6 ways to constructively complain to build connection.
You may be wondering: what in the world? You are actually telling me to complain?
Yes, I am. Let me explain.
When I was first married, I had the belief that happily married couples rarely fought. I figured that they were so in love and accepting of each other that issues seldom arose.
About a year into our marriage, my husband and I had our first fight. A huge fight. I was so upset that I walked out, got into my car, and literally squealed away. I drove as fast as I could to a mentor’s house from church. Having been happily married for many years, she would be able to help me.
When I got there, I expressed the fear that we were headed for divorce. She smiled and said, “Sometimes, when you love your husband, you will hate him. You will just get over it more quickly.”
I was a little confused and didn’t fully understand what she meant, but it calmed me down. I concluded that hating my husband in that moment didn’t mean we were doomed.
26 years later, I am grateful that I have grown up. I am now more aware when I am communicating in a way that tears down my husband and our marriage. Because I have learned healthier ways to communicate, I am able to get over it more quickly.
A happy marriage does not mean we won’t have conflict. Sometimes, we might even feel like we hate our spouse. The issue is not that we feel like we hate them; the issue is how we choose to respond.
If we long to have a marriage that is intimate, we have to be open to changing the way in which we communicate.
Learning to work through conflict and share our feelings isn’t easy. It requires hard work. Growing up, we may not have had a healthy marriage modeled for us. We may be afraid of conflict and rejection. We may not have any idea how to reach our spouse. I have struggled with all of these things. Learning essential tools over the years, having faith, and working hard on changing myself has transformed my marriage.
One of the tools that has been a huge game changer in my marriage has been learning how to communicate my complaints.
This has been a learning process. I have had to learn how to communicate complaints responsibly and with positive intention to give my husband the benefit of the doubt. I have needed to ask myself what my motives are. Or, to be more blunt, what am I going for? This requires me to think about what I want and begin to communicate my longings clearly, in such a way as to not blame and attack my husband.
Here are a few ways to share complaints in order to foster communication and connection.
1. Complain, don’t criticize.
Let’s begin by recognizing the difference between complaints and criticism. John Gottman has written extensively on the topic of marriage. This information from the Gottman Institute provides a helpful and clear distinction between complaints and criticism.
2. Complain with a positive outcome in mind.
The reality is that, when we complain, it’s more often because we are looking for connection rather than a solution.
Ask yourself: what do I want? What am I longing for? Am I feeling lonely? Overwhelmed? Do I need help? A hug? Do I want attention from my spouse?
I get resentful when my husband is laying on the couch watching tv for several hours. I start building my case.
I know I am in trouble when I use the phrases, “You never” and “You always.”
“You always lie on the couch on the weekends. You never think about helping out around here.”
In that moment, I am usually missing him, feeling overwhelmed, and feeling alone in the tasks that need to get done. I find if helpful to join him on the couch for awhile. I ask him to help me when there is a commercial or when the show is over. I share that I want to spend some time with him. I invite him to do something, whether it be walking the dog or going on a date.
We need to begin to figure out what we want and need when resentment sets in, and begin to ask for it.
3. Complain to build intimacy.
An intimate marriage includes sharing your feelings and what you like and don’t like. We need to do this in a way that builds up the relationship rather than tearing it down. Complaining helps us understand and know each other in deeper ways. It also reveals to your spouse how much you care about them and your relationship.
4. See complaints as opportunities to grow.
A helpful mantra to live by is, “see the truth in every criticism without defending.” This is difficult to do. It is also essential if we want to grow.
We all have blind spots. We don’t always realize how our behavior impacts others. As upsetting as it can be to have our shortcomings pointed out, if we want to grow, we need to become open to receiving it.
Next time your spouse expresses something they don’t like about you, bite your tongue when you want to defend yourself or retaliate. Instead, take it in. Look for the truth of what they are saying. Remind yourself that this does not mean you are a bad person. You can share that it hurts and that it’s hard to hear. Let them know that you are working on being open to hearing what they have to say. Repeat back to them what you hear them saying in order to make sure you understand. This is especially helpful for me. I often misconstrue what my husband is saying. There is no one that sees our shortcomings better than our spouse. We are wise to open our hearts to listen, learn, and grow.
5. Complain in order to build safety and trust.
When my husband shares what he doesn’t like, I can feel defensive. But I need to remember that I would much rather have him share what he doesn’t like than stuff it and not say anything. Allowing resentments to build up creates distance and passive aggressive behavior, resulting in more distance. (Click here for a definition of passive-aggressive behavior.)
Marriage is like iron sharpening iron.
We need to be sharpened.
My husband and I have grown exponentially in communicating our complaints. We have gotten to know each other in deeper ways. We know what the other person likes and doesn’t like. We ask more directly for what we want and need. We don’t allow resentments to build up and fester. We are quicker to catch ourselves and point it out when we are criticizing the other person. When we are hurt and angry, we have learned to share our feelings and ask directly for what we want.
And we still mess up. It isn’t perfect. It is a process. As always, we are learning and growing everyday, and that is what matters the most.
Questions: What do you struggle with the most when it comes to communicating complaints to your spouse? What is one way that has helped you to build deeper connection in your marriage?