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criticizing or complaining

Are you criticizing or complaining? The difference can mean your marriage.

It’s painful when you and your partner find yourselves having the same argument over and over, and you can practically feel the distance growing between you.

Before I tell you ways to get out of this rut, let me share what I hear in my office almost daily:

Wife: “You are never on time. You say you will be home at 6 p.m. to help with the kids and have dinner with us, but it is 7:30 and you’re still not here. You only think  of yourself! Always!”

Husband: “I tried to leave on time but my boss gave me a last-minute assignment that had to be done. And I did come home on time last week, I also stopped at the grocery store and got milk. And by the way, why would I want to come home if this is how I am going to be received?”

Wife: “I hate that I can never tell you how I feel”.

Husband: “You are right about that because everything you say is negative!” 

Wife: “And you are selfish! And uncaring! And insensitive!”

Therapist John Gottman describes this pattern — the constant criticism by one partner, and the responding defensiveness by the other — as a predictor of distress and divorce.

How can this couple stop these destructive conversations and actually solve their problem?

Let’s take a look:

The wife wasn’t trying to be mean to her husband. But by the words and tone she used, she did sound as if she were attacking her husband’’s character. After all, she said he was selfish, uncaring and insensitive.  The husband responded the way most of us do when we feel attacked. We’re defensive.

At times we all get angry and find fault. But here is a better way to voice your concerns.

The antidote to criticism is complaining.

There’s a big difference, even if the two words are sometimes used interchangeably. Complaining can have positive results if you follow a few simple rules.

When complaining, use “I” statements as in, “I feel hurt,” or, “I miss you.”  Don’t make blanket statements as in,  “You’re always late.” Or, “You  never think about me.” Describe the situation. And state your needs.

Here’s the wife complaining, not criticizing: “I feel upset every time I have to wait for you. I wish you were here with us.  It’s not just that I need your help, I’m much happier when we’re together. So, when something comes up at work, please call me to let me know.”

Do you hear the difference? The wife has expressed her frustration, but she’s also told her husband that she misses him, and she’s given him a path to succeed. The situation is no longer hopeless.  In my next blog entry I will focus on defensiveness and its antidote. Stay tuned!

With love,


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