By Aiswary Ganapathy, M.S., MFT
Have you ever felt that no matter how often you tell your partner about something that bothers you, nothing has changed? Have you ever felt like talking about things that bother you in a relationship always leads to miscommunication or an argument? Do you feel like this causes an emotional disconnection between you and your partner? Then, you’re at the right place.
When I was in graduate school, my professor said that the greatest gift for humans is to be known by our loved ones. To be able to talk about things that bother us, to be able to show up in a relationship as who you are, is a great thing that most of us want. But, sometimes, our genuine intentions to help ourselves, our partner, or the relationship goes sour. John and Julie Gottman are outstanding relationship experts and researchers contributing to the science of intimate relationships. Their research found terrific things foundational to a relationship’s success, including friendship, admiration, fondness and trust. However, they also identified four things that are detrimental to a relationship. He named them ‘The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse’- criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Luckily, he also talked about these antidotes in his research and tips on how we can change. So today, we’re just going to focus on criticism.
Criticism is when we tend to attack a person’s character and personality flaws in a conversation. For example, let’s say it bothers you that your partner does not take the trash out when it’s full and you have had a long day at work.. So, criticism is when you say, “You never take the trash out. You are so lazy”. And here, you are targeting the person rather than targeting the problem. And this usually causes the partner to defend themselves and thus making it hard for you to be heard. This, when repeated, can lead to emotional disconnection in a relationship. So, the antidote to criticism is what Gottman calls, A Gentle Start-Up.
A gentle start-up is when you consider an appropriate time to bring up what bothers you to your partner and when you focus on the behavior that needs to change, not personal flaws. For example, having a difficult conversation when both of you have been drinking or having difficult discussions past midnight in bed might not be the best idea. But on the other hand, choosing a time to bring up issues in the relationship can also be a good conversation to help set up a time of day that works for both of you. When you are targeting the problem and not the person, it might look like, “I get frustrated when the trash is full and is left to be taken out. Could you please take the trash out tonight?”. You also notice that the Gentle Start-Up sentence uses more I statements, focusing on how I am feeling and what I need, rather than what my partner did not do or attacking their personality. This is because criticism creeps in while you’re talking without us realizing most of the time and it takes an intentional effort to change.
A relationship’s ups and downs are expected, but sometimes it can get a lot, and it is normal to feel stuck and hopeless. Suppose you are facing difficulties in your relationship; therapy can act as a safe space to explore your problems and patterns in your relationship. Please also reach out and talk to someone in your support circle.