We begin this relational blog series looking at communication and uncovering what it is, and what it isn’t. Perhaps even more pertinent – what communicative patterns destroy relationships. The Gottman Institute has studied these patterns for over 40 years and has developed a form of couples therapy that is both evidenced-based and widely accessible. Thousands of couples utilize the relational and communication tools offered by the Gottman’s, even if they aren’t in couples’ therapy. In fact, the communication tools of couples therapy, as taught by the Gottman’s, has enlarged to encompass other forms of relationships – not just couples – including parenting, professional, and filial relationships. “Couples” therapy isn’t always about romantic couples. Any human social unit composed of at least two people is considered a couple. This means whenever you interact with at least one other person – in the moment or situation – you are a couple. This is where the Gottman Method of couples therapy becomes a lifesaver. We all want to avoid those apocalyptic moments – whether with our spouse, our partner, or our boss or child.
Let’s dive in deeper to the first horseman of apocalyptic communication: Criticism.
The first horseman is criticism. Criticizing is different than offering a critique, having an argument. In the Gottman Method criticism is allowed, and is even constructive. Criticism is learned through couples therapy to be directed towards a situation, an action, or a behavior – not a person themselves. This means that criticism is destructive when it attacks our partners’ character – who they are or something innate to them. This form of criticism isn’t solvable. It’s a direct attack on the person and who they are. Its motive is not critique and learning – it is destruction, harm, and often revenge or gaining the upper hand in a power play. According to the Gottman Institute, when you criticize your partner’s person, character, or self, you are dismantling their whole being. This isn’t arguing – this is war! And war leads to casualties.
According to Ellie Lisitsa, Certified Gottman therapist and Gottman teacher: it is important to distinguish between critique, complaint, and criticism.
She gives these examples:
- Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
- Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”
She goes on to state: “If you find that you and your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen to follow. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to contempt.”
We will see how the first horseman leads to its sibling – contempt – and explore that in our next follow-up post as we continue learning how to communicate and how not to.
I look forward to our next time – as we explore couples therapy and communication.