NOTE: THIS IS THE 2ND OF A TWO-PART SERIES
Few couples can completely avoid criticizing each other now and then, even in healthy marriages. The trouble begins if you feel that your complaints go unheeded, and your spouse just repeats the offending habits. Or, perhaps you never clearly expressed your concerns, or you don’t express your concerns effectively.
Over time, it becomes more likely that your complaints will pick up steam. With each successive complaint, you’re likely to throw in your inventory of prior, unresolved grievances. Eventually you begin blaming your partner—and you become critical of his/her personality, rather than of a specific deed. Or, if you have been stifling your complaints, they may one day explode in a barrage of criticism.
On the surface, there may not seem to be much difference between complaining and criticizing. But criticism involves attacking someone’s personality or character—usually with blame—rather than a specific behavior.
As a general rule, a criticism entails making a personal attack or an accusation, while a complaint is a negative comment about something you wish were otherwise. To oversimplify, complaints could easily begin with the word “I”, and criticism with the word “you.” For example, “I wanted the laundry to be finished by now so I could get to the mall before it closes,” is a complaint. “You should have finished the laundry by now. You know I want to get to the mall today,” is a criticism.
The difference may seem like splitting hairs, but it really does feel far worse to be on the receiving end of a criticism rather than a complaint. A criticism is also more likely than a complaint to make your partner defensive.
A common type of criticism is to bring up a long list of complaints. For example “I don’t feel listened to by you, and you don’t touch me very often. I asked you to do certain chores but you didn’t. I’m just not having any fun.” Such a long list of complaints has the same effect as a criticism of your partner’s personality because it seems so pervasive and overwhelming.