You might be familiar with John Gottman’s Four Horseman (the four behaviors most detrimental to harmony in a relationship): Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt. Each has an antidote, and the antidote to criticizing is to complain well.

When we live day-in/day-out with another human being, there will be all sorts of issues and irritations that arise, and we need a way to communicate about them effectively.

Criticizing is when I make you the problem, rather than something you’ve done. It often includes name-calling and disrespect.

Examples

  • What is wrong with you?! Don’t you have a clue how to load a dishwasher?
  • You are an absolutely idiot when it comes to managing money! If I leave things to you, we’ll end up in the poorhouse!
  • You are such a slob! Did no one teach you how to pick up after yourself?
  • I’m not your maid. Clean up that mess you left in the kitchen or make enough money so I can hire a housekeeper.
  • Y’know, I really got a raw deal when I married someone who tricked me into believing she liked making love.

Many of us grew up in a family setting where tossing out complaints or criticisms on a daily basis was simply the norm. In my view, doing so is analogous to—at best—tossing handfuls of negative ions into the air, or—at worst—contributing to an environment between you of tension, emotional unsafety and distance.

The Touchstone

Each relationship needs to have an effective way to express what isn’t working for us. And it’s crucial to do so skillfully and lovingly, which is one of the reasons why I created this meeting, the Touchstone. Most couples decide that meeting weekly is best but do whatever works in your situation.

It serves three different purposes. The first is it’s an established time and place where you come together as a couple to express both what has been working well between you over the past week and any complaints, if you have them.  Because the agreement is: all complaints are held for the Touchstone. Neither of you gets to toss them out willy-nilly during the week: it’s agreed that they are held and spoken only there. Doing so supports the deepening of good will between you. 

Secondly, the Touchstone offers an established time and place each week where the two of you can sit and iron out the various topics you need to discuss and agree upon: Finances, who’s doing what around the house, decisions about parenting, vacations, scheduling, etc. The idea is this: In the very full life of two people, especially when both parties are working outside of the home and if they have children, if they get into the habit of discussing logistics daily, their relationship—over time—feels like a business relationship and not a lover relationship. By holding all logistics to the Touchstone, this opens up that space that you do have each day to connect as lovers, partners, and friends. Checking in on how each of you is doing, taking a walk, or simply hanging out together relaxing. Having sweet time together is essential if we want our love relationship to be harmonious and resilient.

Finally, the Touchstone offers you a place to process topics or issues. Rather than out-of-the-blue bringing up a difficult conversation, (which often does not go well), you have an agreed-upon time (in the third section, Growing our Relationship) where you can sit and calmly discuss what needs to be discussed.

Over the years, I’ve had some folks say something to the effect of, But I can’t hold it! I just need to get it off my chest. My response is: And how is that working in your relationship? If you and your partner agree, heck, yes, this style works great for us: We both feel heard; we get to the bottom of issues this way. We both leave feeling close to one another, then yes. Absolutely. Do what works for you.

But check it out with your partner—Do they like this process? Are they feeling closer to you as a result of it? Do they feel like their thoughts and feelings about the topic are welcome in the conversation? Is there a positive resolution? Or is it a dumping of one person’s feelings onto another?

Again, find what works and do it!

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