Behavior Requests, Complaints, and Contempt

Many people think they’re complaining when they’re expressing contempt.

Posted Feb 19, 2020

Everyone complains sometimes. It’s hard not to complain in a complaining society. Even news outlets seem to complain more than they report.

We keep complaining, knowing full well that it rarely accomplishes anything besides making us feel more powerless.

In relationships, many people think they’re merely complaining, when they’re actually expressing contempt. While complaints have a minuscule chance of improving situations, expressions of contempt will always make things worse.

Complaints vs. Contempt

Complaints are about specific behaviors. Contempt is about character, temperament, personality, identity.

Although complaining differs from expressions of contempt, chronic complaining turns into contempt.

In the throes of contempt, partners:

  • Are judgmental, rather than interested in each other.
  • Are intolerant of disagreement.
  • Refuse to consider each other’s perspective.
  • Attribute malevolent intent to each other.
  • Regard each other as inferior (intellectually, morally, emotionally, or spiritually).
  • Display impatience while the other speaks (grimace, scowling, gritting teeth, sighing, rolling eyes).
  • Use dismissive or devaluing tones of voice.
  • Employ mocking, mean-spirited sarcasm.
  • Diagnose each other will personality disorders, which serve as negative labels or slurs.

Research has established contempt as a leading cause of relationship demise. Contempt puts relationships in the intensive care unit. Without heroic intervention, they will die.  

Complaints vs. Behavior Requests

Complaints feature entitlement: Your right to get your partner to do something seems superior to your partner’s right not to do it.

Behavior requests assume equality of rights and preferences. They recognize that your partner has the right not to do what you want. Above all, they’re respectful.

Behavior requests focus on what you want, while complaints focus on what you don’t want. Whatever you focus on, you’re liable to get more of, so it’s pretty important that you focus on what you want.

Behavior requests ask for cooperation. Complaints demand submission, usually with coercion. The implication of complaints is that you’ll be punished in some way if you don’t comply. The punishment is typically withdrawal of affection, cold shoulders, cold attitudes, or worse.

In case you’re wondering why you have to complain more and more, here’s the answer: Complaining is self-reinforcing. The more we complain, the more self-righteous we feel, and the more self-righteous we feel, the more we’re entitled to complain. Also, complaining is contagious: If one person does it, everyone starts doing it. Soon you’re complaining about each other’s complaints.

Complaints rarely lead to desired outcomes because they require one or both to sell out the self for a temporary peace. Humans tend to get resentful when they feel they have to sell out. Even when you win with complaints, you lose in the long run, unless your goal is a resentful relationship.

Behavior requests usually invoke positive reciprocity. In general, people tend to cooperate when they feel respected.

Grounded in equality and fairness, behavior requests promote household harmony, the greatest gift of love.