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Criticism v. Complaining


It is hard to communicate a concern with a partner or loved one. If you are like me, it can be because you hate conflict. I will keep quiet and not say anything about how I really feel. For others, it might be because every time you try to voice a concern, you feel misunderstood and are met with defensiveness.


Avoiding conflict is not good for your relationship. It can lead to a negative outlook where everything is viewed with dissatisfaction and disapproval. However, many couples experience a cycle of Criticize/Defend/Countercriticize and do not feel like they get anywhere in the conversation. It goes something like this: "You always come home late from work." "Why do you always complain when all I'm trying to do is provide for the family? You don't appreciate me!" "How can I appreciate you when you're never here?"


A criticism is defined as "the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes." It is a blaming statement. Defensiveness is defined as

"the quality of being anxious to challenge or avoid criticism." Being defensive means an attempt to deny the criticism. So the cycle begins.


The way to avoid a criticism is to start a conversation in a gentle manner by expressing a healthy complaint. A healthy complaint is stating how something is unsatisfactory or not acceptable. It focuses on a behavior, not a character defect of the other person.


John Gottman, in his book 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, suggests several characteristics of healthy complaining (pg. 26-28). They are:

  1. Share responsibility for the problem. Example: "We haven't been able to afford a vacation in two years. Maybe we should work out a better budget."

  2. Describe the problem in terms of your perception, opinion, or style. Example: "I'm just more conservative about money and I think you spent too much for that pair of shoes."

  3. Focus on a specific problem, tackling one at a time. Example: "You set your glass on the coffee table last night and now there's a ring."

  4. Focus on the present: Example: "You said you would help Sean with his homework, but you're still watching TV."

  5. Focus on your partner's actions and how those actions make you feel. Example: "I thought we were going to have a romantic evening together, and you invited your mother. I feel so hurt and disappointed."

  6. Pick a time to complain about the problem when your partner can listen and respond.

  7. Tell your partner about your needs and desires. Example: "I feel so tired that I need to just cuddle with you right now. Maybe tomorrow we can make love."

  8. Rephrase the complaint so the complainer knows you understand. Example: "So you're upset because I'm an hour late."

  9. Ask questions for a better understanding. Example: "Do you want me to call you if I'm going to be late?"

  10. Acknowledge the feelings behind your partner's complaint. Example: I forgot it was Valentine's Day. You must feel hurt and angry."

  11. Take responsibility for the problem. Example: "You're right. I should have been nicer to your mom."


Don't be afraid to ask for a re-do if you tried and your healthy complaining didn't quite work the first time. Most of us need to practice before we get proficient at a new skill. With practice in expressing healthy complaints, you and your partner can turn toward one another in more positive and understanding ways!


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