My girlfriend is always criticizing me, but when I talk to her about it she tells me she’s doing nothing wrong. Is this normal?
What is criticism?
Criticism is a destructive type of communication that often takes the form of “you always” or “you never” statements. If you’re hearing statements from your girlfriend like, “you’re always late”, or “you never take out the trash” then you are experiencing criticism
According to John Gottman the co-developer of Gottman Method Couple Therapy, criticism is one of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse for your relationship. These 4 behaviors, criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, can predict divorce in married couples with 93% accuracy.
Criticism vs. complaint
I want to be clear that there is a difference between using criticism, and making a complaint about a problem. A complaint gives you information about how your behavior is affecting them, it is not an attack on character. Complaints are perfectly healthy in a relationship and are often necessary to see positive change.
When your partner makes a complaint, they focus on how a behavior is affecting them and how they feel. It is not a shaming discussion like contempt. Below are some examples.
Criticism – “You’re always late. Anytime I go places with you it’s impossible to make it on time. You never think about how this affects me. I’m so embarrassed.”
Complaint – “When you didn’t tell me you were going to be coming home late from work today it made us late for the award dinner at my work. When we arrived late, after my award was presented, I felt very embarrassed and am afraid this makes my boss think I’m unreliable. In the future I need you to let me know you’re going to be late so I can meet you at the event instead of waiting at home for you to arrive.
What causes criticism?
Sometimes people are critical because this is how they have learned to communicate as children or in other relationships. Often criticism gets you what you want in the short term. But over the long haul it is destructive to the relationship.
Another reason someone may be critical is that they have tried lodging complaints and it’s not helping. They could be tired of their boundaries being run over.
For instance, when the wife makes the complaint above about lateness, she goes into the conversation assuming her partner cares about her feelings and will try not to hurt her again. However, imagine that her partner continues to not call her when he is late and expects her to wait for him before she leaves. This behavior can lead to criticism.
Another time we can see criticism is in response to another horsemen. When the 4 horsemen are being pointed at you, then it is difficult to hold back from engaging in them yourself.
If the woman above received criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling, from her partner when lodging her complaint, she may break down into criticism as a defense. I’m not saying that it’s good to use criticism in this way, however, it is very human.
How to stop criticism
If you are being criticized, make sure that your behavior is not making the situation worse. Make sure that you aren’t using the 4 horsemen with your partner and are lodging any complaints you have in a healthy way.
Talk to your partner about the criticism, using the complaint formula above. Do not use criticism to talk about criticism.
Finally, if you and your partner are having a difficult time removing criticism from your relationship, then it is time to get some help. Couple therapy can help you both remove the criticism from the relationship and help you to communicate in ways that get your needs met.