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Getting Heard By Your Partner: Complaints vs Criticism

Updated: Apr 9

Written by Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

There is this scene from this show I watched as a kid, called Fast Forward. It's a show about two teens, Tucker and Becca, who have been neighbors and friends their whole life and there is this building tension that they might date. The scene in question, is a home video of Tucker and Becca when they were very young and Becca is crying and they pan to Tucker and he is breaking her music box by beating on it with a hammer. When they pan to him, he says, "I'm fixing it." He thinks that he is fixing it because he is using a hammer and he has seen people fix things with hammers before. Becca is focusing more on the state of the music box and knows he is breaking it. Criticism is a lot like this.

When you're criticizing someone, you may be thinking that you're addressing the concern because you're mentioning the thing that bothers you. However, the other person only hears what they are getting wrong in your eyes. You really need to be heard and they really need to be seen as good, even when they make a mistake. This is where it is important to get clear on the difference between what is a criticism and what is a complaint.


According to therapists and relationship researchers, doctors, John and Julie Gottman, criticism is when you blame the issues of the relationship on the other person. This often sounds judgmental or accusatory. A sign that you're using criticism is when you are using works like always or never or using labels (ex: lazy, childish, jerk) rather than describing behaviors. When you use criticism, you are not viewing your partner in the best light. With criticism you are highlighting their shortcomings and making that the focal point of the conversation, whether you mean to or not. This is because once you use criticism, your partner only hears their character being attacked, not your feelings and needs beneath the message. So, what they will most likely do is to respond with defensiveness. This might be bringing the very few times they didn't do what you're mentioning or why they did what they did. Whatever their response, if they are being defensive, they are not taking responsibility and might even be making themselves out to be the victim. You might be wondering how you get your concerns across without criticizing and triggering defensiveness, this is where complaints come in.


The term complaint, might have a negative connotation, but really complaints can be helpful and necessary. Sure, a complaint can be uncomfortable, but when done appropriately, a complaint can help you and your partner get to a better place. A complaint is when you state your concerns by focusing on your emotions and needs rather than the other person's behavior. This is best done using an "I feel..." statement. It is very important to state your complaints to prevent resentment from building and for each of you to learn more about yourselves and the relationship.

How to Phrase a Complaint

The best way to Phrase a Complaint is to use "I feel..." statements. These statements are structured like this: "I feel ____ (emotion) about _____ (event) and I need ____ (state your need). Here is an example, "I feel really sad and disconnected from you since we stopped having regular date nights. I need us to start scheduling date nights again. I know that date nights are hard to schedule lately, but I believe that we can figure this out together." The way that I phrased this is to promote collaboration, an invitation to be on the same team together rather than having opposing stances.

This isn't just the goal in your conversation, but in your relationship as a whole. As a part of a couple, you ultimately want to know that you and your partner agree on what you consider a problem and what you consider a solution. This agreement helps you feel safe and secure in the relationship because you know what to expect. My point in saying this is to help you understand that this isn't just about one comment or even a whole conversation. This is about the culture of your relationship. How you and your partner speak to one another helps create peace in your relationship.

A Gentle Approach

It is not just words expressed that can feel like criticism. Your tone of voice, body language, timing can all feel like criticism. This is why it is important to have what the Gottman Institute calls a Softened Start-up. They share that a Softened Start-up is using a calm tone of voice, using "I" statements rather than "You" statements as "You" statements are often judgments and don't leave room for each person's experience. The Gottman Institute states that it is also helpful to maintain a 5:1 ratio, which means that for every complaint you are stating 5 positive things about your partner. That might sound like,

"I really appreciate you making time to talk about this. I know you have been working really hard and doing a lot around the house, so it means a lot to me to be able to discuss this. I have been feeling concerned about our spending lately and I would like us to revisit the budget together. I know that you have been doing your best with our money, I think it is just easy for things to add up quickly this time of year. I really trust your perspective on these things, so I'm looking forward to going over this with you."

This example has a few more than 5 positive comments, but I wanted to give you a few different ways to share compliments. You do not have to count your compliments every single time, you can simply aim for increasing your compliments a little more each time. If you're unsure about how you're doing with your ratio, you can always check in with your partner about how it has been feeling for them.

The Gottman Institute mentions another key factor in making sure that you are using a softened start-up is to make sure you're not storing things up. If you're storing concerns up, you may be bringing up a laundry list of things to address. The Gottman's State of the Union, weekly meeting, can help make sure that you two are staying on top of concerns in your relationship, to prevent this storing of concerns. The State of the Union meeting is a meeting that has structure to it prompts you to share appreciation, what has been going well in the relationship, process relevant concerns in the relationship and check-in about what you both will be needing in the next week.

It is best to enter into the State of the Union or any conversation that involves complaints with a calm demeanor. When you're feeling emotionally elevated, it can be harder to stay out of criticism and defensiveness. If you need help learning how to calm yourself, I suggest checking out my free self-regulation and co-regulation guides.

How to Introduce These Tools

These tips are meant to help you go from using a hammer to fix a delicate music box (to stick with the metaphor) and making things worse in the process, to using tools that are more conducive to maintain the intricate structure of things. As straightforward as it may seem to read on a page, it does not always feel that easy to introduce something new. If you're struggling to find a way to share new skills with your partner, I suggest being forthright in saying that you want to try something new, so that you can both support each other well in communication. It may be helpful to share this post with them and ask them to help you implement these tools together. This approach can help you two feel closer to one another by having a shared goal. Plus, it feels so much better to celebrate this type of progress with one another.

If for some reason, your partner is opposed to trying this together, you can implement some of these changes on your side of things and that can still interrupt your less effective patterns. Sometimes when a resistant partner sees the positive impact of new tools they become more open to trying things differently.

Change is hard. Change in relationships can be even harder. I'm proud of you for being dedicated to finding healthier ways to communicate. If your partner is being resistant to change, I know that can be much harder and so very lonely. Keep going, you're not wrong for hoping for a better way.

I'm wishing you the best on your healing journey! :)

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This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR Trauma Therapy, Prepare and Enrich, attachment focused therapy and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy. As a therapist, she is passionate about helping people build healthy relationships and supporting people with the resources they need. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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