There was a time back in the early days of my now nearly 30-year marriage when a hand-written sign hung over our toilet. It read as follows: “Please remember to put the seat down or [cover your ears, kids] I may be forced to kill you.” Yikes. If memory serves, I believe I signed it, “your loving wife.” Not the proudest moment in my marriage, nor my best literary work, but it did the trick. My husband, rather than being offended (or worried), understood my sense of humor and chuckled every time he saw the note. Oh, and, importantly, put the seat down. I felt bad that our gentle-hearted nanny had to witness that whole scene from our marriage. But the fact is that couples therapists might have given me high scores for my off-color antics—why?
Because complaining is good for your relationship.
Not about every little thing, but when it comes to the things that matter to you (like not wanting to fall into the toilet when it’s pitch dark at 2:00 am and you’ve really got to go), complain! The reason is this: not complaining and, instead, letting those concerns build up could do more harm than good. The longer you wait, the bigger the problem gets, and the more irrational you become. When you finally explode, and you will, chances are that your complaint won’t come out with a cute (however rough around the edges) note. It will be war.
So complaining is good, but it has to be done right.
Researchers distinguish between complaints and criticisms. Complaints are specific concerns about what a person is doing, whereas criticisms are global attacks on why on earth they would ever be doing it.
Shifting from toilet seats to the perennial toothpaste-tube squeezing preferences, a good complaint sounds like this: Honey, it makes me crazy to see the toothpaste squeezed in the middle because then it will be hard to use it all—and you know how thrifty I am. So can you please remember to start from the end?
Whereas a criticism sounds like this: I’ve told you about the toothpaste 100 times! What is your problem? You never listen to me! You’re such a slob! Nothing matters to you except your stupid football games! Well I could care less about that!
We don’t have to put on our thinking caps to know which approach gets better results. When you complain, you have a win-win: your partner gets to be the hero, just by not squeezing the middle of the tube and everyone’s happy. When you criticize, you’re left with shame and blame. Who would want to touch that with a ten-foot pole? And what even happened to the toothpaste tube issue? Lost in the rapid-fire attack. No wonder the other person never listens.
Now you may be thinking, why should I work to tailor my complaints about my partner if he (or she) is the one who is doing something wrong (and has been doing it wrong for a long, long time)?
Which gets to the final point: what is your desired effect? Is it to improve your relationship or to make your partner feel bad or corrected? You have to want change more than justice or revenge. When you are ready to make things better—for both of you—then and only then is it time to dive in. Here are eight ways to be most effective when you do:
1. Be Specific: It’s Not About Everything Your Partner Does Wrong, It’s About This One Thing
Don’t do the rapid fire attack, this isn’t character assassination 101; stick with the one thing that is bothering you most right now and leave your partner’s character intact (remember, you love that part).
2. Keep it Current: Stick With the Present
Do you keep magazines on your coffee table from 5 or 10 or 20 years ago? Of course not, those are old issues. Exactly.
3. Be a Newscaster: Don’t Judge, Report
Only the facts, please. Once you start making judgments, not only might you misjudge the “why” behind the behavior, but even if you’re a little bit right when you say someone is lazy or inattentive—it’s highly unlikely that it will bring the kind of change you’re after.
4. Avoid the Absolutes of “Always” and “Never”
You never help! You always duck out when there’s work to be done! We’re not going to rush right up to the counter and claim those attributes. Don’t generalize; focus on the present: “I need your help with the groceries now.”
5. Know Your Rights
As much as the world would be a more perfect place if this were true, we aren’t entitled to our partners being mind-reading geniuses who live for our every need. And we aren’t entitled to demand someone do something our way just because (we think) it’s better or right. We are, however, entitled to ask. It’s different. Don’t go in assuming that your way is the only right way. Explain why something matters to you. Logic, delivered calmly, often prevails.
6. Be Kind (And Use Humor) Whenever Possible
Levity is another word for generosity. You are literally sharing a laugh. It might take an extra second to find the humor in a situation, but given the momentum and good will it creates, it’s a great time-saver in the end.
7. Use Compassion to De-Criminalize the Offense (And Maybe Even Let it Go)
Is there a method to your partner’s madness? Does it drive you crazy how long he takes to choose a date-night restaurant? Challenge yourself to find a good reason why. Is he so dedicated to your happiness that he doesn’t want to disappoint you? Too hard on himself? Hardly a crime. Accepting that, you may switch gears and seize the opportunity to read or do your nails while you’re waiting, but if you decide you want him to be less thorough (i.e., faster), you’ll go into that discussion with an open heart rather than an attack weapon.
8. Make Requests, Not Demands, and Get the Handshake
How do you avoid becoming a nag? Don’t lecture or make demands. That allows the other party to be passive and just hope you finish soon. Instead: make an agreement. An agreement takes two and starts with a conversation: “I’d like help with the dishes. Can you do that? When? Do you want my help remembering? Is there something else you’d rather do instead to pitch in?” Without a two-way conversation, there is no commitment and no accountability. Don’t think high emotional confrontation: think business meeting. Consequences if agreements are broken? Sure if you like. But the biggest consequence is weakening your relationship; if you’re going to do business or anything else together, follow-through is a must.
After 27 years of marriage, my husband and I have had our fair share of toilet seat lid and toothpaste-tube discussions. But make no mistake. This is how we got here. Underneath these deceptively small details is the real deal. The mother lode. These complaints are really about respect: Can you respect my preferences even if (or especially if) they don’t matter to you? Respect is at the foundation of any relationship that is going to work, so the most fulfilling relationships are built on the brick and mortar of these ground-level concerns. No matter how lofty your aspirations in your relationship, no foundation, no go.
So next time you are unhappy with something in your relationship—pause and see the opportunity for these little complaints to do their work for you, or else… I may… be forced to… No, no, no… just kidding! You’ll see just how much stronger your relationship becomes.
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D, 2012. Previously published on Huffington Post