Communication Problems Series, Part 1: Criticism

What Are We Talking About?

One difficulty with targeting “communication” as a problem in relationships is that the subject is just much too broad.  So we have poor communication.  So what?  What does it even mean, and what can we do about it?  A lot, it turns out.  When we can zero in on exactly what is going wrong when you try to communicate with your partner, things can start to improve pretty quickly.  Marriage researcher John Gottman has identified some great ways to get started.

This is the first in a four part series that breaks that down into specific, very important parts.  Today’s part is the communication problem known as criticism.  Gottman has highlighted criticism as one of the four big warning signs for relationships that may be headed for divorce.  (He calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”)

What Defines Criticism Anyway?

It’s important to know what we’re talking about when we use the word criticism, because healthy communication involves people letting each other know when they are unhappy.  How do we do that in a constructive way?  Complaining (within reason) is a way to get the message across without criticism.  Gottman explains the difference this way:  A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while a criticism attacks the character of the person.

Let’s look at a concrete example.  If my husband and I are going to sleep, and he doesn’t turn the hall light off before being the last one to come to bed, I might want to address it.  (I’d probably just get up and turn it off, but let’s say it’s a recurrent problem and I’ve asked him before but it keeps happening.)  A criticism would be something like this “You never listen to me about the lights.  You are so forgetful.”

Somehow the desire for the light to be off has been put aside, and the main message has turned into “You are the problem.”  How does that help?   It doesn’t.  We’ve now somehow moved from a constructive message aimed at a particular goal, to a destructive message that might have the boomerang effect of making my husband want to leave the light on forever and ever.  It seems so obvious, but couples fall into this trap way too often.

Get Out Of The Trap

A better way of dealing with it, and one that actually addresses the actual problem, would be to complain.  It might sound like “Hey, I really hate to get all cozy and sleepy in bed and then the lights are keeping me awake.  Can you please turn them off?” This could be all that it takes, or it could take more discussion in the future, but the difference is clear.  The complaining targets the action while criticism targets the person.

Seems so simple, so why don’t we do it?  In many ways, this behavior is not so easy to change because I see it as more of a symptom of the problem that becomes part of the problem itself.  If I really thought my husband didn’t care about me or my needs, then the REAL message might actually be “I’m afraid you don’t care about me.”  A simple attempt at behavior change is bypassed because the real fear is driving the communication.  When this happens all the time, it can be a big red flag that tells you there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

You May Need A Ref

That’s where couples counseling can help.  Because when you’re in the middle of it, and you can’t understand how these little fights keep popping up over and over, you can’t see the forest for the trees.  I have seen so many bewildered couples freaked out by their own behavior. “I’m a good person.  It must be YOU who’s making me this way!”  Well, in a way, that’s almost true.  No one can bring out our worst behavior quite like someone we spend every day with.  The question is, can you use this as a way to grow, to learn, and to get better at relationships?

When I hear “communication problems,” I delve deeper into finding out what the real meanings might be.  I am rarely disappointed by how people learn new and often amazing things when they start to uncover what’s been holding them back.  It can be a life altering process for couples who are ready for that deep dive into a better relationship.

Some Questions To Ask

So how about you?  Do you find yourself criticizing the person you love more often than you care to admit?  Or are you the target of too much criticism?  If either of these ring true, you might want to take a close look at how you can turn it around.



Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, offering online counseling in Springfield, Chicago and throughout Illinois.  She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones. Contact her today to begin strengthening your relationship.