Getting Your Spouse to Finally Hear Your Complaints

effective complaining
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Complaining about your partner's behavior is common in any long-term relationship. For instance, she complains to him that he doesn’t spend enough time with her. He complains to her about her over-spending. This song plays over and over, and the one on the receiving end has gotten quite adept at tuning it out. It can be incredibly frustrating when your complaints fall on deaf ears.

What if there was a way to both express and hear each other’s complaints more effectively? Perhaps in a way that you both could take it in and make real changes instead of ignoring, dismissing or getting defensive. My guess is you would both be shouting hallelujah from the mountaintop!

There Is a Right Way to Complain

Effectively complaining isn’t that hard. In fact, there are three simple steps to follow. These steps will help minimize the potential for conflict.  

1. Express Your Feeling First

Expressing the feeling first is critical because your feelings are not debatable. Feelings are your truth--the reality of how you experience the world. However, you must get to a relatively calm and collected state before beginning to talk about this.

Once you are less agitated, find a neutral moment to speak with your spouse. When you start in this way, it engages your partner in the conversation. Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman likes to call this a “softened start-up.” This often involves naming your core emotion.

Core emotion means what underlies the reactivity. For example, you are likely feeling hurt or sad beneath the anger and frustration. It can also be about how you think you are viewed by your partner. This might be something like you believe you are “unimportant” to him. 

Starting the complaint this way reduces the chances of a fight starting.

The complaint will also come across less as a criticism. You are making it about you, not just blaming.

2. Be Specific

Once you state how you feel, you can begin to describe the specific behavior or situation that is bothering you. Describing the exact behavior also keeps the focus where it should be. Instead of attacking the character or your spouse as a person, you are expressing dislike for a particular way she acts or something he does. Examples of specifics are things like showing up late, not keeping a promise or leaving dirty clothes all over the floor.

You also should focus the most on what is really changeable. All relationships have some unsolvable problems. Usually, this involves personality traits. Don’t ask someone to change something impossible. Learn to accept those things!

3. Say What You Need

Ask for a particular behavior that your spouse can do to right the wrong. The key is to make it something positive and doable. You should be able to envision your spouse physically doing the behavior you’re wanting. Examples of need are showing up on time, following through on what you promise and putting dirty clothes in the hamper.   

Putting It All Together

Let’s say your complaint is about spending time together.

If you put it all together, you might say something like this:

I feel neglected [feeling] when you don’t make an effort to plan date nights [behavior]. I would like for you to plan something once a month for us [need].

4. Offer to Make Changes Too

This piece is optional but can add even more power to your complaint. You can ask your partner if there is anything they would like for you to change. What might be bothering your spouse? With this, however, you must make every effort to follow through on the change as well. For the long-term health of your marriage, embrace changes that will benefit you both.

The most difficult part of using this formula will be to not get emotionally triggered so that your complaint is still really coming through as a harsh criticism. This is crucial because research has found criticism to be one of the top predictors of divorce.

Complaining effectively provides a better chance for you to be heard and responded to. It minimizes the likelihood that your spouse will feel the need to defend, shut down or counter-complain back to you. It increases the chance of reaching a resolution together.  

All coupes have complaints about each other. Successful couples have figured out how to adequately state their complaints. They have also learned to accept some parts of their spouse that they realize will not change. And finally, they also know how to keep the big picture in mind by not overly focus on the negative.

Sources:

Carrere, Sybil, and John Mordechai Gottman. "Predicting divorce among newlyweds from the first three minutes of a marital conflict discussion." Family process 38.3 (1999): 293-301.

Gottman, John Mordechai, and Robert Wayne Levenson. "The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14‐year period." Journal of Marriage and Family 62.3 (2000): 737-745.