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Complain Skilfully

September 01, 2012

Here are some examples of complaints done well:

  • When you don't return the ice cream to the freezer after taking yourself a bowl, it melts, and I feel frustrated and irritated with you.

  • When you were yelling at the kids and using swear words, I felt very upset.

  • When you told our friends that you thought it would be a good idea for me to lose some weight, I felt hurt and embarrassed.

  • When you drive so close to the car ahead of us, like you're doing right now, I feel afraid.

See the pattern — the formula? Begin by describing your spouse's specific action — the focus is on behavior — and then state how you feel (or felt) as a result of that behavior. That's the formula — nothing more, nothing less. And after you voice your complaint this way, stop talking; just wait for a response. (Be sure, when you use the formula, that you're really naming feelings — sad, hurt, afraid, embarrassed, annoyed, etc. — and not thoughts. We mistake the two all the time thinking that just because we use the word "feel" in the sentence, there's a feeling being communicated. Not so. "I feel like eating Mexican food tonight" doesn't express an authentic emotion.)

With the complaint formula, you're not criticizing the person ("you're lazy," "you're rude," "you're out of control"), you're not piling on this, that, and more (complain about one specific behavior), and you're not telling your spouse what to do. You're just offering information: When you do ... I feel ...

For decades, researchers* have known that one of the common features of many unhappy couples is something called cross-complaining: hearing a complaint from my spouse, I offer a complaint in return. Back and forth like a game of ping pong, but the relationship always loses because the original complaint rarely gets addressed; the cross-complaint changes the subject. Even if the cross-complaint is "... but you do that, too," it's switching the focus from the first spouse's issue to the second spouse's issue.

So stay with one complaint at a time ("I'm happy to talk about your complaint after we finish talking about mine ..."). And do your best to avoid an angry tone, as anger tends to frighten the listener, which makes it that much harder to offer a thoughtful response.

References & Citations

*Alberts, J. K. (1988). "An Analysis of Couples' Conversational Complaint Interactions." Communication Monographs 55:184-197.

Gottman, J. M. (1979). Marital Interaction. New York: Academic Press.