When two people decide to pair up, they typically enter the relationship with bright expectations for what the future holds. Many of those expectations will be fulfilled, but inevitably, there will be disappointments. With all the many habits they each have and the differing ways in which they were raised, it’s not uncommon for partners to develop complaints about one another. Things like not putting the toilet seat down, chewing loudly, forgetting to take the trash out, leaving dishes in the sink.
But there is an enormous difference between complaints and criticism.
Where complaints address behavior that we don’t like, criticism is a more global attack on the person — a sort of character assassination. It’s one thing to say, “I wish you’d put the toilet seat down when you’re done.” It’s a very different thing to say, “You never put the toilet seat down. I wish you’d actually think about someone other than yourself for once.” There is one thing that separates the first from the second. In the first instance, you are registering your dislike of a particular behavior (complaint). In the second instance, you are making broad, sweeping character judgments about the person in light of a specific behavior (criticism).
Now, having said all this, criticism is not that uncommon in a long-term relationship. In fact, it’s probably the most common negative attitude researchers see in relationships, and couples often stay together in spite of its presence. But, it is generally seen as the gateway to the much more negative attitudes that are associated with relationship dissolution.
When criticism becomes a regular and consistent part of a relationship, other negative factors are likely to follow. For couples where criticism seems to be on the rise, it should serve as an early warning mechanism in the relationship to take action. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about some easy steps you can take to reduce criticism in your own relationship and ensure that complaints don’t turn into something more toxic to the relationship.