You always leave your dirty socks on the floor! You never help me with the laundry! You’re so lazy!
Almost every spouse has heard that at some point. “Usually” it’s the guy. There’s a problem there, and it’s not the dirty socks on the floor and it’s not the lack of help with laundry. It’s the way that the problem gets brought up.
That is criticism. It’s one of John Gottman’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse for Marriage. John Gottman is one of the great researchers on marriage and what makes a marriage work. He researches what’s different between happy, long-lasting marriages and marriages that don’t last.
If you want to raise an issue and have the conversation not blow up in your face, then you need to be able to separate the character of the person from the behavior that you’re talking about.
Criticism is using words like “always,” or “never,” and is attacking character when the problem is behavior. In the dirty sock example, a better way of saying it was:
“I feel stressed out when our room is a mess, and I see dirty socks on the floor.”
And leave it at that, that’s one example. Another example could be: “I know that you’re a hardworking person, you’re a neat person that prefers a clean home, and yet, I see dirty socks on the floor.” And leave it at that and let them solve the problem.
Those are two options, separating, separating making a distinction between character and behavior. Or using the ‘I’ statement, I feel overwhelmed. I feel stressed. I feel annoyed when I see dirty socks on the floor. Whatever the feeling is that dirty socks on the floor create for you.
Just say, “I feel…” fill in the blank… “because I see dirty socks on the floor.” And let the other person solve it. It won’t come off as an attack. It’ll come off as a legitimate complaint about the behavior. And you won’t have the conversation blow up in your face.