Criticism or Complaint
For BWBL I think that it is important that we look further into the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Criticism is the most common of the 4 Horsemen, The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Dr. John and Julie Gottman. Negative styles of communications most closely associated with divorce. Here's the good news, we can learn how to turn our unhelpful criticism to a helpful complaint!
First, we need to identify what criticism looks like. Then figure out how to veer away from this way of communicating with our partners to sharing with them our needs in a much more productive way, without stuffing down our own feelings.
So, that is typically what happens with criticism, and to be honest ladies we struggle with this more than our male partners. I realize that this is a generalization, but I think that it is accurate one. It is important for us to realize this; what do we have to learn versus what do our partners need to learn. I know that in my own relationship I typically lean towards criticism more than my husband.
Welcome to being normal!
Criticism tends to be a way of blaming our partners, attacking their character or the person of our partner. What we often mean to do is find a way to complain. I promise that if you are in a relationship or marriage where there is nothing to complain about, I guarantee you that at least one person is being passive and holding back on some stuff.
We all have complaints in our relationships and marriage, this is normal. This is called being human. Welcome to being normal. The way we go about this with our partners can be helpful or really damaging.
“You Always, You Never”
Sometimes: because we care so much about a relationship, or we care about how we come across to a person or the world, or sometimes our own personality and temperament in that we can be competitive and like to be right, we can seek our way by explaining our own discomfort by blaming another person or environment or not taking responsibility.
If we are aware of this, sometimes we hold it in so that we are not being negative in our relationship. What this really does is that we stuff things down. By that I mean, that we don’t want to complain or be negative and we do not share what are needs and wants are and so we stuff down all these negative feelings.
This is unsustainable, right, so we end up with a big blow up, and words are coming out before we can stop it and before we know it, we are attacking the person's character and who they are. Typically, you will hear words like “always” and “never”.
If you have done counseling before, you may have heard to use ““you” statements. A “you” statement is a complaint that begins with “You”. “You, you, you”. So, what a lot of therapists will have you try is to start with “I” statements, “I need”,” I feel”, “I want”.
This isn’t the end all be all but looking at what the tone is behind our complaint. And if it begins with “You” it is typically us blaming our partner as a criticism instead of a complaint where we learn to state our needs or wants.
How does this feel...
This is something that you will want to look at in your relationship. Does this come up? Am I the one that is more prone to doing this? Is my partner more prone? What does it look like in my relationship? How does it feel if you are on the receiving end of this? How does it feel if you are on the giving end of this?
I mean I actually wonder if you even care about our relationship.
I shared earlier that I am the one who tends to struggle with criticism more so in my marriage. So, one of the things that comes up in our marriage, which doesn’t so much anymore because we have done a lot of hard work early on, but early on in our relationship I noticed that Jake is more “go with the flow” type person. This is one of the things that I love about him! We might reserve this for a future podcast.
You know how sometimes your favorite thing about your partner becomes the one thing that becomes your biggest complaint about your relationship later? I would argue that this is probably true for Jake and me as well. I think that on one hand that he loves how organized I am and that I make a plan and follow through with things, but on the other hand that means I keep us on a tight schedule and he probably feels stifled because Jake is super go with the flow and he loves being spontaneous and it is more stressful for him to plan things out in advance. I get excited about planning. I like lists for my lists for my lists.
When we first started dating, I was really trying to work on some personal growth. One of my things was that I wanted to be more flexible in terms of relationships and emotionally. I was doing that, and while we were dating, I noticed that it felt to me that there were a lot of last-minute changes to plans that were made. We would go into an evening where we were planning to spend time together but there wasn’t a plan. And when Jake and I were dating, we lived about 45 minutes apart from each other.
So, when I would finish work on a Friday evening, and we didn’t have any plans, I noticed that once we dated a while and traffic was going to be bad I would put off driving to his area of town before going to dinner. If we had a specific plan, I would have tried to get off work earlier or go a different route or something like that.
So, I noticed that more rigidity began to creep up into my way of thinking or my way of experiencing Jake. And again, I was trying to work on all this personal growth and being flexible and so for a long time I just didn’t say anything. So, when it would finally come out it wasn’t pretty. It was, “We are always late, we never have plans. You never think about this stuff in advance. I mean, I actually wonder if you even care about our relationship.”
Right, you get the idea, criticism came out for sure! So, one of the things that I really have worked on and continue to work on is the flexibility, and I promise you that it is going to be a daily, weekly growth opportunity of mine.
Now Jake and I can use a lot of humor with that. Which is great because it allows me a space to let it out without making him feel bad at all and he can kinda tease me about it in a helpful way. Like, “Hey babe, you are being a little bit rigid ok.” And I can hear that ok. Teasing is another subject probably for another podcast, we will get there.
Spending time in traffic!
As I was working on healthy communication, I really had to figure out, I can be flexible (I need to work on this) and it is also important to me that we be on time to things. It is important to me to plan to decrease what seems to me as frivolous time that we weren’t spending together. Which for me, while we were living in Houston, was spending time in traffic. Oh my gosh, that was hard!
I had to work on being more flexible and recognizing that one of Jake’s strengths is his spontaneity and being super go with the flow. He is such an easy-going person. I often say he is the most even keel personality I know. So, just wanting to really appreciate that.
For something that I could feel some energy in my body or things were starting to ruminate, I wanted ways to rephrase my criticism to be more of a complaint. So, it may have been like, “ Hey babe, it is really important to me that we be on time to this, what do you think will be the best time to leave for this so that we are on time?” And we would agree on a time. Then I would ask him, “Would it help you if I let you know when we have 30 minutes before we need to leave or 15 minutes?” Jake is so open minded that he would be like, OMG that is so helpful, yes!
I kinda had to learn to come around to that I am his partner and being on time is more of a strength for me in our relationship, and Jake has many other strengths in different areas. That is something that I try to do, “Hey babe, we got about 15 minutes before we leave”, or texting him about the time or reminding him about something that he needs to do that is helpful for both of us. He is really open to that. And it helps me to not get so worked up about not being on time.
So, we have really worked hard on that and I have really worked on how I can be a partner to my husband and not just condescending, criticizing partner.
Do you want to be right? Or effective?
With my clients, and as you know I work with a lot for women, I notice it in a similar way. My clients recognize how hard their partners work, so they tend to stuff down their needs and feelings, being “superwoman”, they are being wife/mom/girlfriend/ and or doing their own job, so they hardly ever speak up.
Or they have a big blow up, like what I described with me and Jake. I think the most common area I see this is as resentment of the distribution of the household chores or responsibilities between the couple. Both people think they are doing 60% of the work and then there is some research that recently came out that say even in egalitarian roles with couples, couples who value less traditional roles and value more equal roles such as income and responsibilities like that, that the woman is more likely to be doing 90% of the work. This comes up a lot with my clients.
First, we try to identify the unmet need. Then look at how you are expressing that need to your partner. Most of the time, my client has not expressed that need to their partner at all, “I don’t want to bother them.” Or “they should know me well enough.” Or sometimes it is,” I have already told them 3 different times I don’t want to tell them again.” This is hard when these things happen. What is effective? Is it effective to stuff your feelings or blow up?
So, that is one area we try to look at, do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? Do you want to keep doing what you're doing and not have your needs met or do you want to make an uncomfortable change and work towards getting your needs met for you and your partner?
I know one thing for me as a partner, I really value it when Jake speaks up for what he needs. Jake is a low-key guy; he doesn’t have huge requests. So, when he expresses his needs or desire, I am like “yeah” this is helpful. I think our partners are the same way too! It is like what Brene Brown says, “Clear is Kind!” I think the more that we are clear with our partners, the kinder that is. The more on the same page we are together.
My own therapist spin
So in changing our criticism to a complaint, we can do what is called a soft start up. The Gottman’s refer to this as an “I” statement. Instead of saying, “You never do this, you always do this' '. Here is what I want you guys to practice.
There are a few ways to do this, Esther Perel has an XYZ way of doing this. If you have ever heard of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), there is a skill called DEAR MAN. They are all very similar.
So, Esther Perel’s is, when “X” happens, I feel “Y”, and I would like “Z” to happen, or I need “Z”. In DBT, the DEAR MAN skill is “when you (blank), I feel (blank) or I need (blank) because (blank).”
My own therapist spin on this is I find it helpful if you use an easy manor, humor, body language and facial expressions are open and what we call non-dominate. If you are watching me on YouTube, you can see my hands are up, my shoulders are a little hunched over, and my head is off to the side “I really need us to be on time, that is really important to me.” Right, that comes off a bit better than if I have my arms crossed and saying, “I really need us to be on time.” The words might be the same, but our non-verbal’s and our paraverbal are equally important, if not more so.
I want to give you guys some encouragement to figure out whether you're sharing a criticism or a complaint and really learn how to identify an unmet need within your relationship with your partner. And practice a soft start up. And start by identifying what your need is and letting your partner know what your need is and how they can help you.
Good Luck practicing!
Help in the meantime:
YouTube channel BWBL playlist
Gottman Institute Blog