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January 23, 2023

It’s never easy finding the balance between accepting versus complaining about the things that give us a hard time in our partner. But complain we must, occasionally and with kindness, lest a growing reservoir of irritation spill over its banks. 

Here are some examples of complaints expressed 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? When you____, I felt____. Begin by describing your partner's specific action — the focus is on behavior — and then state how you feel (or felt) when the behavior occurred. That's the formula. And after you voice your complaint this way, stop talking and listen for a response. (When you use the formula, be sure you're really naming feelings — sad, hurt, afraid, embarrassed, annoyed, etc. — and not thoughts. We confuse the two all the time thinking that just because we put the word "feel" into the sentence, there's an actual feeling (emotion) being communicated. Not so. Here are three statements that don’t express an emotion: "I feel like eating Mexican food tonight" or “It doesn’t feel like we’re making any progress on cleaning the basement” or “I feel she’s becoming more difficult as she gets older.”) 

With the complaint formula, you're not criticizing the person ("you're lazy," "you're rude," "you're out of control"), you're shining a light on one particular behavior. And you're not telling your partner 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 partner, 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 and pulls us off the original path. Even if the cross-complaint is "... but you do that, too," it's nevertheless switching the focus from the first partner's issue to the second partner's issue. 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; anger tends to be frightening, which makes it that much harder for your partner 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.