Dealing With Your Difficult Man

Dear Duana:

I loved your Difficult Woman article and wish we could make it required reading for humanity. I think it is heroic for a man to actually stop, pause, and respond lovingly when criticizedby his wife. That man’s stature instantly would increase ten-fold in my eyes. One thing seemed contradictory, though. In passing, you said, “Criticism never helps a relationship.” But you also said, “In the happiest couples, the wife does the vital job of complaining…” If we Difficult Women never criticize, how are we supposed to do our job of Dealing With (you know—changing!) our Difficult Men?



Dear Anna,

Your core question is one for the ages: Can you change a man? We’ve all been told it’s impossible. But we’ve been shown that a woman’s job is to treat men like grapes, stomping them until they’ve metamorphosed into worthy dinner companions.


Science finds a truth quite opposite this cultural show-n-tell. In fact, You Can Change A Man. Just not with criticism.

Now that I’ve got your attention…here’s how.


Step 1: Repeat the mantra: “Criticism always hurts.”

Dr. John Gottman has spent decades discerning which couples are happy, why, and how the rest of us can get there. His unparalleled The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert concludes that There is no such thing as constructive criticism.” That’s because criticism predictably snowballs into defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling—habitual reactions so deadly to marriage, Gottman calls them “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”.


Criticism never helps; it always hurts; it gets us to the opposite of love, respect, and happiness. Whatever phrasing works, the basic point is crucial.



Step 2: Learn the difference between criticisms and complaints.

Happy couples don’t let resentments build or ignore disrespectful, unloving acts. Instead, they gently complain as soon as they notice something amiss. And we all know who “they” are, right? Yes, we women, who bring up over 80% of sensitive issues.


Complaining is valid work. The tough point for many of us, though, is divining the difference between a complaint and a criticism. The tell-tale signs?

—Complaints make a specific request for change, dealing with the present situation only;

—complaints begin with “I” (“I think you’re a jerk” does not count, by the way); and

—complaints avoid blame, accusations and character assassination.


Criticisms, on the other hand, are global denouncements, attacking the other person’s general behavior and even their character—a sure sign of disrespect that swiftly and surely kills love. Statements that inject absolutes such as “never” and “always”, or that begin, “You know what your problem is?” are reliable tip-offs.


So here’s a Really Brief Quiz On Complaint Versus Criticism (Gottman’s Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last gives much more detail for Criticizers In Recovery):

“I wound up taking out the trash today, even though we agreed you’d do it. Will you do it this Thursday?”


“Your never take out the trash—your one chore! How lazy can you be?”


One of these is something most of us could respond to favorably; the other….


Step 3: Replace criticisms with gentle complaints.

Does your man tune out or shuffle away, vacant-eyed and deaf-mute, at the slightest hint of negativity? Exposure to habitual criticism causes Zombie-like stonewalling—not because men don’t care, but because they can’t process emotional interactions once their heart-rates exceed 100 beats per minute. The more criticisms men hear, the more they learn to expect, and the more hair-trigger their physiology becomes.


To reclaim your Man who makes eye contact and engages when you need him, replace criticisms with gentle complaints…very gentle…ideally, so gentle, they may not even sound like complaints. “Oh, Honey, I can’t wait for you to get home and wrap your arms around me” might replace “You workaholic! Get your a** home pronto if you ever want to see mine again!” For instance.


Be gentle with yourself, too. Even blissful couples criticize a little; nobody’s perfect. And breaking the criticism habit is tough. So start by noticing after you’ve criticized. Soon, you’ll notice during criticism; and then eventually, you’ll notice that you’re about to criticize, and you’ll complain instead. Kudos! You’re on your way.


Step 4: Add positives—a lot of them.

Criticism always hurts, but an over-abundance of complaints is a deal-breaker, too. How can you express what you need without overdoing the negativity? Elementary, my dear Anna: Overbalance with positives ‘til you are far, far into the black at the Bank Of Love.


Think of your relationship as a bank account, except that at the Bank Of Love, you have to deposit at least $5 for every $1 you withdraw, or you’re broke. But the 5:1 ratio just covers bare-bones survival. Research shows that love’s happy millionaires squirrel away $20 of hugs, kisses, adoring gazes, sexual enthusiasm, compliments, supportive comments, and kind and respectful acts for each $1 in negativity they spend.


Extra Credit: Persist to reap the rewards.

I began this post with the extravagant claim that You Can Change A Man. Now, it’s time to confess: You won’t ever change who he is, not really. And if you ever loved and respected him, that’s probably best.


But you can change the relationship dramatically for the better, so that both of you are your happiest and most in love—just by doing these Steps as often as you can, even though none of us is in danger of doing them perfectly.


You might see positive results immediately—many do. But if your Man has already been Taken By Zombies, it might be a few weeks. That’s okay. Persist. Research shows these Steps are extremely likely to return your sweetheart and foster his openness to your influence—maybe in a way you haven’t known in years. Isn’t that worth a bit of effort?


Yes, it is. Bank on it.





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All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009

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Reader Comments (28)

This is remarkable information. It's amazing to hear how important complaining actually is since women are constantly told that there's nothing we can do about "the way men are". I've always wondered how one is supposed to effect change when it is so clearly needed, because to just let everything go seems disrespectful to yourself. Thanks for such vital bits of wisdom.

June 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

Dear Dr. Duana,

First of all, let me say that I LOVE the way you write--such a marvelous combination of common sense based on research along with your great wit! You really hit a home run with the contrasting of complaints with criticism--thank you! Oops! Gotta go and put some more $ in the BANK!


June 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLouise

LOL, Louise! Thank you and Monica both. Knowing this information is making a difference makes all the obsessing over phrasing worthwhile :).

I toyed with putting the $$ Love Bank first--because adding positives is really the fastest route to happiness.

But Monica, the point you just made kept nagging at me (pun intended)--how are we supposed to change men if we can't criticize?!? Learning that criticism never helps was a huge surprise to me. "What! Never?! Aaaaargh!"

Learning that complaining gets the job done was equally revelatory. As was finding out that we actually have to complain--couples who let it all slide aren't as happy as those who won't brook disrespect, etc., and who say so immediately.

I have had to read and read and re-read and try and apply this information in my own life, and Oh, What A Difference It Makes. As a mostly-reformed Criticizer In Recovery, I can say Gottman's research has made such a positive impact in our home.

May it do likewise for you!

June 15, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

I love this article! I sensed that criticism was bad, so I avoided it sometimes to the point of not saying anything at all. But ignoring my needs didn't work because they'd get bottled up inside.

Then one fine day without warning, one small thing would set me off in a barrage of criticism on my poor husband, which was way out of proportion to his "crime" (Can't you get your trash off the counter - we DO have a trashcan - want me to show you how to use it??? And another thing, you never...) Much better to gently complain immediately (now that I know how - thank you, Duana) instead of letting annoyances fester in the name of Keeping The Peace.

Fortunately, both of us are good about making emotional deposits in the Bank of Love, which has completely saved us over the long haul. I agree and have seen first-hand how one sharp criticism (withdrawal) can wipe out a whole pile of deposits.

Thank you x 1million for this article - I will be applying it in my home, and forwarding it to others, as well :-) I believe that I have a good marriage, but the "relationship mechanic" in me is always looking for ways to strengthen it - and this advice is a winner.

June 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

Wow! Thank you, Joan. I was particularly struck with your comment that it's "Much better to gently complain immediately (now that I know how...) instead of letting annoyances fester in the name of Keeping The Peace."--Gottman's most recent book is a series of case studies where couples are worked with in-depth to help them return to happiness. Repeatedly, it contains situations where the wife just won't complain, and the emotional spark of the relationship is dying as a result. I still love "7 Principles" the best of all his books--it's everything in one spot--but the examples really brought home to me just how vital complaining is.

June 16, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Great article, Duana! Sometimes a complaint is still seen as a criticism but that has plenty to do with the person hearing it. When you are used to hearing criticism, anything that sounds "negative" can be taken as a destructive critique instead of a constructive observation. How to get past that barrier that divides two people can be really tricky. It's so easy for a man and woman to get into the habit of being on the defensive/attack. Turning that cycle around is well worth all the effort a couple can pour into it.

June 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCandi

@Candi, Exactly! You could have a Difficult Man who was taught by his mother, ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, sister, etc. to expect that everything is a criticism, and to spontaneously duck-and-cover. And the more entrenched criticism has been in one's own relationships, the harder it is to avoid criticizing. This may be one reason Gottman's work shows the absolute necessity of using very gentle complaints... my guess is that the longer the history of criticism, the more gentle the complaints will have to be, and the more persistence in that mode is a must.

June 16, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

They say that a man can be a fool and not know it...unless he's married.

June 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKelly Kretzer

It even hurts when I criticize myself! OUCH! Self inflicted criticism is the worst. When I read this article I thought about how I readily accept criticism from reputable sources with accurate observances. It hurts at first then I think about it and learn how to possibly correct when may be perceived as something inappropriate or just plain wrong. Most of the time its just a misunderstanding. I do agree about the use of constructive and positive complaining. It would lead to that age-old, tried and true activity called negotiation. Well that's what I kinda get from this. Life in general has taught me that we are involved in negotiation with people all the time. Whether its at a PTA meeting or planning a get together with good friends or meeting with coworkers to get something out the door. Complaints are just a good way of starting the negotiation between man and woman, hubby and wife, BF and GF, etc... As long as everyone is sincere, communication starts and hopefully the two parties find that middle ground where all is acceptable. I don't speak for all men but it does seem that we men are always engaged in negotiation even with our good buds. Usually its the lack of time for our responsibilities but even with free time, that free time must be given up for something, not for just wasting time. Good game of golf, drinking loads of beer, free food, LOL. I am personally not that way and consider talking about anything a good pastime. Its a superficial example I brought up but it could be the same with women. Gotta offer something that will entice even if its an ego boost. hahaha. And speaking of offering, here's a quote from someone that a good friend(My Dear Old SLAW) sent me in email...

Quote of the day: Behold the Woman

"Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater. If you give her sperm, she'll give you a baby. If you give her a house, she'll give you a home. If you give her groceries, she'll give you a meal. If you give her a smile, she'll give you her heart.
She multiplies and enlarges what is given to her. So, if you give her any crap, be ready to receive a ton of sh*t."

June 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel C

Kelly and Gabriel, If I had been drinking anything when I read the punch lines, I would have been wearing it! LOL!

Gabriel, your observations are spot-on re: negotiations. Dr. Shelley Taylor found that men live in heirarchy and women live in connection; Gottman found that only about 1/3 of husbands--even today--are willing to be open to their mate's influence (perhaps because of the heirarchy they've learned?). That 1/3 tends to be very happy and long-wed, however.

Women naturally accept their mate's influence, according to Gottman--but if they hope to be influential themselves and break through that heirarchical thinking a male mate has, they've got to broach issues gently so their mate can hear it without "flooding" and stonewalling.

June 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

This one was very, very good. Oh, the importance of "I" messages!!! And I liked your differentiation between Changing A Man (we cannot change anyone, of course, we do not have that power) and Altering A Relationship. Excellent. My thoughts are, I fell in love with him, why on earth would I want to Change him? What HAS changed is our manner of relating to one another, as we are. Which is the point of your article. Thanks for alerting me to it!


June 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Gaines

Duana, i LOVE this website! Every article that i've read has advice that is FANTASTIC, experienced, and so well researched. I intend to share it with many girlfriends! Thank you thank you thank you for this free site to help us improve our relationships with the Martians. ;) Very very needed!

June 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDee Dee B.

Carmen, I love this bit from you: "I fell in love with him, why on earth would I want to Change him? What HAS changed is our manner of relating to one another, as we are." Acceptance (as opposed to grit-your-teeth tolerance) goes a long way towards happiness.
Thanks to you and DeeDee for the two thumbs up ;).

June 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

This was great! I don't think I have looked at complaints from a woman as a welcomed behavior but I do feel feedback, no matter positive or negative is better than none. I love the analogy of the bank. Problem is, I am not so sure women's DNA is to deposit more than than they intend to withdraw. (So many ironies but I digress.) I think compliments have to be married to complaints in order to have a welcoming acceptance of complaints. But too often the good things are expected and therefore rarely acknowledged until they are not done. Which in results in complaints about it. And that sends a man into an "I can't win" attitude to conclude it's futile to even try knowing its thankless or hopeless. In essence, the man does change...just not positively.

June 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterQuinn

Once again your advice is right on the mark! Us "strong men" may be able to take a lot of Shi$ at work and life, but its the little digs and complaints at home that can really bring us down (like termites slowly eating away the supports of a home).

My wife and I read The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and that really helped us "be a team" and stop being termites.

Keep the great articles coming.

June 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

@Quinn-- Love your point about how in fact, we are changing the relationship all the time...for better, or for worse. Thanks for bringing up a vital point.

@Greg-- congrats on becoming love's bankers instead of termites (made me laugh). Gottman's book is fantastic, isn't it? Happy it helped you and your wife so much.

June 18, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

This information is pretty accurate. I've often told my wife that it is in how she asks, not the fact that she is asking. I do much better at getting around to things when it is asked, or pleaded in a nice manner. One other thing that men like is to feel like it was our idea or at least that it was done in our time. Many times I has been planning to do something but, when she brings it up, I tend to put it off. I'm not saying that this is right but it is something that I'm guilty of.

June 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

George, thanks for the reminder... It's hard to know how to do things such that our men think it was their idea, but we've all heard that's how it's done (not aware of any science on that). What method do you recommend--that you would not find manipulative or offensive?

June 18, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hey Duana. Great article, as usual. I think the contrast of complaints vs criticism is dead on. Most guys are willing, even eager, to do those concrete things, measurable, verifiable, and repeatable, for the women we love. It's the more loosely defined, less specific, nebulous things that we have a harder time with: "Be more attentive." "Listen more." "Show me you love me." Give us something specific, that we can look at and say "mission accomplished," and we're much more comfortable.

One other thing that deserves mention: When you ladies are going through these steps, identifying when you're criticizing, or even developing the awareness that you're criticizing, let us know that you're aware of it, that you're working on it. That may (no promises) help to stop our "There she goes again" reactions. If we know you're working on it, we will be able to notice small improvements that we might not have noticed if we weren't tipped off in advance. And we will show you that we appreciate those improvements.

June 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Forgot to mention: You cannot change a man, unless he wants to change. But if you give him good reasons, you can easily change his behavior.

June 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Spot-on, Daniel. I love your suggestion for women to say, point-blank, that we realize we need to stop criticizing, and that we want you to know we're working on it.
Interestingly, there is some research showing that partners do manage to change each other over a long stretch of years, but that it's through complaining about very specific behaviors in the moment (even adoption and twin studies show, though, that it's highly unlikely we can change temperament much). Unfortunately, my brain tends to hang onto the results of studies without also hanging onto author names--most inconvenient, and something I hope to alter soon ;).

June 19, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Things that work for me are "Honey, do you know a good way to do this?" "I'm having a hard time figuring it out." Sometimes the "would you like to do something nice for me?" works.

June 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

Good ideas, Mr. George.

June 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

As always, I thoroughly enjoyed your straightforward, practical advice that is presented in a way that I can identify my relationship with without feeling defensive or threatened. The lessons and reminders to do things like complain, not criticize, are important messages that can be easily forgotten or overlooked in the heated moments of negative patterns between couples. I think what I especially like about your column is that it reminds us where the bad behavior we and our partners do (criticize, stonewall, etc.) really stems from and it humanizes us and our spouse once again as emotional creatures just trying to make the best of situation. So I'll do my best to begin making more deposits into the Bank of Love again, you made an important point.

June 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTracey Louis

@Tracey, "it humanizes us and our spouse once again as emotional creatures just trying to make the best of situation." Thank you. Most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can (even if, sometimes, it's not so great). Your point here is really important, and makes it much easier to do biz at the Bank Of Love.

June 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
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