Criticism: A Toxin that Destroys Marriages. Stop it Before it Kills Yours.

Criticism: A Toxin that Destroys Marriages. Stop it Before it Kills Yours.

Do you and your spouse wrestle to communicate your needs without shouting or intense anger?  Maybe you and your spouse attack the other’s personality or character leading to chaos or even worse, shutting down and avoiding him or her altogether?

The Research on Criticism in Marriages

The most influential marriage researcher in history, Dr. John Gottman, has studied over 3,000 couples for 40+ years and claims to predict divorce with over 90% accuracy. As a psychologist, his life’s work has been well-documented in scientific publications and in the national media. He has identified four specific communication patterns that are most destructive for a marriage, which he has collectively coined ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:’ criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.” This post will focus on criticism and I’ll follow up with future articles on the last of the three horsemen in the near future.

Criticism Defined

Criticism is defined as any statement that suggests that there is something globally wrong or defective with a spouse’s personality or character. Even in healthy relationships, it is common for a spouse to feel dissatisfied and complain about the other spouse’s behavior. However, there is a huge difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint only addresses the specific behavior at which your spouse has failed. A criticism becomes more global by adding harsh terms against your spouse’s character or personality. Here are some examples of criticism:

  • I’m not surprised that you didn’t call when you said you would.
  • Why are you so neglectful?
  • You didn’t text me back today. You just don’t care.
  • Why can’t you pay attention? I’ve told you ten times already.
  • I know you don’t love me. You are so selfish.
  • You never clean up after yourself.

It’s important to note that any statement that begins with “you always” or “you never” will be a criticism rather than a complaint. Also, there is a whole set of “why questions” that aren’t actually questions at all. Parents ask kids these questions frequently, and they are actually insults disguised as questions. Some examples include:

  • Why are you so lazy?
  • Why are you so forgetful?
  • Why are you so selfish?
  • Why can’t you be helpful for once?
  • Why do you insist on treating me so bad?

Is the cure for criticism to just be specific rather than global? Being specific isn’t always beneficial. You can have a long list of specific complaints that can produce the effect of a global attack on the spouse’s personality. Some examples include:

  • Pete doesn’t help clean around the house.
  • Pete forgets to pay the bills on time.
  • Pete is out of control at parties.
  • Pete doesn’t read his Bible enough.
  • Pete is too laid back with the kids.
  • Pete is too disciplined with the kids.
  • Pete is not right with God.

Sometimes all that is needed is a sentence that begins with, “You know, the problem with you Ashley is that…” Again, the issue with this statement is that it is perceived as an assault on the spouse’s personality. When your personality is under attack, the normal defense mechanism is to dig in and defend the makeup of who you are. Ultimately, the second of the four horsemen kicks in which is defensiveness. Defensiveness will be addressed in my next post.

Couples research shows that women are more likely to use criticism than men. Men don’t think that this means you are off the hook here because criticism from women is typically predicted by an unresponsive or irritable male during the preceding events-of-the-day conversation.

Antidotes of Criticism

Within every complaint, there is typically a “longing.” When that longing is revealed, a formula for how to satisfy it might arise. Your spouse is more likely to be empathetic if you express your underlying emotions and needs rather than tear them down with criticism.

An antidote for criticism is a Gentle Start-up. In other words, you should talk about your own feelings using I-statements, and then express your positive need. A positive need is a hope, wish, or desire that the listening spouse can provide for the complaining spouse. In short, the format of the antidote is:

  • I feel
  • About what
  • I need

Here is an example of an antidote in action:

Criticism – I’m sick and tired of how you always ignore me when we are around our friends.

Antidote to Criticism – I felt left out at the party tonight. Do you mind including me in some of the conversations next time?

Additionally, during a gentle start-up, it is advantageous to use soft emotions rather than hard emotions. Hard emotions include:

  • I’m angry at you.
  • I’m so bitter.
  • I can’t tell you how frustrated I am.
  • Your behavior made me so mad.

Some examples of soft emotions include:

  • Your behavior makes me sad.
  • I’m so embarrassed.
  • I fear that I will lose you.
  • Right now, I feel lonely.

A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. – Proverbs 15:1

How can Marriage Counseling Help?

The high prediction of divorce is only for those couples who do not address these issues. These patterns can be turned around by making small changes in your communication style. As a marriage counselor, I can help provide the knowledge and tools to help you build a strong relationship and help you avoid destructive patterns by building in the antidote to the four horsemen such as criticism.

One of the first things I do in couples counseling is to label and stop this corrosive interaction pattern. I educate my couples about criticism, helping them to identify these behaviors, and explain to them how it is a consistent predictor of divorce.

As a marriage counselor, I cannot proceed with therapy while ignoring these destructive behaviors. I will actually pause the disagreement in session to have couples come up with a replacement for the criticism. They are taught to attack the “what” and not the “who.”

All marriages, even the healthiest ones, have disputes. It is not avoidable. There are issues that will never be resolved because of natural personality differences between you and your spouse, however, when you learn to manage these problems in a healthy manner, then your marriage will thrive. Fortunately, science shows that it’s not the presence of conflict, but rather how it’s managed that predicts whether a marriage will succeed or fail.

As a Gottman Method trained couples therapist, I am here to help. If you would like to meet with a trained marriage counselor in Louisville, Kentucky then feel free to contact me to schedule an appointment. If you would like to learn more about me then check out my About Me page.  To learn more about my approach to marriage counseling, please click here. 

Check out this video about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.


Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: W W Norton & Co.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.

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