Dr. John Gottman has done years of research on interpersonal communication in couples. In his findings, he has discovered that there is a clear distinction between criticizing your partner vs. expressing a complaint. In an article written by Jon Beaty in March of 2017, at the Gottman Institute, he shares the following insight from his article entitled, “A Couple’s Guide to Complaining”:
The complaint formula
Dr. John Gottman has refined the skill of effective complaining down to a simple, three-part formula. I wish we’d discovered and mastered this formula before we went to counseling. With a little practice and persistence, following the formula will help couples discuss their issues without causing harm to each other.
1. Express how you feel
Effective complaints begin with a soft start-up, and are best launched by stating how you feel. A feeling may be an emotion like anger or fear, or a physical state like tiredness or pain.
The soft start-up is in contrast to the harsh start-up that usually accompanies criticism, and often begins with phrases like “you always” or “you never.”
2. Talk about a very specific situation
After stating your feeling, describe the situation or behavior that caused that feeling.
Many complaints couples have about each other will never go away. If that’s bad news, the good news is that complaints don’t have to drive a relationship to a bitter end. As long as couples can keep their complaints from becoming criticisms, complaints will be a minor nuisance in comparison to the destructive power of criticism.
3. State a positive need
Finally, ask your spouse to take positive action to resolve the complaint.
Using this formula doesn’t guarantee complaints will be resolved. It does give couples a tool they can use to express their complaints without the risk of their requests being sidelined by a spouse who feels the need to defend against criticism.
The secret ingredient
Many couples have built thriving relationships in spite of enduring, unresolved conflicts. Many of these couples have learned to tolerate these conflicts by complaining instead of criticizing. But they also have a powerful, secret ingredient: they use repairs to diffuse the tension that builds up when discussing these issues. This keeps those problems from overwhelming their relationship.
Couples who are satisfied with their relationships don’t lack things to complain about. They’ve discovered how to complain without criticizing, keep the issues they have with each other in perspective, and use humor to break up tension that can lead to gridlock. If this doesn’t describe your relationship, try using Dr. Gottman’s formula for complaining, add a dose of humor, and see where it leads.