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Quit Your Pickin’: How to Complain Instead of Criticize

by Jennie Gill Rosier

Over the last few weeks, all but one of our four cars have stopped being able to get us from point A to point B for one reason or another. (Which, by the way, doesn’t include the Hus’ [aka- my husband’s] dream car that’s on jack stands in the garage. So technically, all but one of our fivecars don’t work. Why do we have five cars? That’s another story for another time. I digress.)

This recent catastrophe has infuriated my mechanic husband because now we’ve resorted to sharing one car. (Oh the agony!) Well, replacement parts have been ordered, Hus has been put on various car part waiting lists, & our mailbox and front porch are checked daily. Because of this debacle, some days I’ve been taking him to work and other days he’s been taking me to work. Needless to say, we’ve been spending a lot of time together in the car.

On these car rides, we tend to have conversations like this…

  • Me: Don’t turn here! Wait until the next turn.
  • Hus: Why? I always go this way.
  • Me: The second turn is faster. And, slow down! You won’t be able to make the turn going this fast.
  • Hus: Leave me alone; I’ll turn where I want!

…or like this one…

  • Hus: You’re gonna hit the car in front of us! Brake already!
  • Me: I was planning on it. Geez!
  • Hus: Well, you were really close! We almost hit that car!
  • Me: (said quite sarcastically) How do I manage without you, honey? I mean, I accelerate and brake all day by myself, but I obviously need your help. Thank you so much. (Sarcasm, by the way, is a sure-fire way to create some conflict in your relationship.)


I’m not sure why we’ve suddenly begun to criticize each other’s driving abilities. We’re usually pretty good at not focusing on the little things that bug us. But, for some reason, we both haven’t been able to keep our mouths shut while driving to work. This is one of those situations where we just can’t keep it together.

Unfortunately, many relationships are consumed by criticism. Whether you’re consistently knocking how your partner does the laundry, slamming your partner’s daily choice of clothing, or always pointing out your partner’s inability to be on time, criticism is a nasty communication technique that, when built up over time, can seriously damage your relationship.

It is important to note that there’s a difference between complaining about your partner’s actions one day and criticizing your partner’s character. Where complaints can sometimes be helpful (allowing people to take note and possibly make a change), criticisms tend to attack a person’s disposition by blaming and generalizing the issue beyond the behavior in question. For instance, “I felt like you didn’t support me yesterday when I was sad” is an example of complaining, while “You never support me” would be an example of criticism.

Researchers agree with the idea that criticism tends to have negative outcomes. In fact, criticism has been linked to feelings of embarrassment (Fitness, 2001) and lower relationship satisfaction (Cutrona, 1996) within the person being criticized. Furthermore, when comparing communication patterns of happy and unhappy couples, researchers have discovered that distressed couples tend to exhibit more negative verbal behaviors like sarcasm and criticism than happier couples (e.g., Birchler, Weiss, & Vincent, 1975; Gottman, 1979; Margolin & Wampold, 1981). Gottman (1994) has even named criticism as one of his “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” when talking about the four signs which can reveal that couples are headed for break-up or divorce (defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling being the other three).

How can YOU change your critical ways? According to Gottman & Silver (1994), learning to complain more effectively may be able to take the place of criticism. Effective complaining involves identifying one specific behavior by your partner that you are unhappy with and not allowing yourself to generalize the issue beyond the behavior in question. However, you still don’t want to complain all of the time. Pick your battles and your relationship can be more satisfying.

While it’s okay to ask your partner to slow down the car every once in a while, telling your partner that he or she can’t drive or that he or she always drives too fast is considered criticism and can damage your relationship. So, quit your pickin’!

Dr. Jennifer Gill Rosier, Ph.D., creator of and author of the recently released book Make Love, Not Scrapbooks, is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at James Madison University. Her broad scholarly research interests include communication skill development and relationship maintenance behaviors. Much of her current research focuses around examining the actual skills needed to effectively communicate about sex in romantic relationships and investigating the role that a wide variety of communication skills play in successful marriages that have experienced hardship (i.e. loss of a child, terminal illness diagnosis, raising multiples, etc.). In the future, she plans to publish two more books based on these two areas of research.