The difference between complaints and criticism

July 27th, 2015

Married couples who have a higher frequency of complaints are more likely to stay married. That was one of the many findings of John Gottman’s research. As his team of researchers observed interactions between married couples in their “love lab,” they found that couples who voiced complaints to each other tended to stay married.

Gottman makes a distinction, though, between complaining and criticism. Complaining focuses on a person’s behavior. Criticism focuses on their character. “I don’t like it when you leave your towel on the bathroom floor” is a complaint. “Are you too lazy to pick up your towel?” is a criticism. When we voice a complaint, we identify a specific behavior that we’d like someone to change. When we use criticism, we make it about a person’s self. (Gottman calls criticism one of the “Four Horsemen.” You can watch a video about the others here.)

It’s possible for smart people to overthink this: What am I, if not a collection of behaviors? Do my behaviors emerge from my character, or vice versa? But in the context of relationships and learning how to get along, it’s really quite simple: When I complain to someone about their behavior, I’m inviting them to make a good relationship better. When I criticize their character, I’m making a judgment on the ways they are failing to be a good human being.

Obviously, healthy relationships require more than complaints. There was a magic ratio of five-to-one positive-to-negative interactions among successful couples. The most successful couples couched their complaints with other affirmations. They were liberal with praise and gratitude: “Thanks for washing the dishes,” or “You really handled that parenting situation well.”

After learning about Gottman’s research, my wife and I developed a strategy for letting each other know when we’ve messed up and need to correct something. We say, “I have a complaint.”

When I hear my wife use this phrase, it’s a signal to me not to get defensive, to take a breath, and to frame what she says as a way for us to have a better relationship. Even if my heart rate goes up a bit, I have a chance to calm myself and really try to inhabit her perspective.

This simple reframing exercise has completely changed the way I approach all kinds of conflict in church, among friends, or online. I try very hard not to say things that convey a judgment on someone’s character: you’re lazy, bigoted, foolish, ignorant, inconsiderate, and so on. Instead I try to focus on behavior. I ask clarifying questions. And I try to keep my heart rate below 100 beats per minute by breathing slowly and relaxing.

It takes work to create a culture where bringing up a complaint doesn’t immediately result in an argument. Trained by our relationships and media culture to respond with knee-jerk defensiveness, to go on the offensive by using fallacious logic and hurtful rhetoric, we often view such interactions as combat. For one person to “win,” the other has to “lose.” We are unlikely to voice a complaint if we feel that we have to constantly walk on eggshells around other people because they will fly off the handle at the slightest provocation.

And we’re not likely to stay in such a relationship.

In churches, as in every other relationship, there will be conflict. People will do inconsiderate things. They will break promises, let us down, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, ignore boundaries, or meddle. In these situations, we have a choice about our perceptions: Do we see a person as a fundamentally flawed human being with severe character defects, or as a reflection of the image of God whose behaviors sometimes annoy us?

Of course, people come up with theological reasons to support their grudges all the time. Sometimes people are very defensive about their reasons for being defensive. But we all have a choice as to which lenses we’re going to use to view the world. Paul gives us pragmatic criteria for evaluating our view of the world in Galatians 5:19-25: Does it produce good fruit — fulfilling relationships, greater unity in the body of Christ, and peace; or does it produce bad fruit — quarrels, contentiousness and divisiveness?

I like to imagine what a community would look like that followed these principles — that we do not impugn anyone’s character, but we are all responsible for our behaviors; that a complaint should be heard as an invitation to better relationship; that we are responsible for how we respond. I have a hunch it would look a lot like the kingdom of God.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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