As we mentioned last Friday on The Gottman Relationship Blog, learning to manage conflict is critical to effective self-care. If conflict in your relationship is a constant source of stress, be sure to follow our next few blog postings as we will be discussing Dr. Gottman’s Four Horsemen and their Antidotes! We begin this week with the first horseman & its antidote pair: Criticism and Gentle Start-up.

Most of us become critical when we are totally overwhelmed. When we are frustrated by a problem we want solved now, and the last straw was a number of straws ago, and we’ve just about had it. As our tempers flare, tension rises, and self-awareness goes out the window.

In this frenzied state, we are unlikely to use a particularly gentle startup. We are likely to begin conversations on a sour note and, as Dr. Gottman explains, conversations invariably end on the same note that they begin. In fact, they do so 96% of the time.

In The Relationship Cure, he describes this idea in the context of harsh start-up:

You want to connect with somebody, so you make a bid for that connection. But because your bid begins in such a negative, blaming, or critical way, you get just the opposite of what you’re after: You drive the person away.

You lose the chance to connect. Or you find yourself suddenly and alarmingly connected – in a fight. The problem you wanted to discuss is eclipsed by a new one (or two, or three).

The injustice! Identifying and addressing issues with your partner is a great idea, but the following distinction is important to keep in mind. According to Dr. Gottman:

complaint focuses on a specific problem, addressing the other person’s behavior, not his or her perceived character flaws.

Criticism on the other hand, is more judgmental and global: it frequently includes such phrases as “you always” or “you never” … often with negative labels or name-calling … frequently [assigning] blame.

Distinguishing between the two is pretty important. Criticism is a great way to initiate or escalate conflict. There is a difference between expressing feelings/drawing boundaries and attacking.

As usual, all of this makes sense on paper, but can be tricky in practice! To avoid saying things we don’t mean and hurting each other in the heat of the moment, it’s a good idea to go in with a game plan:

First, we have to internalize something important: Many of us have been brought up to interpret “Honesty is the best policy” to mean that we can say whatever we want … and yet following this rule often leads to mutual distress. Self-care involves behaving in a way that aligns with our values – and most people feel good about themselves when they treat others with kindness. Criticism is unkind. When we are critical, we are often cruel, and end up hurting not only the other, but also ourselves.

Second, we have to understand the alternative: Criticism often erupts when suppression of negative emotions takes the place of communication. In a healthy relationship, partners are able to talk effectively about problems by identifying their feelings, recognizing what they need and want, and then approaching each other in a respectful and loving way.

Their self-awareness determines their ability to assert themselves with compassion and to eliminate problems through mutual understanding and teamwork. Each partner must check in with themselves, making sure that they are getting their needs met, rather than waiting for the dam to break!

In doing so, they build greater trust, a stronger bond, and reduce collective number of gray hairs. (We’re pretty sure about the last one, but haven’t had a chance to do the research yet).

How do the “Masters” of relationships get there? You’ll find some answers in the following blog post.

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Self-Care: Criticism
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.