The destructive effect of criticism

“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” –Buddha

All relationships have their moments.  Two people cannot live together without having differences of opinion from time to time.  When these differences of opinion arise, how they are handled can either escalate the situation or resolve it.  Criticism is the first of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ that were introduced last week.  Criticism is basically attacking the partner’s character instead of addressing the situation.  Judgment is an easy trap to fall into.  We often assume that we know why our partner is or isn’t doing something and believe that we need to let them know about it.  When we address an issue, the focus can either be on the behavior or the person.  It sounds like semantics to talk about the behavior or the person doing the behavior, but there is a significant difference.   When behavior is addressed, the person themselves are still okay and there is a behavior change that can happen. When the focus is on the person, it becomes a personal attack on their character, which implies that they are not okay.  This is criticism. There are often a lot of ‘always’ and ‘never’ words used in criticism.  It sounds like ‘You always leave your clothes on the floor!’ ‘Why don’t you ever say anything nice to me?’ or ‘You never do anything right!’  Criticism is saying that the person is somehow flawed and there is something wrong with them.

So, how can a partner’s behavior be addressed respectfully without attacking the person?  It is important to start out with the facts of the situation, without adding emotion.  ‘When this happened…’  Then state how it makes you feel.  This is where finding an appropriate emotion word is important.  There are hundreds of emotions that we can feel, but we usually limit our vocabulary to only three- happy, sad and angry.  Try to tune in and find which emotion or mixture of emotions you feel.  Did the behavior make you; upset, envious, frustrated, anxious, unheard, hurt, jealous, vulnerable, scared, etc…  The third step is to ask for what you would like.  ‘What I would like is….’  The final step is to ask if your partner is willing to honor that request.  If they are not, negotiate to find something that meets both of your needs.  For example, what would it be like to hear, “When I find your socks laying all over the house, I feel unappreciated.  What I would like is for you to put your socks in the laundry room.  Would you be able to do that?”  This statement addresses the behavior and is not a personal attack.  This sounds very different from, ‘You always leave your socks laying around the house!  Why can’t you ever put them in the laundry room?’

Patterns of behavior develop throughout a relationship.  If criticism is a frequent pattern of communication in your relationship, the first step is to recognize it.  Try experimenting with addressing the behavior using these four steps and see if the tone shifts.  Next week I will discuss the second ‘Horseman of the Apocalypse’ which is contempt.

The four greatest predictors of divorce

“Marriage is an extremely difficult relationship.”–Lee Radziwill
Being in a relationship is difficult work.  Whenever two completely unique individuals choose to spend a significant amount of time together, conflict is bound to occur.  We all see the world through our own lens and it is often difficult to remember that others don’t see it the way we do.  As I work with couples, one of the things I listen for is what is called the ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.’  Dr. John Gottman has done a significant amount of research with couples and he has been able to identify four behaviors that accurately predict divorce.  When couples are entrenched in these four behaviors a significant amount of time, there is an 80-90% chance that the couple will get a divorce.  While it is normal for healthy couples to display these behaviors from time to time, if these behaviors are becoming routine ways of communicating, trouble is looming.

  1. Criticism. This is when partners attack each other’s character instead of focusing on specific behaviors that the partner displays.  It is generally where one partner is right and the other one is wrong.  If, for example, one partner leaves their dirty dishes in the living room, criticism would be saying something like, “You never pick up your dishes!  What’s wrong with you?” or “I always have to clean up after you.  You’re worse then a kid!”
  2. Contempt. Contempt is a notch above criticism.  This is when partners begin to purposely insult and degrade their partner.  It is showing your partner flagrant disrespect.  This involves a lot of name calling and ‘jokes.’  For the dishes example, it would be comments like, “You are such a lazy slob!  You should go live with pigs!”  This also includes behaviors like constant eye rolling when a partner is attempting to talk. Of the four horsemen, this is the biggest predictor of divorce.
  3. Defensiveness. While some defensiveness is normal during conflict, this is a mode of self-protection.  It is behaviors like playing the victim, denying what the partner is saying, passing the blame, or meeting one complaint with another, instead of taking responsibility.  In the dishes argument, it would be saying things like, “I always clean up my dishes!  You are the one that leaves dishes all over the house!”
  4. Stonewalling. Of the ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse,’ this one is the most difficult for many people to deal with on a regular basis.  People who stonewall simply refuse to engage in any interaction with their partner.  They stare at the TV or ignore the partner completely when they are talking.  Men tend to engage in stonewalling more frequently than women.  When a partner is stonewalling, it appears that they have checked out and no longer have any desire to fight or defend.

If these four behaviors sound familiar and are used frequently, it may be time to take a close look at your relationship.  Over the next four weeks I will be focusing more on each of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and sharing strategies to help improve communication.

—This post is based on the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman, Ph.D.

The Power of Change

“Life is always changing in order to remain always sustainable.  Thus, every change that ever occurs is change for the better.” Neale Donald Walsch

Change seems to be the focus of the country right now.  While change is never easy, some changes come with anticipation and excitement, while others come with fear and uncertainty.  One is not necessarily better or easier, but all changes have their unique challenges.  Whenever there is a change, it is important to separate out our emotions and our thoughts about the change.  It is easy to get stuck in our judgement about a change.  We may get so focused on how terrible the change will be that we miss the opportunity the change is providing.  It is often illuminating when I work with clients to process through the thoughts that are attached to the judgements they hold.  I begin by asking them to put words to some of the emotions they are having.  Very rarely do we have one emotion.  It is often a mixture of various emotions.  I often think of emotions like colors.  There are three primary colors, but by mixing them in varying amounts, beautiful hues and shades are created.  By asking clients to sort through the emotions they are feeling, they may find there is mostly anger, but there is also a touch of embarrassment, fear, jealousy or sadness.  I then ask them to think about the thoughts that are creating those emotions.  Often thoughts that come up are catastrophic and sound like, ‘I will never be happy again,’ ‘No good can come of this,’ or ‘They will never forgive me.’  We then begin to question if those statements are true.  I ask them to think about prior experiences and verify if they have factual evidence to support their thoughts.  It is exciting when clients begin to recognize that their imagined version of the truth is not supported by facts.  This is not to say that there are not any facts to support them, but often they begin to recognize that there are other ways of looking at the situation.  Working through these simple questions is empowering because they realize that it isn’t the change that is stopping them, but instead it is the thoughts and judgements they are holding about the change.  They then have a decision to make; do they want to change the future to duplicate the past or do they want to create something better?  The change becomes the push they need to grow.  What changes are you holding judgement about today?

What new ideas will arise this year?

“And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Over the holidays we got to talking about how times have changed.  Grandparents were sharing stories of when they got their first TV, which amazed my children.  I talked about the first TI computer we had and how I remembered typing code in to make a game.  While it sounds foreign today, it was not that long ago.  We got into a discussion about what antiquated technology my children are going to be telling their children and grandchildren about in the decades to come.  It is amazing to think about how fast technology is changing our world and what the future will be like.

Every new year is symbolic for new potential.  It is a time to reflect upon that which has not been serving us and to draw a line in the sand.  That was then; this is now.  This year to come is full of potential, but the first step is to begin visualizing what you would like to see.  To conceive of an idea and to nurture it, is to bring it into creation.  In Genevieve Behrend’s book, Your Invisible Power, written in 1929, she discusses the importance of moving beyond the known boundaries and into the unknown.  She states, “We now fly through the air, not because anyone has been able to change the laws of Nature, but because the inventor of the flying machine learned how to apply Nature’s laws and, by making orderly use of them, produced the desired result.  So far as the natural forces are concerned, nothing has changed since the beginning.  There were no airplanes in ‘the Year One,’ because those of that generation could not conceive the idea as a practical, working possibility. ‘It has not yet been done,’ was the argument, ‘and it cannot be done.’ Yet the laws and materials for practical flying machines existed then as now.”

This year, what new ideas will be conceived of?  What new possibilities will arise?  This generation is able to imagine things that were thought impossible by previous generations.  What an exciting time to be alive!  Here is to a NEW YEAR!