1. Criticism (Attacking Your Partner’s Character)
When we make a complaint, offer a suggestion, or simply make a request, it is important to be conscious of how we let our partners know what is bothering us or what we need them to do differently. Using a harsh approach or cutting words, versus owning our reactions and feelings and stating what we need, can make all the difference in how our partners respond.
Let’s say, for example, your partner is running late to an important dinner and you are feeling frustrated and maybe even disrespected. It would be easy to say something like, “You’re never on time. Why are you so inconsiderate?” While frustration is understandable, it is not likely you will receive a warm, apologetic response. Using absolute terms such as “always” and “never” tends to imply an attack on the other’s character rather than being specific to the situation.
This is the hallmark difference between a complaint and a criticism. Using language that feels like an attack rarely yields a pleasant or desired response.
2. Counterattack (Defensiveness)
It is an almost innately human response to counter a critical remark with some effort to defend ourselves. When someone shoots a verbal arrow at us, it seems intuitive to put up a shield. However, this response typically only perpetuates the cycle of conflict because it sends the underlying message the other person is the problem, not us. Thus, our partners may respond to our defensiveness with more criticism—or worse.
3. Contempt (the Best Predictor of Divorce)
Contempt refers to one partner’s attempts to appear superior to the other. It can include name-calling (“you are such an idiot!”), using humor in a hostile manner, sarcasm, mocking, and eye-rolling. When contempt becomes present in conflict, it is typically the result of deeply held negative feelings about the other that perhaps have not been expressed or acknowledged and addressed. The inherent message is one of disgust and discontent.
Contempt acts as a corrosive agent in relationships. A relationship cannot survive if it is continuously riddled with contempt. Every effort should be made by both partners to make sure it does not become part of the conflict cycle. Contempt is also dangerous because research suggests not only is it a predictor of divorce, but more physical health issues as well.
4. Complete Withdrawal (Stonewalling)
What often follows the pattern of criticism-defensiveness-contempt is a response called flooding, which implies a level of physical arousal that typically derails any attempt to communicate effectively. Flooding, in short, is the body switching into fight-or-flight mode, in which the sympathetic nervous system ramps us up as if we are facing physical danger. This typically looks like a pounding heart, sweaty palms, and eventually leads to the fourth “C,” complete withdrawal (or, as Dr. Gottman terms it, stonewalling).
The best way to defend against using criticism is to use a gentle approach. Try being specific to the behavior and incident driving your frustration, and state how this makes you feel and what you need. Using the late-for-dinner example (see above), instead of the critical accusation of your partner “never being on time” and being “inconsiderate,” try “I’m feeling frustrated you were late tonight. This dinner is important to me. Next time, can you please try to leave work a few minutes earlier or let me know if you are running behind?”
The best way to respond to a critical comment and stave off a defensive response is to take a breath and try to take an exploratory stance of understanding what your partner needs. This will allow your partner to feel heard, which may result in a softer tone. If you find your partner continues to use critical words despite your taking the “palms open” approach, gently point out you are feeling criticized and ask if they can rephrase what they are saying.
Avoiding contempt may come more naturally when both partners take time to develop a deeply held sense of fondness and admiration for one another, as well as comfort and safety in being able to work through the sticky areas that lead to complaints. Keep in mind, though, this is a more long-term solution. The short-term response is to take a break if you and your partner are in a conflict and you find yourself tempted to say hurtful words.
Whenever you feel flooded, self-soothe as needed. It may be physically impossible to communicate effectively if flooding takes over. Let your partner know you need a break. If you are noticing a withdrawing partner, offer to revisit the conversation after a set amount of time.
- Gottman, J. M. (2014). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Psychology Press.
- Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.