Criticism vs. Disagreement

Epic Love
Setting:  The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story  
Element #1:  Critical vs. Disagreeing

In the same way that the setting for a movie puts limitations on – or creates the potential for - a certain set of outcomes in a story, the setting or tone of a marriage creates the potential for longevity and joy or frustration and divorce. While forecasting the quality or depth of a marriage is challenging, the research of John Gottman and others has shown us that the presence or absence of six relational variables can predict with a high level of certainty whether a couple will end in divorce. In the same way that the dramatic bass in the movie, Jaws, foretells of a shark attack, the presence of contempt, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, conditionality and externalized responsibility cast a dark tone over a relationship, foreshadowing conflict, distance and, eventually, the death of the relationship. In contrast, disagreeing, vulnerability, validation, empathy, commitment and personal responsibility create a relational tone of safety, minimizing the likelihood of tragedy and fostering intimacy. The next six Epic Love blogs will focus on these six critical elements which create the setting or tone for your marriage.

Whenever you merge two different personalities with two different backgrounds into a shared life, disagreement is inevitable. Expressing disagreement is a natural and healthy facet of an intimate relationship. The differences of perspective, preference and opinion facilitate growth and bring a richness of experience. However, when expressing disagreement devolves into a verbal assault on your spouse’s person or character, criticism has emerged. The dividing line between criticism and disagreement is talking about what your spouse does as opposed to who they are. To express disagreement with my wife’s decision to put plates on the top rack of the dishwasher is legitimate. To suggest that she is silly, lazy or thoughtless person for doing so is critical. The contemporary research of John Gottman – who refers to criticism as one of the four riders of the apocalypse to a marriage - validates the age old wisdom of Solomon, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” The following examples illustrate the difference between criticism and disagreement.

  • Disagreement: I don’t think it was a good idea to spend that much money on a new guitar when our savings account is as low as it is.
  • Criticism: You’re selfish and reckless with money. You’re just like your Dad.
  • Disagreement: When I’m trying to share a story with you and you pick up your phone to send a text, it hurts.
  • Criticism: You’re just rude.
  • Disagreement: I don’t like it when you yell at the kids like that. It scares me for them.
  • Criticism: You’re mean. You’re just like your mother.
  • Disagreement: When you leave your clothes out on the floor like this it makes me feel like you don’t appreciate the work I do to keep the house clean.
  • Criticism: You’re such a slob!

“I have to tell him how to do things because his family was so backward that he just doesn’t know any better”, a well-intentioned wife recently told me. As she expressed her frustration with her husband’s seeming inability to lead their young family, she subsequently ticked through a list of those things he simply did not understand about being a husband or a father. Each bullet point on her list reflected another weakness in his person, another reason why he was unacceptable to her. As she continued, I could see him drawing further and further within himself as the shame mounted.

Criticism implies rejection and inflames a sense of inadequacy. Women are more prone to criticism and men are particularly sensitive to criticism. For some men, just seeing disappointment, hurt or anger on their spouse’s face evokes a sense of failure and feelings of inadequacy. When those emotions are subsequently expressed with critical words, the message received is one of rejection. Who you are is wrong. Who you are is not enough. Criticism can be temporarily effective, evoking immediate efforts to change behavior or fix a problem; but across time it leads to withdrawal and disengagement. As a spouse feels increasingly inadequate, they begin losing hope. “It will never be enough for her. I’ll never be enough for her.” “I just can’t please her.” Long after the initial sting of rejection is past, the shame of inadequacy lingers. I heard one man tell me that with each critical word he received from his wife, he placed a chink of armor on his heart to protect himself. Then one day – about a decade into the marriage – he realized that the suit of armor was complete. Any affection for his wife had been closed off behind the same armor that protected him from absorbing her criticism.

Of course, expressing healthy disagreement can also evoke strong feelings and conflict. However, the conflict inherent to such arguments is organized around the matter at hand and not one’s standing in the relationship. If I want to schedule a fishing weekend with some friends and my wife tells me that my idea is ridiculous or that I’m selfish for even thinking about a fishing trip right now, I'll experience that as criticism and react strongly. The ensuing argument won't be about fishing, but about defending my judgment and worth as a man and a husband. To accept such a criticism as valid, would seemingly invalidate me as an equal in the relationship and render me as nothing more than an employee to my wife. When I’m fighting for that, watch out; the argument is liable to get ugly and destructive. However, if my wife expresses concern about our budget for the month and suggests that this may not be a good time for me to charter a boat, I get irritated and frustrated. I really like fishing and my views around money are more liberal than hers. I’ll argue my case – I need a break and I think we do have enough money in savings. However, at the end of the argument – whether we decide for or against the fishing trip – all I was ever fighting for was a fishing trip. I never lose sight of the fact that she loves me and is looking out for my best interest. Most importantly, out of the disagreement between us - the confluence of our differing perspectives, experiences and opinions - emerges a wisdom and balance that enriches our life together.

-Jeff Pipe

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