The Four Horsemen Blog Series – #1 Criticism


Introduction To The Four Horsemen Blog Series

For those of you who are not familiar with Dr. John Gottman, he is a superstar to those of us in the world of couples therapy. He has spent the last 40+ years completing groundbreaking research on thousands of couples. I reference his work quite often, not only because it is backed by over four decades of research, but also because it truly helps couples to be happy in their relationships.

During his research, Dr. Gottman identified 4 types of negative interaction patterns that are the best predictors of divorce. These patterns are dubbed “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. They are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

This is the first of four posts in a series that will outline each of the horsemen in detail. Within each post a short quiz will be included to determine if you exhibit the characteristics of the four horsemen in your interactions with your partner.

Don’t worry if the quiz indicates that the four horsemen are present in your relationship – they are present, at times, in all relationships. At the end of each post, the antidote to these negative interaction patterns will be given.

The First Horseman – Criticism

Criticism is traditionally defined as the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.

First, let’s distinguish between a complaint and a criticism. You are likely to have many complaints during the course of your relationship. A complaint is when you call out your partner on a specific action or behavior. Complaints are not necessarily bad. You may just be stating something that you are unhappy with.

A criticism, on the other hand, is not specific and it takes a jab at your partner’s personality or character. Criticisms are also peppered with absolutes such as “always” and “never”. When you are criticizing, you usually veer away from the specific action or behavior that you are miffed at and begin personally attacking your partner.

Here are some examples of how a complaint differs from a criticism:

Criticism: You are always putting your friends before me! You care more about your friendships than you do this relationship!

Complaint: I wanted us to have a nice romantic night out at the movies, by ourselves. I would have liked for you to check with me before you invited your friends along.

Criticism: You can never remember anything! You must think the groceries can buy themselves!

Complaint: I went to the store and there wasn’t enough money in our checking account to buy the groceries. I felt so embarrassed. You said that you would make the deposit yesterday.

Criticism: You are so lazy! I’m working my ass off and you can’t wash a load of laundry over the weekend!

Complaint: I asked if you would wash my clothes for work this week since I was out of town this weekend and you said yes. I have very important meetings and none of my nice clothes are clean.

Quiz: Are You A Critic?

Take this quiz soon after an argument or disagreement with your partner when your actions and feelings are fresh on your mind. Or think about the last argument you had and recall it with as much detail as possible. Answer YES or NO for each of the following 21 questions.

1) I thought it was very important to determine who was at fault.

2) I saw it as my job to present all of my complaints.

3) I tried to see patterns and analyze my partner’s personality as part of my complaint.

4) I didn’t complain until I felt very hurt.

5) I tried to make a general point instead of being specific about one situation or action.

6) I analyzed my partner’s personality in addition to discussing specific actions that bothered me.

7) I let things build up for a long time before I complained.

8) I didn’t censor my complaints at all. I really let my partner have it full force.

9) When I complained my emotions were very intense and powerful.

10) I complained in part to get things off my chest.

11) I did not state my complaint in a neutral manner.

12) I didn’t try to be very rational when I stated what I thought was wrong.

13) When I complained I felt explosive inside.

14) When I complained I brought up my partner’s faults.

15) There’s no stopping me once I get started.

16) I resented having to bring up these issues in the first place.

17) I regret my tactless choice of words when I complained.

18) Whenever I bring up a problem I know I’m basically right.

19) Whenever I bring up a problem it is my goal to get my partner to see how I’m right.

20) It was my goal to get my partner to accept some blame for the problem.

21) When I complained I used phrases like “You always” or “You never.”

Scoring: If you answered YES on more than 7 items you are probably a good candidate for being a critic.

Credit: This quiz is featured in the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman, PhD.

How Did You Do?

So what. Maybe you’re a bit of a critic. All of us are sometimes. In fact, criticism is probably the most common of the four horsemen. Just because you have some criticism in your relationship does not mean that you should be overly concerned about your future.

However, as criticism becomes more prevalent, it lays the foundation for far more destructive horsemen. Now you may be wondering, what can I do to cut down on the criticism so that it is more difficult for the other three horsemen to enter into my relationship?

The Antidote to Criticism

Use a gentle start up to alleviate criticism. Basically, think before you speak. When you are upset with your partner, take a breather. Think about what you want to say and how you can broach the subject without being critical.

If you are having trouble getting started, remember these tips for a softened start up from Dr. Gottman:

  • Complain, but don’t blame.
  • Make “I” statements instead of “You” statements.
  • Don’t evaluate or judge. Describe what is happening.
  • Be clear.
  • Be polite.
  • Be appreciative.
  • Don’t store things up.

Here’s an example of how to turn a harsh start up into a gentle start up:

Harsh start up: You never take me anywhere! You’re always working and we never do anything together.

Softened start up: Know what? I really miss you, and I really miss our Friday night adventures we used to go on. That was our night. Do you think we could start that up again?

Take The Gentle Start Up For A Spin

If there is something about your partner that is wearing on your nerves this week, practice using a gentle start up. Likewise, if something comes up between you and your partner and you feel like you are about to explode, take a few seconds, think before you speak, don’t blame or be judgmental, and describe the action or behavior that has sparked your feelings.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you find this difficult in the beginning. It’s all about practice and being forgiving of ourselves when we mess up. Try the following three steps when you need to remember the antidote for criticism:

  • I Feel
  • About What
  • I Need

For example, “I feel unimportant [I Feel] when we go to large gatherings and you leave me alone to go talk to other people [About What]. I need you to spend a little more time with me at these gatherings or include me in the conversation [I Need].”

Take this example and imagine that you were critical and did not use the antidote in this same situation. You may have exploded and said something like “You are so selfish! You always run off and leave me alone when we go out.”

Now imagine that you are on the receiving end of these two statements. Which one are you likely to respond positively to? If you are the speaker, which statement is going to encourage the behavior that you need from your partner?

This is important to state again, when feeling like you may say something critical, remember to stop, think, and use the antidote before you speak – I Feel… About What… I Need.

I hope you have enjoyed learning about the first horseman and how to keep it at bay. Next up will be the second horseman, Contempt.

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