How to Complain So Your Partner Listens

Getting the result you want requires a bit of planning.

Posted Oct 23, 2017

Source: artur84/freedigitalphotos

Most of us hesitate to voice dissatisfaction in our relationship as things can easily go wrong when we bring up a complaint. Whether the conversation escalates into an argument or our partner counters with complaints of their own, we rarely get the result we want.

We tend to think this happens because our partner gets too defensive or they have a temper or they can’t take responsibility. And while that might be true in some cases, the bigger reason complaints typically go awry is very few of us know how to voice them productively.

The good news is there is a simple 3 step formula that can help us complain effectively which I call The Complaint Sandwich. The first slice of bread in the sandwich is the ear-opener. The "meat" of the sandwich is our actual complaint, and the second slice of bread is The Digestive. Let’s use an example of a common relationship complaint—your partner spends too much time on their phone—and break down how to use these three components.

1. The Ear Opener. To our partner, our complaint will always sound like an attack—because it is. After all, we are calling them on something they did wrong. In order to lower their defensiveness and open their ears to the complaint to come we need to start with a positive statement. For example, we might say, “We both have stressful days and I really enjoy spending time together in the evening once we both feel more relaxed.”

2. The Meat. Once we opened our partner’s ears with a positive statement, we need to get our message across as simply and as clearly as possible. Our goal here is for them to "get it," not to prove our case in a court of law using numerous pieces of evidence and powerful opening and closing statements. Doing that will only overwhelm our partner and make them angry or shut down.

In other words, the "meat" of the Complaint Sandwich should be as lean as possible. We should focus only on a single incident or principle, state what happened as simply and with as neutral a tone as possible and explain why it was problematic as briefly as possible. For example, we might say, “I know the phone helps you unwind but you sometimes check it constantly which is really disruptive and leaves me feeling shut out and resentful.”

3. The Digestive. Once we voiced our actual complaint we need to state our "ask"—what it is we actually want. This, of course, requires us to do some thinking before we voice our complaint because we need to be very clear about why we’re voicing this complaint in the first place. Do we want an apology? Do we want them to make up for things in some way and if so, how? Are we just bringing something to their attention so they do not do it again? Are we asking them to change their behavior going forward and if so, in what specific way?

When we voice our request to our partner we have to add a positive statement that conveys all will be well between us if they do what we ask as doing so provides a strong incentive for them to comply with our request—it makes it easier for them to "digest" our complaint sandwich. We might say, “I would like for us to agree to put away our phones when we’re having dinner or when we’ve agreed to do a movie night or date night. Doing that would make me feel so much better as it would feel like having real quality time together.”

The Complaint Sandwich is a formula that can maximize our chances of getting what we want but it does require thought and planning. So, make sure you take the time to think through what you plan to say and make sure you find a suitable time to have the discussion (i.e., not when you’re rushing to get out of the house in the morning). If you do get the result you want to be gracious and express appreciation. A simple “Thank you” will usually do.