By Jon Beaty
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 a 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.