4 Horsemen – Criticism (Part 1 of 4)

by Robert McGuire, LCMHC, EMDR-Trained Therapist

When couples are struggling, look at these four behaviors:

Through the extensive research and work of John Gottman (world renowned author, researcher, and marriage therapist) four behaviors were identified that are likely to harm any relationship, especially an intimate relationship such as marriage.  These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  This series will cover all four, and today’s focus will be on criticism.


Criticism is a common word, one most people have certainly heard, but let’s talk about how we are going to define it in this context. Imagine a wife walks in to see the toilet seat up in the bathroom for what feels like the 10 billionth time. She may quickly get angry and go off on her husband yelling “You did it again! You always leave the toilet seat up! What kind of person does that?! I’ve told you over and over. Can you not use your brain for once?!” While somewhat silly, this is a perfect example of criticism in action. It often comes in the form of generalizations – “You always…” “You never….” But ultimately it is an attack on who that person is, what he or she is like, his or her character/personality.

The Problem

The problem with this is style of communicating is that it almost always leads to our 3rd horsemen – Defensiveness. Why? Because when you use generalizations like this, most often they are simply not true. There are typically exceptions to the always or the never, and that is what the partner’s mind will go to first. Criticism is often about one person being wrong and the other being right. Starting from this place rarely leads to a productive or connecting conversation.

What to do? There is hope.

So what do we do now? Does this mean we should ignore bad behavior or things that hurt us? Absolutely not. But they can be brought to your partner’s attention in a kinder, calmer, more thoughtful way. Gottman calls this a “gentle startup.”

What it looks like in practicality is using more “I-statements” than “you-statements” and presenting your partner with a positive solution. It means defining the specific behavior that was offensive. But instead of spending 90% of your time focusing on the behavior and your interpretation of why it happened and why it was so horrific, you spend maybe 15% of your time on the behavior and the rest on how it made you feel and what you need instead next time.

Let’s imagine once again…the same wife has walked in to find the toilet seat up. But instead of blowing up she takes a deep breath and calmly approaches her husband. (If it’s something major, this might be minutes, hours, or even days later.) Calmly she says, “I noticed earlier that you left the toilet seat up. When that happens, sometimes I feel like I don’t even matter. It would really mean a lot to me if you could try to remember to put it down next time. It would feel like you were thinking of me.” Don’t you think this conversation might go just a wee bit smoother than the first? I think so too.

Let’s review:

So instead of blaming and attacking your partner’s character, you can share your complaint, how it makes you feel, and what you need instead. Focus more on your own feelings and needs than on how terrible your partner is. Easier said than done, you say? It’s true. This may be a huge shift from the way you normally communicate with your partner, but all it takes is a little bit of practice! Tune in soon for part 2.

Robert Mcguire, Jr., LCMHC, EMDR-Therapist, is a licensed therapist in Charlotte, NC. Robert is available to see individuals or couples in the state of North Carolina, online or in-person. To learn more about Robert and how he can help work with you to reach your goals, click here at https://charlottecounselors.com/robert-mcguire-lcmhc-csat-c-emdr-therapist/. You can also email him at Robert@charlottecounselors.com or call him at 704-578-3323.