Complaints Or Criticism: The Effect On Your Marriage

Complaints Or Criticism: The Effect On Your Marriage

This month I have been focusing on communication and its role in relationships ( One of the most difficult things a couple can do is address an issue which one partner finds problematic. It seems that no matter how small the issue or how calmly it is broached, the resulting conversation escalates into a fight. Most often this occurs because one of the partners moves from a specific complaint to a more global criticism. Once this happens, the immediate response is to become defensive. At that point, any further effort to reach resolution is futile.

Complaints, criticism and contempt in marriage

Dr. John Gottman, a world renowned psychologist, followed 2000 married couples for over two decades. He was able to predict with 94% accuracy which couples would separate within four years. In his book Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail he identified complaint, criticism and contempt and their roles in the long-term outcome for a relationship. His definitions are as follows.

  • Complaint is a specific statement of anger, displeasure, distress, or other negativity. For example: We don’t go out as much as we used to and I miss that.
  • Criticism is much less specific. It is more global and may contain an element of blame. For example: You never take me anywhere.
  • Contempt, like criticism, is global but it includes the intent to insult and psychologically abuse your partner. Some of the signs of contempt are:
  • Insults and Name-calling: stupid, ugly, fat, jerk, etc.
  • Hostile Humor: comic relief used to thinly cover put downs.
  • Mockery: words or actions are made fun of or ridiculed.
  • Body Language: sneering, rolling the eyes, curling the lip.


The pathway from complaint, through criticism, to contempt is fairly straightforward. It is also relatively easy to start down. No one likes to be told one of their behaviors is irritating or disagreeable. The first reaction is to defend the action or minimize its effect. If it is something which has been done for many years, the reaction will undoubtedly be stronger. If the complaint is minimized or dismissed, the partner lodging the complaint will feel unheard or, worse, uncared for. If a promise is made to change the behavior but this doesn’t occur, again the message being sent to the partner is that their feelings don’t matter. This is the point where criticism enters the relationship.

A healthy pathway for marriage

When someone has to repeat a request over and over again it turns their focus to what is wrong about the relationship. I am currently working with a couple where his refusal to address her complaints over the years has led her to consider divorce. He hasn’t recognized the importance because they aren’t things that matter to him. Her thinking is that if she has to do it all herself, she might as well be alone. This global focus on the negative has allowed her to be blinded to what is working in the relationship and what has kept them together. Fortunately, contempt has not yet entered the picture, but her level of frustration is palpable.

The key to staying off the criticism pathway is simple but not easy. It requires both partners to put the needs of the relationship ahead of their own individual needs. Your partner’s needs and desires should become important to you because they are important to your partner. It doesn’t matter if you would feel that way about a situation; your partner does. An effort needs to be made to consider your partner’s position seriously. When this happens, the overall view of the relationship remains positive and complaints are dealt with before they morph into criticism. There are tools and techniques couples can learn to be able to address issues at the complaint level. I will share these with you next week.

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