Marital Discussions: Criticism Versus Complaint | Relationship Coach

Welcome back, and welcome to our last week of 2021. As we jump into this last week of the year, if you haven’t already done so, I would love to encourage you to take some time to look at how you created more of what you wanted in your life this past year and then to fast-forward to this time next year and imagine who you will be. Who is it you want to be and why? How would this vision bring you to closer alignment with your true self? That’s all; start envisioning yourself having accomplished that mission, and with consistent visualization, the steps towards that vision will begin to present themselves to you. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been exploring ways we interact with our partners and how our go-to ways of interacting can indicate which direction our relationship is going. Last week we had a great conversation where we looked at how to start a discussion that allows each of you to open up versus shutting down, and this week I want to continue the conversation by looking at ways to discuss what is bothering us. Let’s look at criticism versus complaint in your marital discussions, but before we do that, I want to recognize that the two of you may have stopped having “difficult” conversations because you realize they make things worse. “Difficult” conversations are important conversations where you are each sharing your inner thoughts and feelings. If you are in this camp, this is for you because it will help you start opening up and expressing what is important to you and your relationship. Giving these techniques a go will feel awkward and may not be received the way you anticipate them to go, but trust me, if you keep practicing your persistence to create what you want, it will pay off. Also, in last week’s episode, I shared what to do when your attempts “back-fire,” so go check that out too.

As you listen to these episodes, I want to have you consider what you will do with the information you collect. You want to create a more connected marital relationship, you want to feel more loved, and all of what I share here will help you move towards that goal, but only if you take the information and do something with it. Gathering information about what makes a relationship work and what pushes it apart means you hope and seek solutions. Implementing something counter to your habitual relationship interactive responses takes practice and willingness to feel uncomfortable through the process. Create awareness for yourself through what I share and start taking actionable steps. If you are struggling with the implementation, that is where I help you get some traction.

First, we’ll look at what criticism is and what a complaint is, and how they differ. Then I will share some examples so that you can better decipher which ones you may be using in your conflict discussions and help you start preparing for difficult conversations you would like to have with your partner.

The first lethal type of negative relationship interaction: Criticism

Relationship expert John Gottman of The Gottman institute created the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which refers to four different types of negative interactions that are lethal to the marital relationship. This week we are talking about the first one, which is criticism.

When we look up criticism, what we find is that it is the practice of judging the merits and faults of the other person, the act of expressing disapproval, and of noting the problems or faults of the other person. It expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other person’s character or personality. Throughout a relationship, constant criticism will wear the relationship thin and slowly eat away the positive emotions that brought the two of you together.

A criticism would be what we call a harsh start-up (link to last week’s episode), which we talked about last week, those discussion introductions that begin with “you never” or “you always.” Starting the discussion this way gives you a 99 percent chance of it not wrapping up in a way that gets you any movement forward.

The antidote for criticism: Complaint

There is a significant difference between a criticism and a complaint. A complaint doesn’t critique the person, but it focuses on a specific behavior or a specific event. Most complaints have three parts:

  • Sharing how you feel
  • What situation has you feeling this way
  • What you need, want, prefer from your partner

While we’re here, let’s talk about the difference between a complaint and nagging because none of us want to be a nagging partner, nor do we want to live with a nagging partner. Nagging would consist of bringing something up multiple times without re-evaluating the process and the result that you’re getting. In contrast, a complaint states how you feel about a specific item and then shares what you need to resolve how you feel. Your partner can choose to do whatever they want with the complaint. Still, in a healthy relationship, the partner would share their side of the story, and together there would be resolution instead of unresolved conflict.

The complaint is what we call a soft start-up to a difficult conversation, so it has you initiating a conversation that has a better chance of getting resolution than the criticism.

The difference between a criticism and a complaint.

The primary difference between the criticism and the complaint is that criticism focuses on the person and the complaint focuses on the specific behavior or circumstance.

Have you ever heard your partner ask, “What is wrong with you?” or maybe you’ve even said the words, I’ll admit to at least thinking them, and this is a criticism that can turn a well-intended complaint into a criticism. Even if you’re “only” thinking it, your energy will convey it.

Let’s look at some examples of each:

Complaint: “I feel sad that we don’t get much time to talk. Can we find an hour that works for both of us this weekend?”

Criticism: “All you do is work. You never make our relationship a priority.”

Complaint: “I feel frustrated that you leave your shoes in the entryway, and could you possibly set them in the closet?”

Criticism: “You are a slob, I spend all day working to keep our house nice, and you totally disrespect me.”

Complaint: “I miss snuggling with you before bed. Could we go to bed together tonight?”

Criticism: “It’s obvious you don’t love me or care for me because you never come to bed with me.”

Complaints and differences within a marital relationship are almost guaranteed, and some of them may remain throughout the relationship. One of you might prefer a minimalistic lifestyle while the other enjoys some splurging. When you can love each other for your differences instead of making the differences mean there is something wrong with the other; the relationship can flourish instead of wither. The other skill these couples learn is how to use successful repair attempts to soften the tension that these differences create; we will discuss this technique in a future episode.

Resolution isn’t always going to be the outcome of a complaint but what it does do is enable the couple to interact about the conflict and begin the process of finding resolution where criticism brings about a negative interaction that puts the cap on a possible resolution. At least if a complaint doesn’t end in resolution, it steers clear of sucking the life out of the relationship.

I share all of this because if you hear yourself in some of these examples or are seeing your own examples in your mind, you aren’t alone; it is widespread in relationships. The problem comes when it persists and bleeds into contempt, defensiveness, and avoidance. Use this information to examine and create awareness of your weaknesses; awareness is the first step to change.


I am a life coach who works with individuals to break down relationship barriers by awakening their true selves. My process isn’t about changing your partner; it’s about discovering who you are so that you can AwakenYou in your marriage. If you’re ready to take your life and your love relationship to the next level, then schedule your program inquiry call today and let’s decide together if this is your next step to creating the life you’ve been dreaming of.

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