Complain to Your Spouse Without Starting an Argument

How to complain to your partner without starting an argument.

Posted Jan 28, 2011

Many of us hesitate to voice complaints to our spouses or partners for fear of starting an argument. But holding in our marital dissatisfactions over time creates a buildup of frustration and resentment that is toxic to a relationship. And then, when we finally do voice our complaints we do so in tones and words that are too harsh for our spouse to absorb, leading them to become defensive and angry, a response that only convinces us to continue withholding our relational complaints going forward, creating even more frustration and resentment and deepening the cycle of miscommunication and negativity in our relationship.

To avoid this destructive cycle, we must learn how to voice our complaints productively and get the result we're looking for. The good news is that we can make any complaint much easier for our spouse to digest by using a simple formula I call The Complaint Sandwich

How to Make a Complaint Sandwich

The first slice of bread in the Complaint Sandwich is a positive statement called The Ear Opener. Its goal is to lower the recipient's defensiveness and allow them to absorb the complaint to follow.

The meat of the Complaint Sandwich is the actual complaint or request for redress. The 'meat' should be lean—that is, keep it to a single incident and single principle.

The second slice of bread in the Complaint Sandwich is a positive statement called The Digestive. Its goal is to increase the recipient's motivation to respond positively to our complaint/request-going-forward by reassuring them that doing so will make things better between us (i.e., "Look, my tone is positive, no grudges will be held here.")

Important Complaint Sandwich "Condiments"

1. Make your tone as civil and as reasonable as possible. Anger or harsh tones will only distract your spouse from the content of your message.

2. Voice only one complaint per discussion—so choose wisely.

3. Make your complaint as specific as possible—do not generalize it into a criticism. For example, "You forgot to clean the cat's litter box" will make the same point and be far easier for your partner to hear than "How many times have I asked you to clean the cat's litter box? Why do I have to do everything around here?" 

Many more techniques for addressing common psychological and relationship issues can be found in Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2011 Guy Winch.