David put his finger in a jar of peanut butter, licked the peanut butter off his finger, and proceeded to put his licked finger back into the peanut butter jar. Ashley responded with “That’s gross!” Ashley and David had difficulty recalling what was said afterward, but acknowledged the dialogue developed into a full fledged blow out.
The comment “That’s gross!” is in a gray area. If Ashley said “You’re gross!”, that would be critical. If Ashley said “I find that behavior gross!”, she’s commenting on her perturbed reaction to the behavior. Because of the negative history in their relationship, it’s no surprise that even a somewhat neutral comment would be interpreted as criticism.
As we processed the conflict, we were struck by the subtlety of language. Criticism judges partners—there’s something wrong with you for doing that—whereas feedback lets partners know how one’s behavior impacts them.