Criticism — A Relationship Deal Breaker!


Criticism is 1 of the 4 Relationship Deal Breakers—See all four in our previous blog post. 

The Gottman Institute has spent 40 years researching relationships. Dr. John Gottman discovered four communication patterns that can destroy a relationship, better known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which include criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These communication patterns are often related to communication patterns in romantic relationships, but their context can be expanded. In today’s post, we will focus on criticism. 


“You never pick up the kids!”

“You’re always late for work!”

“It’s so convenient you forgot your wallet AGAIN. You should attach it to a rope around your waist so I don’t have to pay all the time.”

We are inundated with the term constructive criticism or constructive feedback, and hustle culture may force us into believing that we must accept criticism. But what is constructive about the above statements? Nothing! The comments are all complaints that pick apart the listener. Reflect on how you read and imagined these statements – What was the tone, volume, and rate of speech? What body language accompanies these comments?

How would you react to these statements?

The examples provided above are all examples of destructive criticism. The ingredients for destructive criticism often include exaggerations, such as never, always, and should. Sometimes, criticism can be framed in a rhetorical context by using why statements. Criticism can also be non-verbal – stomping, smashing, and crashing about while picking up the laundry. 

Dr. John Gottman found that how we start conversations can determine their outcome 96% of the time. As the listener receiving the comments, you will likely react by becoming defensive or shutting down, and the conversation will escalate or end without resolution. 


Luckily, The Gottman Institute also identified successful communication patterns. In the case of criticism, the antidote is a gentle start-up. So, what’s that? A gentle start-up communicates a feeling and a need, which can be a vulnerable place for the speaker. The general model for a gentle start-up is I feel….about what….I need…. So the original destructive statements would change to:

“I’m feeling very overwhelmed today about this looming work deadline. Could you pick up the kids?”

“I’m feeling uneasy about the meeting with our new client tomorrow. Could you spare some time, say, 10 minutes before our meeting to go over the game plan again?”

“Gosh, I’m a little strapped for cash these days. I don’t mind spotting you, but could you send me an e-transfer later?” 

Compare how you heard and saw these statements in your imagination to the destructive statements. What changed? How might you respond to these comments?

Before communicating with a gentle start-up, take some time for self-reflection and self-soothing. It’s natural to be angry, but criticism will not usually solve the issue. 

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