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A Couple’s Guide to Complaining

Dr. John Gottman has refined the skill of effective complaining down to a simple, three-part formula.

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My wife Tami felt angry. “All you do after you get home from work and eat dinner is sit on the couch. Why can’t we talk, or take a walk together, or do both?”

Couples will always have complaints about each other. Unfortunately, instead of expressing their complaints, they resort to criticizing each other. Unchecked criticism leads to contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Dr. John Gottman calls these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and when couples fall prey to the Four Horsemen, it can lead to divorce.

Tami’s criticism provoked me to defend myself. We were almost three years into our marriage and hadn’t yet learned how to effectively air our complaints about each other.

“I’m tired,” I said. As a substance abuse counselor, I spend all day listening to people. “Why can’t you let me relax?”

Tami kept pushing until my temper flared. “Just leave me alone!”

Before we knew it, the Four Horsemen were out of the barn and wreaking havoc on our marriage. Tami and I agreed to get marriage counseling from a clinical psychologist. He taught us how to effectively express and listen to complaints in a way that we could hear each other without becoming defensive.

The complaint formula

Dr. John Gottman has refined the skill of effective complaining down to a simple, three-part formula. I wish we’d discovered and mastered this formula before we went to counseling. With a little practice and persistence, following the formula will help couples discuss their issues without causing harm to each other.

1. Express how you feel
Effective complaints begin with a soft start-up, and are best launched by stating how you feel. A feeling may be an emotion like anger or fear, or a physical state like tiredness or pain.

The soft start-up is in contrast to the harsh start-up that usually accompanies criticism, and often begins with phrases like “you always” or “you never.”

2. Talk about a very specific situation
After stating your feeling, describe the situation or behavior that caused that feeling.

Many complaints couples have about each other will never go away. If that’s bad news, the good news is that complaints don’t have to drive a relationship to a bitter end. As long as couples can keep their complaints from becoming criticisms, complaints will be a minor nuisance in comparison to the destructive power of criticism.

3. State a positive need
Finally, ask your spouse to take positive action to resolve the complaint.

Using this formula doesn’t guarantee complaints will be resolved. It does give couples a tool they can use to express their complaints without the risk of their requests being sidelined by a spouse who feels the need to defend against criticism.

Let’s apply this formula to the issue my wife raised, and my response, and see how the discussion might have ended differently.

Tami: I feel sad (here’s how I feel) that we don’t have time to talk with each other after dinner (about a very specific situation). Can we walk and talk for half an hour (expressing her positive need)?

Jon: I feel tired (how I feel) after listening to people at work all day (about a very specific situation). Please let me rest for a while (express a positive need).

Tami: I’m afraid (how I feel) you’ll fall asleep on the couch and won’t wake up until it’s too late to walk (about a very specific situation). I want you to rest. I’d like it if you’d rest for an hour, then walk with me. If you fall asleep, I’d like to wake you up (express a positive need).

Jon: That’s fair. Let’s do that.

While a resolution isn’t guaranteed, effective complaining enables spouses to engage in conflict and achieve resolutions that criticism puts out of reach. When resolutions are out of reach, it doesn’t have to end the relationship or suck the happiness out of it.

The secret ingredient

Many couples have built thriving relationships in spite of enduring, unresolved conflicts. Many of these couples have learned to tolerate these conflicts by complaining instead of criticizing. But they also have a powerful, secret ingredient: they use repairs to diffuse the tension that builds up when discussing these issues. This keeps those problems from overwhelming their relationship.

One perpetual conflict in my marriage has been my wife’s tendency to get rid of things that we haven’t used for a while. I’m a saver. After all, you never know when you might need something.

At least once a year, Tami decides to go through the clothes in our closet to get rid of the garments we don’t wear anymore. I’d never do this. She takes clothes from my side of the closet that she doesn’t think I need and piles them on my side of the bed. “Go through these and decide which ones you don’t need,” she’ll say. “We’re getting rid of anything you don’t wear.”

I used to get angry. Now, I laugh. For me, her behavior has become predictable. For her, my behavior has become predictable. She laughs at me as I sort through the stack of clothes, take out one shirt to get rid of and hang the other clothes back in the closet.

Couples who are satisfied with their relationships don’t lack things to complain about. They’ve discovered how to complain without criticizing, keep the issues they have with each other in perspective, and use humor to break up tension that can lead to gridlock. If this doesn’t describe your relationship, try using Dr. Gottman’s formula for complaining, add a dose of humor, and see where it leads.

Learn more about making repairs and other effective conflict management exercises through the Relationship Coach.

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Jon Beaty is a licensed clinical social worker and blogs weekly here. He’s author of the book If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work. Married for over 27 years, he and his wife live near Portland, Oregon, raising their children, goats, honeybees, fruit and vegetables on their hobby farm.

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