Is it possible to criticize someone in a way that also builds them up?
This question is hotly debated among CEOs, coaches, and—yep—couples that come to my office for therapy.
While prolific in so many people's lives, criticism is also one of the most toxic behaviors that can rapidly break down intimacy and build up walls. So I'll go on record here to say that criticism is generally a bad strategy, and even more so in committed relationships. Even if you believe that you’re offering “truth” or that you’re trying to correct a behavior or attitude, your partner cannot hear it (much less act on it) if it is perceived as an attack, or if it's addressed as a swooping generalization.
But this does not mean that you suddenly can't address issues in the relationship that bother you. Far from it! Instead, it just means that you need to do it in a way that can be heard—which will facilitate actual action and change.
So when you're deciding what to say when your partner irks, yet again, here are some things to keep in mind—and some ideas on what to do instead:
01. Criticism is different than a complaint.
Criticism is often expressed in a way that suggests a character flaw. It focuses on who a person is rather than what a person has done. A complaint, however, is different. It focuses on the action—and when it comes to relationships—a well-placed complaint is okay, and sometimes very necessary in a relationship. Here's the difference:
It’s OK to be disappointed when your partner forgets to vacuum before the party. However, it’s not OK to assume that they’re lazy and unreliable. In other words, when you complain, it’s important to do so without blame, otherwise, it becomes criticism. Stick to the facts, not characterizations.
Dr. Gottman advises couples to stick to a very simple formula: When _______ (event that happened), I felt _______ ( actual feeling word) and I need _______ (response). So, for example, “When the living room wasn’t vacuumed, I felt disappointed and stressed, and I need to know that I can count on you.” All of those are facts which allow your partner to respond non-defensively. That’s impossible when you say, “Ugh. Why didn’t you vacuum the floor. You know how important it is to me to have a clean house. Why can’t I ever count on you?”
02. Demand is different than desire.
The goal of any committed relationship is to keep it going and to make it deeper. But when we place demands on our partner, we create a power dynamic that is rarely helpful and usually backfires. So when you ask for what you need, it's imperative that you make your requests without demanding them—which either inspires them to reject your request to make a point, or causes some serious resentment as they begrudgingly do what you tell them.
Instead, when we ask for what we need, we give our partner an opportunity—rather than a mandate—to respond.
So what does this look like?
Asking with desire is a skill, and also a tactic. When you ask for what you need, you’re actually strategically educating your partner. You’re giving him the answers to the test. You’re essentially saying, “If my needs are met, I’ll feel less stress and disappointment—and will be a better person to be around—so here’s the answer key.” In this scenario, the ask creates a win-win for both partners. When both partners get smarter, both benefit from a continually deepening relationship.
03."Truth" isn’t necessarily true.
"But what if I'm just telling the truth?" people commonly ask me when defending their reasoning to criticize. It's a good point—but here's why criticism, even though "true", doesn't work. You see, it's actually not telling the truth—or at least the whole truth. Often including general words like, “always” or “never," criticism rarely looks at the whole picture.
In fact, the second you use generalizing words like that, you lose the upper hand, as your partner immediately starts focusing the exceptions—even if your perception is absolutely valid. Because criticism creates no room for dialogue or compromise, you're immediately setting your partner up to get into a defensive mode, which is the opposite of what you want to do. When you rely on the myth of absolute perceivable truth, you eliminate the possibility of a mutually edifying relationship moment. In other words, you are immediately setting up an argument, not a course for productive action.
Mathematically, it’s simply impossible that your partner never or always does anything. When you say, “You never vacuum the floor," your complaint immediately becomes a criticism—because she will remember that one time she vacuumed two years ago. At that point, the dance of criticism vs. defensiveness will take over and the floor still has pine needles all over it, and no one is happy.
Ultimately, I don’t believe that constructive criticism exists—at least not in a healthy couple’s relationship—as criticism immediately puts people on the defensive, killing intimacy. So the next time that you're frustrated with your partner—remember to point out only the action they're doing wrong—and phrase what you'd like them to do instead in an inspiring way that's not a mandate. Remember that when it comes to these kinds of relationship woes, the truth isn't always so black-and-white; and even if it was, criticizing your partner will never actually inspire the kind of change you'd want to see.