By Audrey Kasting, Relationship Rx Facilitator
People often look at me wide-eyed when I tell them that it is actually healthy to complain in relationships. I reassure them it is, and also strongly emphasize that it is healthy when done in the appropriate way, and when criticisms are being avoided. Complaining has a negative connotation – but at its core, it is letting our partner know that we are bothered by something. It is much better to communicate about what we think is not going as well so we can manage and maintain. Otherwise, small issues have the potential to snowball into bigger problems.
The difference between criticisms and complaints is a very important one. It can mean the difference between a toxic vs. a healthy and helpful communication tool.
Criticisms are messages we give our partners that negatively attack their character, or their personal beliefs, values, or opinions. More simply, they are “put-downs.” Name-calling is also a form of criticism. Anything that makes your partner feel as though they are harshly disrespected could be considered a criticism.
According to John Gottman, a couples researcher, criticism is a danger sign in relationships. This means that when there is too much criticism present in the environment of a relationship between two people, the overall health and strength of their bond is being significantly weakened. Criticisms also hurt our individual senses of identify and self-esteem. They are damaging both to our emotional safety in relationships, and our own personal well-being.
Complaints are messages we give our partners telling them that we are bothered or upset, or that we believe something is not going as well in our relationship. Complaints are not attacks, they are bits of information being shared. Complaints focus on specific behaviors or incidents, rather than broad, negative statements about your partner him or herself. The best kind of complaints also communicate to our partner how we are being affected. For example, “When you played a game on your phone instead of talk to me during dinner, I felt annoyed and sad,” is letting the other person know it’s an important issue not because that partner is an intrinsically “bad person,” for playing on the phone; rather, it’s important because the other partner felt disappointed. Instead of pointing fingers and making it an individual issue, it is now a couple issue to navigate as a team.
Tricks to Complaining in a Healthy Way
Avoid the words “always,” and “never.” Even if it is something your partner does (or does not do) often, it is unfair to use these broad statements. It also quickly breeds defensiveness in your partner, and is a slippery slope towards criticism.
Use “I” Statements. If you make sure to speak from your perspective, you will (1) avoid criticizing your partner, and (2) soften your approach and elicit more patience from your partner to listen. Imagine if your partner were to say: “You are such a slob, you never help me get anything done.” This would not only be hurtful, but a natural response for most of us will be defending why the chore wasn’t done, or a counter-attack (“Well you forget to do things too!”). A game of tennis with the blame ball could be quick to follow. Now imagine if your partner were to say: “I felt really frustrated when the laundry wasn’t put away yesterday.” A calmer response is now much more likely.
*Note: If jumping to emotions, or saying “I felt…” is too uncomfortable, try to describe your experience of it as best you can without pointing fingers. (Ex: “My to-do list seemed endless yesterday, and I had so much to do. That’s why I snapped when the laundry wasn’t put away.”).
Expect a little defensiveness. When someone tells us that we’ve done or said something annoying, upsetting, or bothersome, we all feel a little defensiveness. For the person complaining, this is why it is important to approach it softly. For the person receiving, being receptive will help to create discussion and improve your intimacy as a couple. Being too defensive or avoidant will only make it harder for your partner to approach you softly next time, and make it more difficult for you to smooth things over.
Choose your battles. I know I said complaining is healthy in a relationship; however, this is not a green light to complain about every tiny thing your partner does that bugs you. There needs to be a balance. Sometimes we need to understand that our partner may have done or said something because they were stressed or overwhelmed, for example. Or perhaps there are days when things don’t run as smoothly due to time constraints and crazy schedules, not because it was “someone’s fault.” Everyone has their small quirks and habits that end up bugging one another as well. If there are small but understandable things that come up, it may be okay to let them slide. But if you think that if you don’t say something it will cause you to start harboring resentment, then is a good idea to discuss it with your partner.
Sprinkle positives often. Research tells us that it takes 20 positives to equal out one negative in relationships, and that repair work is essential. A relationship will be much stronger and healthier if you and your partner thoughtfully add positives into your emotional savings account, and often. No matter how appropriately each person is complaining, if there are no positives sprinkled in elsewhere, it will make it much more dismal and difficult to hear complaints. A focus on compliments and encouragements is also key in this area.