Researcher Dr. John Gottman has spent decades studying couples, paying close attention to the types of interactions that make for happy couples. He's identified a number of behaviors that distinguish the "Masters" of relationships from the "Disasters." The number one behavior that predicts divorce? Contempt--any expression, tone, or statement that somehow communicates "I'm better than you" or "I don't respect you" to your partner. Contempt can be communicated verbally ("What, are you stupid?!") or non-verbally (rolling your eyes at something your partner says), but is almost always damaging to your relationship.
criticism leads to defensiveness, which leads to criticism, which leads to defensiveness....
Contempt is often communicated in quick moments that then lead to fights. Imagine that you come home and see your partner's dirty coffee cup sitting on the kitchen table, something that drives you bananas. Rather than giving your partner the benefit of the doubt (maybe they're still drinking the coffee) or cutting them some slack (they're usually quite good about being tidy), you lash out in a less-than-friendly tone. You might use words like "always" ("You always ignore my requests") and "never" ("You never do the dishes"), or you name call ("You're such a lazy pig"), get sarcastic ("Would it kill you to pick up your cup?") or assume intention ("You left that cup there just to spite me"). If you actually want your partner to listen to and consider your request, none of the above methods will work, at least not without your partner becoming angry and/or resentful.
One step towards shifting the tone is to think more in terms of a "complaint" rather than a "criticism." A complaint is a statement that you don't like something about the situation (the dirty cup on the table). A criticism is a statement that you don't like something about your partner (ouch). If your partner perceives your complaint as a criticism, they're more likely to feel attacked and then get defensive. They snap back or shut down, you feel dismissed, and there you are in the mucky pit of conflict.
a gentle start up
A more effective way to communicate your complaint: be gentle, kind, and express your desire as a positive request rather than a negative criticism. State what you DO want to happen, with a gentle tone, and preferably with some kind of affection or appreciation. Listen to the difference:
"Ugh! Why are you such a slob? Would it kill you to pick up after yourself?"
"Hey sweets, I know you're busy, but could you put your coffee cup in the dishwasher when you're done with it?"
Which one would you be more responsive to? Probably the second. Does this style guarantee you'll always get your way? Nope--this isn't a magic spell. But it will help to avoid a defensive and combative response from your partner and make it more likely that you'll get what you want in terms of a clean kitchen table and a more masterful relationship.
when it's about more than the dishes
As a therapist who works with lots of couples, I'm well aware that sometimes the fight about the coffee cup isn't actually about the coffee cup. Sometimes our conflicts stem from larger hurts, and we need help exploring the bigger dynamics at play. More on that HERE.