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  • Writer's pictureSkyline Team

Does Criticism Have Any Place in a Healthy Relationship?

Updated: Feb 22


According to many couples, criticism is considered a standard part of any relationship. Unfortunately, couples tend to collapse the idea of a simple complaint (“It looks like you forgot to take out the trash again. Would you mind?”) and a criticism (“Well here we go again. Do I have to do everything, or were you planning to do literally anything this week?”) The two approaches create a very different visceral response. Sure, even the most loving individuals have stressful days and slip into bad habits; however, for some couples, criticism becomes the norm.


Some relationships consist of a chronic feeling of negativity and cynicism. Marital researchers John and Julie Gottman call this “negative sentiment override,” a state of being that is characterized by expecting the worst from a partner and discounting any benign intent let alone character traits that were once considered endearing or desirable. When this effect takes over, efforts to connect or improve the relationship are often seen as selfish or disingenuous. At this point, couples no longer apply the “benefit of the doubt” and develop a habit of criticizing virtually every perceived shortcoming.


Whether criticism is accidental or intentional, it can feel degrading to a partner. Those little instances of negativity tend to add up over time, elicit defensiveness, and significantly derail conversations. Thankfully, there are specific “fixes” that can be applied to lower the tension and get even contentious relationships back on track.


First, we recommend that couples acknowledge (out loud and to each other) that this negative pattern has taken over. It just so happens that having something else to blame, like a third party or a “state of being,” can reduce the tension between two people.


Next, couples should stop and consider their perspective on the relationship dynamics. When a relationship is in negative sentiment override, it is common for each individual to feel like an innocent victim and to villainize the other for how difficult, frustrating, unenlightened, or inferior they have become. How can both parties feel this way at the same time? The answer is because this is not a logical perspective but an emotional one. When couples enter this perspective, criticism tends to flow freely from each person’s mouth and its opposing force (defensiveness) drives a wedge between them.


It is very important to revise the viewpoint that one partner is superior to the other. For this, we recommend adopting what the Gottmans call the “assumption of similarity.” It goes something like: Whenever you identify a positive trait within yourself, try to also see that positive trait within your partner; Whenever you identify a negative trait within your partner, try to also see that negative trait within yourself. How might this help? Quite simply, it establishes common ground and a more level playing field. The way we see it, there is no room for any “high horses” within a healthy relationship. In fact, successful couples maintain respect, friendship, and an ability to compromise even when they completely disagree on a topic!


Finally, it is always important to keep an open mind. Couples are great at learning about one another during their initial courtship. During this phase, they remain curious about one another and ask questions to get to know more about their subjective realities. That level of curiosity naturally decreases over time and with increased knowledge of one another; however, it is actually great practice to return to a state of curiosity as often as possible.


Remember the example statements above? From a calmer and more curious perspective, partners can practice asking for what they need (“Would you mind taking out the trash?”), voice a complaint (“You forgot again”), and find out what is going on (“Is everything okay? Have you been stressed this week? Do you want to talk?”).


When both partners are open, view each other to be equal, and remain motivated to find similarities rather than differences, criticism tends to naturally dissipate.


We’ll leave it up to our readers to decide whether criticism has any place in a healthy relationship.


Are you looking to improve communication within your relationship? Skyline Psychotherapy and Assessment Services, PLLC offers couples and marital therapy as well as a short-term premarital course. Contact us for a free 15-minute phone consultation with a licensed clinical psychologist.

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