Again and again in my work with couples I see the destructive effect criticism can have on a relationship. In this article I would like to explore what my three favorite relationship experts have to say about criticism and its effects on relationships.
Drs. John & Julie Gottman
The therapists who have done the most research on the effects of criticism on relationships were undoubtedly Drs. John and Julie Gottman. The two are famous for their “love lab,” in which hundreds of couples were screened, interviewed and observed over the course of two decades. As a result of their research the Gottmans could predict in less than five minutes, with 90 percent accuracy, if a couple was going to stay together or divorce.
They came up with a metaphor to describe four communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship. They termed them “The Four Horsemen” — a phrase coined after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the New Testament, depicting the end of time.
For the purposes of this article I will only be focusing on the first and second of these “horsemen.”
Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. Critiques and complaints tend to be about specific issues, whereas criticism has to do with attacking your partner’s character and who they are.
For example, a complaint might be: “We haven’t gone on vacation together in so long! I’m tired of hearing about our money troubles!” Here we see a specific issue being addressed that is a problem for one partner.
A criticism might go something like this: “You never want to spend money on us! It’s your fault we can never go away together because you spend all our money on useless things!” This is an outright attack on the partner’s character. It is guaranteed to put them in defensive mode and sets the tone for war.
The main problem with criticism is that it can pave the way for the worst of the horsemen — contempt.
Contempt is about holding your partner in a negative light without giving them the benefit of the doubt. The contemptuous partner is usually attacking from a place of superiority. This can send their partner the message that they are not liked, appreciated, understood or respected. This does little to create a safe, secure and trusting bond in the relationship. The tragedy is that when parents model this negative type of bonding it creates an enormous amount of insecurity and anxiety for their children.
Treating your partner with contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce, according to Dr. Gottman’s work. It is by far the most destructive of the four communication styles.
Stan Tatkin, who created a psychobiological approach to couples therapy (known as PACT), is another well-known clinical expert and researcher on couples. He describes in great detail how the brain can be wired for both war and love but points out that our brains are not necessarily that good at this thing called love:
“The brain’s wired first and foremost for war rather than love. Its primary function is to ensure we survive as individuals and as a species and it is very, very good at this.” (1)
Tatkin talks about the importance for couples to foster the “couple bubble” in order to counteract this tendency toward war. This is the intimate world of the relationship where you and your partner let each other know that the relationship is a secure and safe haven. It gives the message that your partner can be your go-to person under stress or duress, that your partner has your back, cares about you and will protect you. Couples that know how to foster a “couple bubble” will have a relationship that truly thrives.
Contempt and relentless criticism put a couple at war with each other. This is the opposite of the couple bubble. Smart partners who want to create a strong and happy relationship need to do all that they can to preserve and foster a strong couple bubble.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)
EFT was created by Sue Johnson, who Dr. Gottman called “the best couples therapist in the world.” In this model, criticism is seen as part of what’s called “the negative cycle.” The negative cycle is an interaction cycle between two people that, when left unchecked, can create an enormous amount of distance and disconnection in a relationship.
In the EFT approach the focus would be on what the emotion is that underlies and fuels the criticism. The underlying feeling is what needs to be addressed in order to defuse the negative cycle. The goal of EFT is to get to the softer, more vulnerable feelings underlying the negative cycle.
In Stan Tatkin’s language, the goal would be to access the loving brain underneath the warring brain. In order to access the softer underbelly of sometimes vicious fights, it is important to create an emotionally safe environment for exploration. In the beginning, this is often most of what I am doing with my couples: creating an emotionally safe space to explore the feelings that underlie their negative and reactive cycles. Naming the more tender and vulnerable feelings underneath the negative cycle is the first step out of it.
George and Beth
One of my couples came in exhausted from their endless, circular fighting. Their negative cycle went something like this: George would get critical and Beth would become defensive. Then, in order to get his point across, George would become more critical, which just made Beth more defensive. Around and around they would go on their not-so-merry-go-round.
What finally broke their negative cycle was when George started to access what was going on for him just before he started to become critical. He saw Beth as someone who had a lot of things going on all the time, and he didn’t feel like that much of a priority to her, which felt hurtful. Instead of letting Beth know how important she was to him and how much he missed quality time together, he would attack her with criticisms. This way he would get her attention but in a very negative way.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what his parents had modeled for him. When Beth was able to witness the hurt that lay under his critical attacks, she was able to come forward and offer reassurance about her love for him. George, secure in Beth’s love for him, became far less critical and better at asking for what he really needed. This couple was well on their way to repairing their relationship and creating a strong couple bubble.
All relationships have some conflict and disappointments. This is actually healthy. Conflicts and disappointments don’t have to destroy a relationship. It is how the couple handles them that matters.
Couples who can avoid the four horsemen and come together skillfully (à la the Gottmans), couples who can access their loving brain versus their warring brain even under duress (à la Dr. Tatkin), and couples who can speak to the vulnerability that underlies their reactivity (à la EFT) are all couples who will thrive, even under stressful circumstances.
Tatkin, Stan. Wired for Love. 2006: Three Rivers Press.