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Cutting Out Criticism: How Constructive Complaints Can Improve Your Relationship

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Dr. John Gottman writes about the difference between criticism and complaint in a relationship. Criticism is verbally attacking the personality or character of your partner.

Criticism usually entails using phrases like, "you never" or "you always." Of all the negative ways we can relate to our partner, criticism is likely the most common.

Criticism has such negative effects on the relationship because it can leave a person feeling attacked, assaulted and rejected.

When one person feels criticized, their defenses immediately go up. If criticism dominates your relationship dynamic, it's going to be difficult for either person to feel safe and willing to hear feedback and work toward a solution.

Criticism is ultimately about blame. Blame targets one person in the relationship and unfairly places the problem on them.

What Does Criticism Sound Like & What is the Alternative?

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As a marriage counselor, I find that we often explore communication patterns in a relationship. One pattern that often emerges is feeling criticized.

There are alternatives to criticism and criticizing your spouse or partner. First, it's important that we provide clarity on what criticism is. Then we can look at the alternative.

An example of criticism

For illustrative purposes, below is an example of what criticism looks and sounds like:

"You never tell me when you're running late. Why are you so selfish? You're always thinking of yourself and your needs."

Zach Brittle writes about criticism as a form of relational violence. It is a verbal attack that seeks to hurt the other person. According to Brittle, "criticism has the power to take the peace from the relationship."

So how can a spouse or partner communicate something that is bothering them or affecting their happiness?


A complaint is different than criticism. Where criticism attacks a person's character, a complaint contains a certain feeling about a specific situation and an accompanying request.

In every relationship, we are bothered by something our partner does or says and this corresponds to a need that is not being met. Here's a common complaint:

"I felt nervous when you did not call home when you were running late. I would appreciate a call or text so my anxiety does not get out of hand."

Do you notice the difference between the two examples? Remember the example of criticism shared above:

"You never tell me when you're running late. Why are you so selfish. You're always thinking of yourself and your needs."

The criticism sounds like a personal attack. It's getting at the person's character. The criticism starts with a "you" statement which makes the person feel like they are the only one in the wrong.

The criticism uses universal language (e.g., always, never, etc.) which is not fair. The criticism also fails to bring up the crux of the issue. The main source of conflict has to do with the person's anxiety and how not receiving notice of being late will disturb them.

The complaint begins with "I" language. "I" statements maintain personal responsibility and stops the blame game. The complaint also makes it about the situation at hand rather than the person's character. This shift helps the person not feel like they have to go into defense mode.

Finally, the complaint brings it back to the main issue: the partner's needs.

When to Seek Outside Professional Help?

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While the above is simple to understand, it may be challenging to put into regular practice. if you find that your relationship with your spouse or partner is being affected by a cycle of criticism, a cycle that you can't seem to get out of, it may be time for marriage counseling or couples therapy.

Marriage counseling and couples therapy usually takes less time than individual therapy. If both partners in the relationship are willing to look at themselves to see what their part is and willing to do some things differently, marriage counseling and couples therapy can help.

Marriage Counseling & Couples Therapy at Katy Teen & Family Counseling: Katy, Tx & Houston

At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, our marriage therapists and couples counselors are here to help you with whatever the challenges may be in your relationship. Marriage counseling or couples therapy can be very effective in helping couples overcome challenges, learn to reconnect, and strengthen the relationship you have worked so hard for over the years.

Our Katy, Tx location of Katy Teen and Family Counseling, is conveniently located off of I-10 and 99. We are a couple blocks south of Kingsland Boulevard and across the street from Encompass Health in Katy, Texas.

If you are ready to start marriage counseling or couples therapy, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps:

  1. Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling

  2. Speak with one of our marriage counselors or couples therapists

  3. Partner with our marriage counselors or couples therapist to help you reconnect with your spouse or partner today

Other Therapy and Counseling Services Offered at Katy Teen & Family Counseling: Serving Katy, Tx & Houston

Below are a few of the other counseling services we provide for teens, families, and young adults in Katy, Tx and Houston:

Board Certified Neurofeedback Therapy

Peak performance (optimal academic brain performance)

Peak performance (optimal athletic brain performance)

Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART)

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR Therapy)

Group Therapy for Teens

Body Image

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

About the Author

Man wearing a blue, pinstripe dress shirt, tan sports coat, smiling in front of a brick wall. He provides marriage counseling katy, tx 77494. He also provides couples therapy katy, tx and couples counseling katy, tx 77494.

Quique Autrey is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and an experienced couples therapist and marriage counselor.

He views each individual through the lens of the family system. Through this lens he provides: teen therapy, young adult counseling, family counseling, marriage counseling & couples therapy.

Quique has helped those who experience depression, anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, ADHD/ADD, and is trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Quique also has a passion for helping teens, young adults, and adults who may be on the Autism Spectrum. He has a talent for connecting with and helping people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

If you're ready to start your healing journey in marriage counseling or couples therapy, you can call us at 346-202-4662 or email us at

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