Letting your spouse know how they can improve is an important part of healthy communication, but if you are more critical than constructive, you could be doing more damage than you think. Renowned researcher and author Dr. John Gottman identified “four horsemen” that can predict the end of a relationship, and the very first is criticism (the others are contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling).
Gottman points out that criticism is very different from voicing a complaint or a critique. Criticism, instead of making a way for you and your partner to move forward from a setback, attacks the very core of your partner’s being. For example:
Criticism: “You don’t care about this family! You’re never home, the kids never see you, you only care about yourself!”
Complaint: “I think you need to spend more time with the kids. I’ve got my hands full with them the whole day, and they would appreciate spending time with you.”
See the difference?
So what can we do to communicate our feelings to our partners without hurting our marriage? Here are some tips that can help you figure things out.
1. Keep your emotions in check
Don’t criticize when you’re angry, in case you say something that you might regret. “When you’re feeling frustrated or angry, it is crucial to remember that your actions and words do not have to be dictated by your feelings,” couples therapist Liz Higgins told The Huffington Post.
“This takes intentional effort and commitment on each partner’s side. It takes emotional maturity. It also takes learning how to self-soothe your own emotions so that you don’t depend on your partner to be your emotional caretaker.”
On the next page: read about more things you should keep in mind when resolving a conflict with your spouse.
2. Watch your tone
Do your best to keep calm and keep your tone even. “Make your tone as civil and as reasonable as possible,” psychologist Dr. Guy Winch writes in Psychology Today. “Anger or harsh tones will only distract your spouse from the content of your message.”
3. Never use the words “never” or “always”
“You never listen to me!” “I always do the cleaning up!” Sound familiar? Marriage experts agree that statements like this are not only unproductive, but really damaging. It’s best to steer clear of using them altogether. “Always and never conversations only escalate the problem and cut off the ability for the other person to understand what is being communicated,” psychotherapist Dr. Bill Cloke writes in Care2. “It is also in its own way a form of abuse because the other person has no way out of feeling bad.”
4. Think: what’s your end game?
Before voicing out a complaint, think about whether or not doing so will help or hurt your relationship. Also think about what you want to achieve. Instead of making “winning” your goal, focus on resolving conflict. Psychologist Dr. Geraldine Merola Barton recommends keeping a loving attitude so that both of you feel “cared for and respected.”
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