If you’re married or in a relationship, you know there are times when you start talking to your partner about something that’s bugging you and things start to degenerate pretty quickly, when that honestly wasn’t the intent! You just want to tell your partner that you hate it when they don’t remember to move the laundry to the dryer, or when they don’t pick up after themselves, or maybe they forgot the milk at the grocery store. It could be anything. They didn’t fold the laundry when they had agreed to. They didn’t remember your birthday or anniversary. They’re not listening to you. They’re not open to discussing something. Or maybe it’s the other way around, maybe you feel criticized by your partner.

Aha! There we have it. It’s the criticism that’s the issue, not the raising of concerns.

What is criticism? Merriam Webster defines it as “a remark or comment that expresses disapproval of someone or something.” Well, maybe we do disapprove of our partner when they don’t follow through on something they said they would do, or when they let us down some way. Isn’t expressing our feelings healthy?

Well, yes. And, no. Bottling up feelings can lead to feelings of resentment – you’re right, that’s not healthy. But if we express our feelings in a critical way with our partner, it is much more likely that our partner will become defensive, or will escalate and throw the criticism right back at us, or simply shut down and not engage. And all three of those responses means that there is a decrease in effective communication, a decrease in connection. This is why John Gottman, founder of the Gottman approach to couple’s therapy, calls criticism one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” when it comes to relationships.

So. What to do instead?

First, it’s important to recognize criticism – and fortunately, that’s pretty simple to do. Criticism almost always starts with this word: you. You forgot to get the bread at the store. You didn’t clean up the kitchen like you said you would. You forgot our anniversary. You don’t love me. You never do what I ask you to You you you. Examine your own communication with your partner and see if you ever start off a concern in this way.

Once recognized, the next step is to shift the words so that the concern is still communicated but in a way that isn’t critical. There is even a formula for doing this which I teach to the couples who come to me for support, and the formula is this: I feel (an emotion) when (this happens) because (of this) and I need (this)

Say that you find your partner’s dirty clothes once more spread out all over the floor… instead of saying, “You didn’t pick up your clothes, I am so sick of this!” followed by possibly increasingly vitriolic words (going both ways), you can say, “I feel frustrated and resentful when you don’t pick up your clothes because then I have to pick them up if I want to be able to walk across the room without tripping, and I need your help now please!” You’re not starting with your judgment of your partner’s inadequacies, but rather with your own feelings and experience, and your partner is more able to hear you. Your partner can then respond to your concrete need – they can agree or disagree or come up with a compromise. They might say, “Yes!” and jump up to clean, or, “I can’t right now, but I will in half an hour.” They’re less likely to get defensive and critical back, and more likely to enter a dialogue about the issue.

Or, let’s say your partner is always late to whatever-it-is-you’ve-planned-together. Instead of blurting out, “You’re always late!” (which as you now know is a criticism because you’re expressing disapproval), you can think of a way to craft your response using your new formula, and say, “I feel frustrated when you’re late because I don’t know whether you’re coming or not, and I would love it if you could text me your ETA next time.” Then your partner can say, “Okay!” and not get defensive, and suddenly you’ve possibly avoided a big fight, as well as come up with a solution to try.

I gently challenge you to examine your own words for criticism when you interact with your partner. Starting off a discussion with the formula above can help with productive communication and resolution of issues which need to be discussed. Shifting to a new mode of communicating may feel uncomfortable at first, but I encourage you to try it on something small and see if it works.

Many couples get stuck in a pattern of criticism and the resulting escalation. This is actually quite common! The above formula is a great tool, but often not quite enough to dig out from underneath sometimes years of ineffective arguing. I urge you and your partner to seek couples counseling if this is the case for you – shifting a pattern can take some work but the end result of more effective communication and increased connection is well worth it!