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The First of the 4 Horsemen: Criticism And Why It's So Dangerous

Managing perpetual problems (see previous blog post) requires effective dialogue. Part of what makes dialogue effective vs ineffective has to do with whether the interactions during that dialogue are more positive than negative. You can live with very different views and still collaborate, connect, and find workable solutions if you have more positive than negative interactions during conflict.

In Gottman's research, he discovered that there is a “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions that allows couples to have successful conflict conversations. Couples who are low-risk for divorce, or as he calls them the “masters” of relationships, have a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction DURING conflict conversations. This 5:1 is the magic ratio. Couples who experience a lot of relationship dissatisfaction have closer to a 1:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions during conflict conversations. Couples who are high-risk for divorce have fewer positive interactions than negative with a ration of .8:1. The magic ratio of 5 positive interactions to one negative interaction is very important to keep perpetual problems from becoming gridlocked!

Here are some examples of what positive interactions during conflict might look like:

-expressions of empathy

-questions of curiosity

-words of appreciation

-playful humor

-expressions of interest

-apologies or ownership of mistakes

-physical affection like touching their shoulder, patting their leg, holding hands

Here are a few examples of what negative interactions during conflict might look like:

-verbal or emotional dismissiveness

-negative body language (eye rolling, head shaking, turning body away)

-hostile or critical statements

-hurtful statements



Here is where the 4 Horsemen come into play:

The reason the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, Stonewalling) are so destructive, is that they suck all positivity out of any interaction and invite increased negativity. These communication patterns very quickly skew the ratio of positive to negative away from the magic ratio and towards more negativity than positivity. That is why they are so dangerous and why Dr. Gottman calls the 4 Horsemen a problem of cascading negativity, because if even one of the 4 Horsemen is present, it will inevitably invite the other horsemen in bringing more and more negative interactions with them. When you have more negative than positive interactions during conflict, you are on a sure path for gridlocked conflict and relationship distress.

Let’s start with the first of the 4 Horsemen: Criticism

Criticism is the least deadly of the 4 Horsemen, yet it is the first because it inevitably paves the way for the others and it invites in the more “deadly” horsemen. Criticism happens when you are pointing out the ways in which your partner is defective in the relationship, or attacking their character. When one partner is being critical, they are usually truly thinking that if they can just point out these defects, then their partner will get on board with wanting to change things about themselves. However, I don’t think criticism has ever been met with “Oh thank you so much for pointing that out, you are so right and I now know that I need to do something differently because of the way you are showing me my defectiveness!”

Criticism naturally and instinctively invites defensiveness, which is the 2nd of the 4 Horsemen. Criticism will never invite more positive interactions into the conversation, yet we keep doing it thinking it somehow will get us good results. Dr. Gottman found that in heterosexual relationships, criticism is the communication pattern predominantly used by females, and stonewalling is predominantly used by males (more on stonewalling later).

In a mixed-faith marriage, it is common for criticism to be directed toward church or to the ex-members or to whichever group is not aligned with your own views. However, this can feel like indirect criticism whether it is intended that way or not. If you are criticizing something that is important to someone, unless they are very skilled in having boundaries so that they don’t take things personally (which is a very mature skill that takes some work to develop), it will subconsciously feel the same as criticism directed toward them. Consequently, their response will be just as if it had been criticism directed toward them personally. It will naturally invite defensiveness or more criticism in return.

Criticism reminds me of a vacuum sealer that is made to get all of the air out of a bag, but instead of air, it sucks all of the chances of positivity out of the interaction. Besides sucking out any chance for positivity, criticism is problematic in other ways as well. Couples therapist Terry Real says “there is no vulnerability in complaint.” When you criticize or complain, all you are doing is pointing out the faults of another which is no skin off of your own back. However, If instead of criticizing, you were to ask for something directly, that is much more vulnerable because it sets you up to possibly be disappointed.

For example, a critical statement of “you never listen to my perspective" is very different from making a request of “I would really like for you to come sit with me for 10 minutes and hear my perspective on this so that I feel there is equal sharing.” A direct request is much more vulnerable because there is the chance they could say no, or not right now, or I am too busy, or argue against your request which would feel very hurtful and disappointing. Yet intimacy requires vulnerability. So not only does criticism suck out positivity, but it also effectively hides vulnerability which reduces the chance for more emotional intimacy in the long run.Criticism does nothing to move anything forward, and invites in negativity that will only move you further from where you would like to be.

What to do instead of criticism:

If you want to have more effective dialogue around your perpetual problems, it is essential to get rid of criticism as a communication pattern. Here is what to do instead:

1) ALWAYS speak from the “I” and never from the “You”

This looks like:

“I feel…”

“I perceive…”

“It seems to me that….”

“I am assuming that….”

“I am making up that….”

“What comes up for me is that…”

For example, instead of saying “you are so focused on the negative when you come to church with me,” say “It seems to me like you feel negative when you are at church with me, is that how it feels to you?”

When you speak from the “I” you are owning that whatever you say is coming from your own lenses through which you filter the world, and you are not claiming to speak for any objective reality. When you own that you are simply interpreting things a certain way from your perspective, it might invite your partner to give their perspective or explain what is going on for them which deepens the conversation instead of inviting defensiveness and negative interactions.

2) Make very specific requests instead of complaints or critical statements

For example, instead of “you never let me to teach the kids about my beliefs,” say instead “I would like to have a discussion sometime this week about how we can find a way to both feel like we have an influence in our children’s lives equally.”

Moving from complaint/criticism to request allows for creating pathways forward instead of keeping things stuck. It opens doors to specific actions and gives your partner very concrete ways they can work and collaborate with you. It is an invitation into something you can co-create instead of an invitation into defensiveness and increased negativity.

3) Always state a positive need instead of a negative request

Focus on the positive thing you are wanting to happen instead of focusing on the thing that you don’t like. For example instead of “would you please stop teaching the kids that because I don’t believe it,” say “I would love to find some common values that we can both agree on that we can teach to our kids.”

Focusing on what you want to create together, or the positive thing that you want to happen, invites your partner to step into collaboration with you instead of inviting defensiveness which will stall all collaboration. Pointing out what you don’t like, even if you do it with kindness and respect, still doesn’t help them give you what you really want. Focusing on the positive need is much more inviting!

Awareness is the First Step Towards Change

Eliminating all forms of criticism from your conflicts and conversations may be harder than it sounds! Often you might not even notice your criticism, especially if it is a communication pattern that you learned in your family of origin and feels normal. So the first step is to try to take inventory and notice if you are communicating with criticism, and also ask your spouse if they feel criticism from you when you are talking about your differences or perpetual problems.

If you can eliminate criticism, you will greatly reduce the chance that the other horsemen will show up, which means you will be more likely to have positive interactions even during conflict. And when you have more positive interactions, you are much more likely to be able to communicate and collaborate around your differences in ways that will move you forward rather than put you in gridlock.

Criticism may still show up from time to time, in which case you will need to know how to handle the defensiveness that it invites….more on that next week!

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