This couple came to see me for the first time. The wife just filed for divorce to the absolute astonishment of her husband who craved an explanation.

-I cannot live with you anymore! You always humiliate and insult me in front of everyone. It’s unbearable! When I broke a glass at your brother’s birthday, you yelled like crazy. I felt like dirt!

She turns to me with anger and pain on her face. The incident still visibly hurts her feelings.

-You could think that my husband is just a jerk. But no! He is all kindness and compassion with anyone but me. A year ago, at a family gathering, his second cousin Nancy accidentally turned over an entire tray of ice cream cones. I’ve never seen such a huge mess before! And he turned to Nancy and said “Don’t worry, it could happen to anyone”. I don’t know why he ever married me if he hates me so much that any little thing I do makes him so crazy.

-But I only do it because I love you! I don’t care about Nancy and what she does. But I care about you! Of course I can’t bear it when you act like a clumsy cow!

…You can probably guess that it took this couple more than one session to reconcile.

Today I would like to talk about criticism. Criticism is one of the most powerful tools to destroy happy relationships. It is so dangerous that John Gottman, a world-renowned family consultant and author, called it one of the four horsemen of family apocalypse.

However, many people continue to see criticism as an act of love. The more they love someone, the more meticulous and bitter their criticism becomes. These people think that when they criticize, they help their loved ones improve, hence showing that they care. This approach is quite frequent in families: parents criticize their children, spouses criticize each other, and so on. The intentions may be good, but this approach never works, especially if the criticism is done in public. Particularly if it immediately follows an accident, a moment of clumsiness, or an ill-spoken word.

When you criticize your loved one in public, your goal may be to point out some flaw to help them get rid of it. This goal, however noble it is, is never reached. In reality, you deprive your spouse of one of the basic human needs – the need to feel safe. All of the sudden, you turn from their ally into their enemy. It destroys their trust and makes them wish to get rid of you, at least for the time being.

And you know what the worst part is? The negative emotions that rise up in your loved one when you criticize them in public are usually so high that they will only remember these emotions and will completely forget the “flaw” you were pointing out. They won’t improve. They will just alienate from you.

So what should you do? First and foremost – keep your comment to yourself until you two are alone. Then, try sticking to I-messages. Talk about your feelings; not about your spouse’s qualities. Criticism is best accepted when delivered with a hug. But before you even start talking, ask yourself: if you were in the same situation, being clumsy or awkward in public, what would you prefer to hear from your spouse? Words of support or words of criticism?

If you need support in this area, our Crisis Management & Support Specialist – Boris Rozenberg can work with you. Learn more.

Author: Boris Rozenberg, Crisis Management & Support Specialist