft startup.
“Instead of complaining to your partner by saying something like, ‘You’re such a slob. You always leave dishes piled up in the sink for me!’ try a gentler way of expressing this complaint. For example, the antidote might be phrased: ‘I feel overwhelmed when I come home from work and see dishes in the sink. I would feel more supported if the dishes were done. I really need your help with this.’” ― Lydia Kalsner-Silver, a psychologist in Miami Beach, Florida
2. State your complaint as calmly as you can. Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgement.
“One of the most primal things we do is let our emotions guide our behaviors and reactions. I often tell my clients that ‘What you feel is valid. What you do or say can be examined and challenged.’ When you’re feeling frustrated or angry, it is crucial to remember that your actions and words do not have to be dictated by your feelings. This takes intentional effort and commitment on each partner’s side. It takes emotional maturity. It also takes learning how to self-soothe your own emotions so that you don’t depend on your partner to be your emotional caretaker.” ― Liz Higgins, a couples therapist in Dallas, Texas
3. Don’t ask condescending questions.
“Never begin a sentence with ‘Why didn’t you...?’ As harmless as this question seems, there’s a presumption behind it that your partner should have known better. In other words, your criticizing them for not being smart enough, not knowing better or not thinking it through. You’re questioning their intelligence. The same is true for asking, ‘What made you think that?’ You’re essentially asking your S.O. to read your mind about what you think they should have done differently. Let them have their autonomy and make their decisions. You don’t need to criticize them for their decisions, even the bad ones.” ― Aaron Anderson, a marriage and family therapist in Denver, Colorado
4. Start your discussions with “I” instead of “you.”
“This technique is otherwise known as using ‘I’ statements. It stops you from blaming your partner and instead, focuses attention on how your partner’s behavior is affecting you. It can help reduce criticism, blame and defensiveness. An example would be to say ‘I feel ignored when you don’t greet me when you get home after work,’ instead of ‘You never say hello to me when you get home.’” ― Chelli Pumphrey, a couples counselor in Denver, Colorado
5. Recognize the part you’ve played in the problem.
“When couples criticize they are often blaming the entire issue on the partner. But the truth is, it always takes two to tango. Recognizing your role in the problem takes high levels of self awareness but it makes it far easier to address your marital issues. Let your partner know where you think you’ve contributed to the problem. It also helps 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 old college roommate was upset with you for chore issues. Remembering times when you’ve acted similarly can help to develop empathy and understanding.” ― Elizabeth Earnshaw, a therapist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
6. Erase the words “always” and “never” from your vocabulary.
“Saying your partner ‘always’ does something or ‘never’ does something will most likely get them on the defensive quickly. This turns your complaint into a character flaw or defect of theirs. Instead, keep your complaints specific and about a certain incident. That way, your partner is more likely to listen and be responsive.” ― Danielle Kepler, a therapist in Chicago, Illinois
7. Be vulnerable with your partner.
“Criticism is a method of self-protection, commonly in the form of anger. Underneath most criticism is actually a longing and underneath anger are primary emotions like fear, hurt, sadness or shame. I tell my clients that being vulnerable and showing your partner that you long to be close invites them in instead of pushing them away. Often, my clients are afraid to be vulnerable, either because they are unaware of what they are feeling or because they are fearful their partner will use it against them. But as Jim Rohn said, ‘The walls we build around us to keep out the sadness also keep out the joy.’” ― Kari Carroll, a couples therapist in Portland, Oregon