Criticism in Relationships: Examples & Solutions

criticism meme of couple fighting

This article is an in-depth take on criticism in relationships.

You will see real-life examples of criticism and you will learn why criticism is destructive and how to properly give feedback without criticizing.

But first of all, I want to give you some motivation to tackle this area of your life and relationships.

Why We Need to Fix Criticism

Relationship skills are some of the most underappreciated -and underdeveloped- skills in the world.
This is silly, considering relationships are the biggest determinant of a happy and healthy life.

As John Gottman said (I paraphrase):

working on your relationship instead of going to the gym makes you 3 times healthier in a fraction of the time.

Criticism: Part of a Bigger Problem

Criticism is one of what John Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse“, which are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling

Why should you know this?
Because when couples engage in any of the above, a break up follows 90%+ of the time. And couples that don’t split up experience terrible relationships.
So let’s start now.

What Is Criticism?

In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail Gottman introduces criticism as

A global attack on personality or character

Criticizing differs in one important characteristic from a complaint.
A complaint is about specific issues, whereas criticism is an attack on a defining personality trait.
With criticism, you attack your partner at an identity level.
Criticism is hurtful and pushes your partner to either defend or counterattack. And that, instead of helping us solve the issue, escalates the negativity.

Here are some elements that can help you recognize criticism:

  • Start with “you”
  • Use absolute adverbs such as “always” and “never”
  • It’s about them, not the situation

Criticism (wrong) VS Complaints (right)

On the left side, are some examples of criticism.
On the right side, how a more emotionally intelligent partner would communicate the same issue?

Bad Criticism

Proper Complaint

You never listen to me, you are so egoistic!

I want to hear about your day, I really do.
But I also want to share mine. It makes me feel you don’t care about me when you don’t listen.
Can you please listen and pay attention to me?

You always leave a mess! You’re not a responsible adult, you’re a baby. But I’m not your mom to clean your shit!

I feel *so* tired and overburdened. And now that I see you throwing your socks on the floor I feel like exploding.

You “forgot” what? How can you forget the bills! Probably too busy thinking what shoes to buy! God you are so sloppy it would be funny it wasn’t tragic

I am furious you forgot to pay the bills. I want to discuss this matter deeply with you once I calm down. For now, this is your issue and I want you to think of possible solutions

Notice that moving beyond criticism does not mean being nice or taking things lightly.
In the last example, he has taken the matter very seriously. And he lets her feel the brunt of his anger and disappointment by refusing to get involved and letting her work on it by herself first.
But he still avoids the pitfalls of making it a personal criticism. A personal criticism would have escalated into an ad hominem argument, poisoning both of their moods and moving them farther away from a solution (and from each other).

Why Criticism Dooms Relationships

When criticism becomes pervasive the relationships start becoming toxic.
Three things often happen:

  1. Partners behave more like enemies than teammates
  2. Criticism begets criticism: fights multiply and good times disappear
  3. The sense of “us” disappears and emotional distance grows

In Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, Gottman says (I paraphrase for brevity):

We need a supportive partner to share what matters to us: dreams, fears and feelings.
But a criticizing partner makes us feel psychologically unsafe. We fear our vulnerabilities could be used against us.
So we clam up, and we grow emotionally distant.
And that’s a lonely way to live.

Examples of Criticism in Relationships

And here are a few real-life examples of criticism in relationships:

1. Sex And The City – Carrie and Aidan Fight

Aiden: Oh, *your* stuff, *your* bathroomYou always do that, you never want to let me in”
Carrie: I don’t “always do” anything, and I have.. Let you in

“You always” is an open sign of criticism. And with *your* stuff *your* bathroom, he is communicating:

  • You are (always) egoist and self-centered

Even more harmful for the relationship, he says she can never manage to let him in.
That’s a defeatist, hopeless expression. When you talk like that, you are verbally admitting your relationship has no future and you have no power to change it.
From there on the argument only escalates, going into contempt, flooding, and ending with stonewalling (we’ll deal with them in the next installments).

2. Mrs. Doubtifire – Divorce Scene

Miranda: You set me up every time to be the bad guy.
Daniel: You spend too much time with those corporate clowns you used to despise
Miranda: I spend too much time with you, Daniel.

She says he guilts trip her. Because it’s *every time* it’s not circumstantial, it’s a criticism of his persona. She is basically saying:

Daniel implies she has become a corporate clown -another personality criticism-.

Note: Daniel has other issues here beyond criticism. He is lacking a spine, especially after the divorce line (the correctly rewritten script below takes that into account).

3. Sex and The City – Carrie & Miranda Fight

Miranda: Every time you get near him, you turn into this pathetic, needy, insecure victim.

every time you get near him” is broad enough to qualify as criticism. Especially considering that what comes next is so aggressive that it would take a zen master not to take it personally.

CarrieYou’re gonna cut me out of your life like you did to Steve? The first sign of any little weakness or flaw, and you just write people off. My God, Miranda! You are so judgmental.

Typical of criticism, it leads to an escalation. Carrie’s three hits are slightly different, but all point out to the same personal criticism, basically telling Miranda:

  • You are a cold-blooded, heartless b*tch

Friendships tend to be more resilient. But if that were a romantic relationship, it might have scarred them for a long time.

Fix Criticism: Proper Relationship Communication

Here are the steps to move beyond relationship criticism:

1. Start With “I

Effective complaints begin with a soft start-up, often stating your feelings. It might be an emotion or a physical state.

2. Talk facts

Focus on facts, not on the person.

3. State a positive need

How can your partner -or both of you- make it better?

Rewriting The Criticism Examples

And here’s what the above criticism examples would look like by using the correct complaint mechanism:

Express Feelings

State Facts

State Need

I am so annoyed and hurt

That you label shared areas as “*yours*”.What the hell is that Carrie. I feel like you are closing off to me.And that’s the last thing we need -> this is “team framing”

Carrie…(pause for emphasis)Can you please be respectful about my things and a bit more welcoming towards me?(recruit her help to break negative cycle)

The way you shut off our party, that made me feel so crushed and unworthy

We are growing apart Miranda.And that pains me because I believe we still have a shot at making a good family.(empowering, hopeful frame)But we’re far from it now and it will take both of us to change that.(team framing & realistic)

Now this is my mess, so I’ll clean it.(takes responsibility, relieves her)But after I’d like you to sit down with me and talk it through. OK for you?(get compliance)Cool, go rest now, it’s been a tense afternoon (smiles) -> this is repair attempt

Carrie, I feel so angry right now that I’m about to blow off

The last time you have been with that guy it was terrible on you and took a toll on all of us

 I don’t want to see you again in that state.And right now, with the anger I feel, I don’t feel I could support you.

What It Takes to Move Beyond Criticism

Moving beyond criticism is not difficult from a technical perspective. Practice it consciously 20 times and it will start to come naturally.
It can be emotionally more difficult though.

Here’s what it takes:

1. Ownership & Team Framing

I statements are a form of ownership. “You” passes the blame along. “I” takes responsibility.
Once you can take ownership of your part, look for ways to take a joint, or couple ownership whenever you can involve both of you.

Vulnerability also plays a role here. It can be hard for ego-protecting people to say “I feel hurt”.

2. Vulnerability & Courage

Stating your needs can require lots of vulnerability when it’s an emotional need.
In the feminist era, it can be hard for some women to say “I feel lonely”. And it’s no better for men. Hiding behind a mask of masculinity, they often prefer not to state any need at all.
That’s why it’s important to foster an open, criticism-free environment: because the alternative to vulnerable asking is aggressive fighting.

3. Emotional Intelligence & Repair Attempts

Emotional intelligence is your greatest ally in stopping criticism’s vicious circles. If you are reading, and thinking of how this article applies to you, you are right now increasing your emotional intelligence.

With emotional intelligence, you can realize what’s going on, step back and deploy repair attempts.
Repair attempts are anything a partner does or says to break the escalation of negativity.
We will discuss it more in-depth in another installment. But for now, here’s an example of a successful repair attempt.

4. Practice

Here’s the good news of this all: the more you use complaints and vulnerability instead of criticism, the easier it gets.
It’s a virtuous cycle.

It’s Not About Suppressing Emotions

I want to stress this further again.

Fixing criticism is not about being overly nice, “letting your partner off easy” or even suppressing your anger.

As a matter of fact, you should embrace your feelings and anger (studies show suppressing emotions is bad for relationships).

Fixing criticism is about channeling your negative feelings away from destructive outlets and into helpful ones.
And don’t say to your partner that The Power Moves said it, but if you’re in a fiery relationship, it’s also OK to shout.


Criticism will make for a terrible relationship at best and soon destroy your relationship at worst.

The solution is swapping criticism with specific complaints. That’s relationship communication 101.
And it’s powerful.

If you have experienced both heavy-criticism relationships and criticism-free ones, you know it.
They’re worlds apart.
You can’t wait to end the former. And the latter are the relationships that make life a pleasure to live.

1 thought on “Criticism in Relationships: Examples & Solutions”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top