Healthy Complaining Vs. Harmful Complaining in Relationships
As a Licensed Marriage and family Therapist, Master NLP Practitioner, Certified Hypnotherapist, Dharma Life Coach, and Sports Psychology Consultant, I wholeheartedly agree with John Gottman’s assertion that it’s a myth that happily married people don’t complain about each other’s behaviors. The reality in partnerships and marriages is that we all have our own idiosyncratic needs, rhythms, desires, and habits. Inevitably, sometimes our different needs and desires can collide. Given that it’s inevitable that partners in relationships inevitably have complaints about each other, it’s incredibly helpful for the vitality and well-being of your relationship to know how to engage in healthy complaining vs. harmful complaining
One strategy that simply won’t work, however, is stifling your complaints and burying them alive. This well-intentioned strategy or fear-based endeavor only serves to create “negative sentiment override.” In other words, over time your bad thoughts about your partner override your positive thoughts about your partner, and you eventually associate him or her with feelings of pain, resentment, anger, or loneliness. When you stockpile your grievances, your bad feelings fester and grow, and sooner or later you find yourself distancing yourself emotionally from him or her to avoid feeling pain, or you might lash out at your partner while he or she feels blindsided because your silence has left them clueless and in the dark. When your offending partner is in the dark, he or she can’t improve his ability to meet your needs because he doesn’t know what is wrong until after you’ve already hit your limit and exploded with a barrage of criticisms.
In a moment, I’m going to share with you examples of harmful complaining, and then I’m going to then share with you healthy ways to complain to your partner instead.
Harmful Complaining: Describe your perception of the problem as an absolute truth: “Anyone can see that…”
Harmful complaining: Stockpiling complaints
Harmful complaining: Make broad, sweeping statements using always or never: You never take me anywhere…
Harmful Complaining: Digging up grievances from the past
Harmful Complaining: Don’t complain: Expect your partner to mind read and guess your needs and desires…
Harmful Complaining: Criticize your partner’s personality or character
Harmful Complaining: Give your partner unsolicited advice, telling him what he should or shouldn’t do, say, behave, appear, etc.
Harmful Ways to Respond to a Complaint
Harmful Way to Respond to a Complaint: Ignore the complaint, stonewall, be dismissive of the complaint, become defensive, and/or counterattack.
Harmful Way to Respond to a Complaint: Belittle or criticize your partner for complaining, become sarcastic, condescending, critical, or contemptuous.
Harmful Way to Respond to a Complaint: Defend yourself; find justifications and rationalizations for your behavior, your lapses in integrity, your broken agreements, etc.
Harmful Way to Respond to a Complaint: Deny responsibility for the problem and deflect the blame back on the other person. Ultimately, we must remember that we are responsible for how we choose to respond to people, regardless of how they treat us.
Healthy Complaining: Express your needs and/or complain in ways that are clear, respectful, specific, and immediate. Your partner is more likely to hear your complaint and respond to it when you share your complaint in this manner; this approach leads to problem solving, building intimacy, and strengthening your relationship.
Healthy complaining: Share responsibility for the problem vs. blame problem on other person
Healthy complaining: Describe the problem in terms of your perception, opinion, or style:
Healthy Complaining: Focus on a specific problem, tackling each problem one at a time
Healthy Complaining: Focus on the present
Healthy Complaining: Focus on your partner’s actions and share how they make you feel (“when you do…, I feel…”)
Healthy Complaining: Tell your partner about your needs, longings, and desires
Healthy Complaining: Ask your partner for what you want rather than focus on what you don’t want. Address his or her behavior instead of his or her character.
Healthy Complaining: Ask your partner first if he or she is open to hearing your complaint and/or constructive feedback; Asking him or her first respects your partner’s autonomy and opens their hearts to being more receptive to what you wish to share.
Healthy Complaining: Preface your complaint by first sharing your positive intention and positive desired outcome for sharing your complaint in the first place.
Healthy Ways to Respond to a Complaint
Healthy Way to Respond to a Complaint: Rephrase your partner’s complaint so your partner feels heard, acknowledged, and trusts that you understand what he or she is saying
Healthy Way to Respond to a Complaint: Ask questions for to understand your partner’s frame of reference more. Ask open-ended questions to give him or her room to elaborate and share even more about what’s weighing on his or her mind.
Healthy Way to Respond to a Complaint: Acknowledge and empathize with the feelings behind your partner’s complaint, even if you don’t agree with what he or she is complaining about
Healthy Way to Respond to a Complaint: Take ownership for your actions and apologize when an apology is warranted.
Healthy Way to Respond to a Complaint: Take responsibility for your contribution to the problem
Healthy way to Respond to a Complaint: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. In other words, listen first, talk second.
Healthy way to Respond to a Complaint: Be mindful of your body language, and respond with a receptive, soft tone of voice
Please keep in mind that it’s not uncommon that one or both partners in a relationship are highly sensitive to complaints and criticism. People who are highly sensitive to complaints and criticism likely developed these patterns in childhood: usually this heightened sensitivity stems from growing up in homes where there was substance abuse, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse, abandonment, or emotional neglect. Small Children are naturally Egocentric and falsely believe their actions cause family problems or instability. They feel responsible for the unfortunate circumstances going on in their lives that are beyond their control. In turn, they are prone to blaming themselves for their parent’s divorce, the death of a loved one, their parent’s abrupt departure to fight in wars, etc. As they grow up, they feel compelled to defend themselves, to say constantly, “It’s not my fault.” If they hear a complaint, they automatically brace themselves and prepare to fight back, whether they’re under attack or not.
This can be a real struggle in a close partnership or marriage. What starts out as one person sharing his needs can quickly devolve into a full-fledged battle. The highly sensitive partner might be prone to jumping to distorted conclusions about what his or her partner is saying and presume that he or she is being deliberately hurtful or malicious when this may not be the case at all. The antidote or solution to this pattern is for the highly sensitive partner is to listen carefully to the words his partner is saying when he is stating a need or a making request; your partner may not be as critical as you first think. Be particularly aware of times that you automatically react by defending yourself. Think or imagine a different response instead, and mentally rehearse that new response in your mind’s eye repeatedly so that you’re more likely to respond in kind the next time you feel emotionally criticized. Take a deep breath, pause, and courageously challenge yourself to agree to anything that your partner says that rings true. If you wish, you can also summon the courage to ask your partner to tell you more about his need or complaint.
If your partner is highly sensitive, take extra care to avoid criticism when stating your needs. If your partner responds defensively, avoid responding the same way; respond to defensiveness by clarifying your statement of need.
Thank you for taking your time to read this blog. I hope that you found it illuminating and helpful.
John Boesky, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
( MNLP/CHT/Dharma Life Coach & Sports Psychology Consultant)