The first of the Four Horsemen, and likely the most common, is criticism. Criticism stems from unhappiness, annoyance, and disappointment. In a marriage, one partner might keep mum about the other partner’s annoying behaviour to avoid conflict. But that really causes the bottled up anger or frustration turn into resentment which, over time, erupts as a “you” statement of blame:
“You’re so inconsiderate! You never help me with the housework!”
Criticisms always hurt – there is no such thing as a constructive criticism – because it is an ad hominem attack on a person’s character, not a specific action or behaviour. Words like always and never imply that the person has a consistent and negative personality flaw.
Use a gentle start-up
If you are unhappy with something in your relationship, by all means, express it, but instead of attacking with criticism, you can use a gentle start-up. Avoid using “you” statements and expressing a negative judgment, which will make your partner feel attacked. Instead, talk about your feelings by using “I” statements and expressing a positive need. In other words, the antidote to criticism is to complain without blame. A complaint addresses a specific behaviour or action, and it does not carry the negative charge of criticism because it does not blame and, instead, expresses a need:
“I am feeling swamped with housework. Could you please help me with some?”
The next time you need to address a problem and assert your needs, formulate your gentle start-up, or your complaint without blame, by thinking of these two questions before you approach your partner:
- What emotions do I feel?
- What do I need from my partner in this situation?
Because criticism is the first horseman, fighting off the urge to criticise can hold the other horsemen (defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) at bay.
Making your intentions clear in a respectful and assertive way can allow both of you to avoid needlessly hurting each other’s feelings. It is imperative that you express your feelings fully, even when it is hard and makes you feel vulnerable. In fact, vulnerability provides an opportunity for intimacy and connection, and instead of vilifying each other, the two of you can become a team, able to soothe and comfort one another.
When you are a team, you create solidarity in your relationship, or a sense of “we-ness.” You won’t Attack each other; instead, you’ll have each other’s backs, and you can form a strong foundation of trust, respect, and loving support even when you disagree or make mistakes.