Try a criticism fast to disrupt the critical spirit in your marriage.

Criticism creeps its way into almost every couple’s relationship at some point.  

I heard Jim Gaffigan recently quip about veiled criticism. Try gifting your spouse an unasked-for bathroom scale for Christmas.  

What about this statement: “You’re just like your mother!”? I’m not going out on a limb in saying that 98% of the time, it’s not highlighting an admirable quality of said mother.  You both know it.  Whoever said this is referring to a character flaw or weakness that’s driving them crazy.

Or, maybe you’ve witnessed this one:  “How could anyone think that’s the right way to ….?”

We could add many statements like the following:

“You’re way too sensitive!”

“How could you be so ____!”

“Are you just trying to avoid me?”

Staying in a long term relationship is meant to help us become more loving, more compassionate human beings.  You and I know it doesn’t always work out that way. 

It’s all too easy for negativity in the form of criticism to work its way into your communication like a mole sneaks under your lawn. Fail to stop the mole and it will destroy your grass in no time.

Similarly, let criticism go unchecked, and it will eat away at the roots of what holds you together.

 

Criticism and Complaints are Not the Same

At this point, you may be thinking, “Okay, but I just don’t agree with everything my spouse does or says.  Are you telling me to grin and bear it?” 

No, definitely not.

Marriage researcher and expert John Gottman explains the difference between voicing complaints and criticisms.  Here’s his explanation:

“You will always have some complaints about the person you live with. But there’s a world of difference between complaint and criticism. 

A complaint focuses on a specific behaviour or event. “I’m really angry that you didn’t sweep the kitchen last night. We agreed that we’d take turns.  Could you do it now?” is a complaint.  

Like many complaints, it has three parts: (1) How I feel (“I’m really angry”); (2) About a very specific situation (“ you didn’t sweep last night”); (3) And here’s what I need/want/prefer (“Could you do it now?”). 

In contrast, a criticism is global and expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other’s character or personality: “Why are you so forgetful? I hate having to always sweep the kitchen floor when it’s your turn.  You just don’t care.””

Dr. Gottman characterizes a complaint as a “soft start-up”, while a criticism is a “harsh start-up”.  When harsh, “you” focused statements become the norm, they lead to other relationship red flags such as defensiveness and contempt.

A complaint voices the problem while preserving an atmosphere of mutual respect.  Your choice of words makes a world of difference. But remember body language and intonation carry weight too.  The right “complaint” words said with contempt or with body language conveying dismissal, blame or judgment is still harsh.  

Voicing and receiving complaints is healthy for the two of you.  Criticizing is not.

You may be more critical than you think.  Ask your husband or wife.


The Scale Should Tip Away From Complaints 

 

As an aside, even if you’re not being critical, you can’t have a thriving relationship if you’re perceived as always complaining.  If you separate your positive communications from the negative and imagine them on opposing plates of a balance scale, would the positives be more weighty?

If your marriage feels burdened by the negatives, it’s worthwhile digging into why. 

Are you noticing the positive qualities and actions of your husband or wife?  Maybe you grew up in a scarcity of appreciation or praise.  Perhaps you were only affirmed for achievements that were formally recognized by awards or medals, and it’s a pattern you’ve brought into your relationship.

Does your partner care about taking a shower after work or a workout? Will they visit your ailing relative?  Help with the dishes or your child’s homework?  Take the dog for a walk? If you look closer, your partner probably has many helpful habits or actions you may be taking for granted.

Noticing the small, positive things about your partner and cultivating gratitude for them will impact how you feel. Don’t keep that gratitude to yourself!  Put it into words, write a note, reach out, be playful, start a dance party (my personal fav!).  

Let your complaints trickle into a steady stream of love.

 

How to Disrupt an Unhealthy Pattern:  Try a Criticism Fast

 

Consider trying a criticism fast in your marriage.  People talk a lot these days about fasting food, or social media, or noise but you don’t hear as much about fasting (or ‘denying yourself’) interpersonal behaviours.  

When Carey and I were in the middle of our vicious cycle of conflict, we were making all the relational mistakes:  being critical, defensive, even stuck in contempt at times.  I believe criticism was the catalyst for all the messed-up blow outs we spun into.

One important disruptor of this negative cycle was a criticism fast. Why was it so effective? To avoid being too verbose, I’ll stick to the prominent reasons.  We had to pay more attention to all the words we were speaking.  If forced us to hone a better and more effective filter for our words.  It gave our self-control muscles a workout.  

As well, I believe that when we assume license to be critical while in conflict, we spend more effort blaming and less effort self-reflecting and owning our part. 

Who do you want to be?  A person who chronically blames, or someone who curiously searches to take their part of the responsibility? Someone who strives to believe the best of the other, or who’s cynical? A partner committed to personal growth, or one who expects their partner to somehow adjust (or become codependent, depressed, etc.)?

While I’m sure there are other and perhaps better approaches, these are the criticism fasting ground rules we used:

      No critical statements, gestures or body language toward your spouse or intended for your spouse, for as many consecutive days as you can manage. Once you’ve criticized your spouse, the time restarts at zero again (if you’ve tried this in the past, see if you can beat your last record);

      Disagreements and complaints are fine.  Healthy conflict is encouraged.  As I said earlier, you will disagree – just don’t be disagreeable.  You can learn to be kind, respectful and responsible with your words even when you don’t see eye-to-eye and may need to agree-to-disagree;

      Focus on self-control and listen to each other;

      Your spouse is the one who makes the call over whether your words or actions were critical, not you.

I am rooting for you to make it past my record for my first fast. I sustained 4 days. Carey fared better at 11 days.  But all challenges aside, simply giving this type of fasting a try is a win in my books, whether you make it to half a day or half a month.  

 

What If My Spouse Won’t Participate?

 

Being a sole change-maker in your marriage is a hard position, especially if you’re feeling hurt, too.  It always takes two to tango, and if you’re in a rocky place in your relationship right now, you both have your grievances.

As I always caution, if you’re wondering whether the negativity in your relationship has become toxic to you, read this: https://toninieuwhof.com/is-your-marriage-unhappy-or-harmful/.

For most married people stuck in a season of negativity, it’s pretty mutual.  You may have reached the point where the pain associated with the status quo is greater than the pain associated with change. Maybe your partner hasn’t reached that point yet. Or perhaps being critical is not their particular issue.

Even if you’re the only one motivated, try a criticism fast for a few days or a week, and then re-evaluate.  I recommend leaning into a support person if your spouse doesn’t care to participate.  (Be sure to choose a support person who fundamentally supports your marriage if your intention is to improve it!)

Whatever change you make, motivated by love, will have an influence.  Maybe the softer tone and your unexpected words of appreciation will shift the mood.  Maybe it will create an opening for less complaints and more affection than you’ve experienced for a while. 

I’ve saved the best for last.  My main argument for being a solo changemaker: you push yourself to learn to love better.  All of your relationships will benefit from that!  

One final note:  if you try a criticism fast, drop me a note to let me know how it works out. Reach out if there’s some way I can help. For sure, I’ll celebrate your number of days with you! I hope you’ll be lifted by what you’ve learned about yourself and your marriage.

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