The Ebola virus that has ravaged Africa concerned all who became aware of its potency. Another virus, more common, and far more dangerous to relationships lurks in our families, our wards and our marriages, and we may not even recognize the damage it is doing.

The marriage researcher John Gottman identified four “viruses” that signal the end of a marriage. These “viruses” that attack a marriage are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. Although Gottman did not identify one virus as more potent than the others, in my counseling practice, I have observed that the first virus to appear, and the virus that breeds all the others, is criticism.

Not only is criticism the most dangerous virus that can enter a marriage, criticism is the most dangerous virus in any relationship. Criticism can destroy relationships with children, parents, friends, ward members, and anybody else we might care about. Criticism is the most toxic of all relationship viruses because it leads to the other three viruses Gottman identified.


A normal, and intuitive response when being criticized is to become defensive. “Why can’t you keep the house clean?” a critical husband might ask his wife. Her first response will be to defend herself. “I was gone all day… I was busy all day…. the kids make messes faster than I can clean up…” etc. etc. She gives his criticism enough validity that she thinks it’s worth responding to. She thinks she can successfully justify herself, talk some compassion into him. She is still engaged in the relationship enough to think she can redeem herself in his eyes.

A relationship where criticism has led merely to defensiveness has a chance of being saved. The critical partner can learn compassion, can learn understanding, can learn to refrain from judging. The partner being criticized may still care to please, may attempt to try harder; they may come to a reconciliation.


Should attempts to gain compassion fail the person being criticized eventually stops listening. They put up a wall where they can’t be hurt by the person doing the criticizing. I liken the criticism to arrows being slung by an archer. To avoid getting their armor pierced, the person being criticized stands behind a wall. Gottman called this “stonewalling.”

A person who is stonewalling lets the criticism go “in one ear and out the other.” Teenagers can become expert stonewallers. They simply put in their earbuds, and pretend not to hear all the criticism, “Why haven’t you done your homework? Your room is a disaster. You forgot to do your chores. You can’t sleep in all day.” Sick of being criticized all the time, the teenager doesn’t even bother to respond. He simply stops listening. Often times he will actually ignore a critical parent.

Stonewalling can make a parent furious, but it really ought to make them sad. The teenager is so afraid of being hurt by those arrows, he doesn’t feel safe coming out from behind his wall. He may think his parents are impossible to please. He can’t do anything right. He feels discouraged, helpless, insecure, and lacks the confidence to try. Destroying someone’s confidence through criticism is a tragedy. It has the exact opposite effect intended by the person offering the criticism. Rather than trying harder, the teenager feels defeated, and stops trying at all.


The most dangerous result of criticism occurs after the victim has already tried defensiveness and stonewalling. Should the criticism continue, the victim of the criticism simply gets mad. They may begin to hate the person offering the criticism. They hate the criticizer for making them feel like such a loser. They may seethe with rage, oftentimes leading to violence.

Domestic violence is frequently the result of a victim feeling so little, so small, so pathetic that, like the incredible Hulk, he rises up on his hind legs, bears his chest, gnashes his teeth and tries to prove he isn’t small by becoming physically big. You see this kind of contempt in movies where someone is tired of being belittled by a boss, or a playground bully, or a prison warden.

A critical person thinks that they know best. They think they are right. They think they have the intelligence to judge a situation better than the person they are criticizing. Criticism is the result of excessive pride on the part of the critical person and is humiliating to the one being criticized.

The Opposite of Love

Many a songwriter has crooned, “don’t go changing to try and please me…. I love you just the way you are.” Clearly the most romantic sentiment a couple can share with one another is, “I love you just the way you are.” Criticism expresses the opposite sentiment. Rather than saying, “don’t change,” criticism says, “you need to change.” It destroys romance faster than kids pounding on the bedroom door.

Once I worked with a man who used the scriptures to justify being critical. He told his wife that the Doctrine and Covenants says, “he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.” His marriage ended in divorce.

The scripture may be true that we all need correction, but it does not mean we can take it upon ourselves to do the correcting. A husband does not have the authority to correct his wife nor a wife the authority to correct her husband. That is not their stewardship. In a good marriage correction comes from the Holy Ghost, and those in authority to give correction, not from the one who once claimed to “love you just the way you are.”

People who think it is their place to criticize church leaders will discover criticism ruins their relationship with the leader, and their relationship with the Church. Church leaders often need correction, but only from those whose stewardship it is to correct. Members do not take it upon themselves to decide who needs correcting.

Even those whose stewardship it is to correct will want to follow strict, and very careful guidelines so the correction doesn’t result in defensiveness, stonewalling or contempt, but instead results in an increase in love.


JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor practicing in Jacksonville Florida.

Her books on parenting, marriage and raising adolescents can be found on