Criticism - Horsemen 1/4

The Four Horsemen | Criticism

Couples Counseling | Columbia, Mo

couple riding bike in sunset, marriage therapy columbia mo

Last week, we spent some time just talking about the four horsemen (of relationships). How they're terrible for successful, happy, long-term relationships and how they predict relationship dissolution.

And that's important because I'm assuming you're reading this based on things not going splendidly (#nojudgment).

First, let me say, welcome to the club! Our team specializes in couples therapy and marriage counseling in Columbia Missouri, and some of us specialize, even more specifically, in the Gottman Method.

The First of the Four Horsemen

The first of the four horsemen is criticism. Although don't trick yourself into thinking this one always pops up first. It doesn't. Although it's a pretty common horseman (and don't worry, we'll talk about all four here and during couples counseling).

For the record, criticism isn’t the most predictive of relationship dissolution, but it does feed into conversations going poorly. When conversations start with criticism, they frequently continue down the horsemen path and end unpleasantly (read: shitty communication or conflict and fighting. Thus the importance of recognizing this one and heading it off at the pass.

Criticism takes a few forms, but often sounds like, "You're selfish, lazy, insensitive, inconsiderate, (or) thoughtless." To further on that, "You don't think about me, you only think about yourself, (or) you're always putting yourself first no matter what I want or say."


Let's take Joe and Judy, for example. Joe promised to unload the dishwasher before Judy got home, but then got sidetracked by something (or maybe just forgot). Judy gets home and has two options for addressing this thing. Her standard is criticism. So she says something like, "Ugh, Joe. What the hell? You never do what you say you're going to and you don't care how it affects me. You're so selfish!"

You think that's well received?

My guess is no.

Another option is for Judy to say, "Hey Joe, what happened? I'm a little bit let down because you promised to unload the dishwasher and didn't follow through. I feel burdened by a lot of other things right now and just want that taken off my plate. Can you please help me out?"

Whether the ‘healthier’ way of expressing oneself is well received or not is to be determined (by many other factors, actually), but it comes across as way less accusatory and way less critical, while still voicing unhappiness with the situation.

couple of color on bench, couples counseling columbia mo

Think of it this way. If the goal is to be heard (even when voicing anger), then the language we use and the way we voice our frustration should (in an ideal world) be intentional. AND should be done in a way that actually can be received as a complaint and frustration rather than a criticism.

I think it goes without saying that this is much easier said than done. It’s hard to be intentional about the way we talk when we’re angry, and it’s even harder to snap out of the criticism-defensiveness dance (nowhere near as fun as the cha-cha slide, by the way). And as I’m typing, I’m realizing that it’s not easier said than done, it’s just like anything else - easier done with practice and feedback. Actually, much easier with practice! It's very doable.

We'll talk about defensiveness next. Keep an eye out for your own horsemen, though. Take stock of whether you tend to use criticism and notice how changing up the way you approach something can impact the way the conversation goes!

About the Author

Couples Therapy and Marriage Counseling | Columbia, Mo

couples therapist and marriage counselor columbia mo, tara vossenkemper, the counseling hub founder and owner

Tara Vossenkemper is the founder, owner, and therapist with The Counseling Hub, a counselor (LPC) in the state of Missouri, and an almost doctor (finishing up her PhD). She specializes in couples therapy & marriage counseling using the highly effective Gottman Method Couples Therapy (and is currently obtaining her certification, which requires three levels of training and ongoing consultation - it's a necessarily rigorous process that she loves).

Tara has a diverse set of clinical experiences, working with both adolescents and adults on issues ranging from eating disorders and anxiety to spirituality and existential crises. However, she is most passionate about couples counseling. Tara enjoys working with couples looking to decrease or enhance conflict, relearn healthy and effective communication, or are healing from an affair. She's also been formally trained as in the Prepare-Enrich Premarital Couples Counseling approach and the PREP Approach for couples counseling.

Tara is also earning her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri - Saint Louis. She's "ABD" (all but dissertation) and furiously researching and writing to finish things up. She's presented at national, regional, and state conferences, as well as locally, on the topics of discrimination, sexual minority distress, spirituality, healthy lifestyle and mental health, and private practice.