Learning to complain is not a skill normally associated with a good marriage.
However, research done by John and Julie Gottman has found that one of the primary differences between healthy and unhealthy marriages is the couple's ability, or inability, to complain to each other.
The Gottmans report that constantly putting a lid on complaints and holding back “for the sake of peace” often leads to pent-up anger and resentfulness. The Gottmans warn of what they call “negative sentiment override.”
Instead of complaining, you keep track of every wrong your spouse commits, letting them fester and grow, until you only see what's bad in your spouse and your marriage, ignoring or minimizing any positive thoughts you would normally have. This can end up destroying your marriage.
However, complaints are not the same as criticism. Complaints reveal your feeling (“I feel so lonely”), while criticisms point to your spouse's faults (“You don't care about me”). Complaints address problems “in ways that are respectful, clear, specific and immediate.”
Criticism attacks your spouse and leads to what the Gottmans call “an all too-common cycle of criticize/defend/countercriticize — a pattern that can cause arguments to escalate out of control.”
The Gottmans list the key elements of good complaints:
•“Share responsibility for the problem.”
Talking about what “we can't afford” makes it a team problem and invites a team solution. Blaming your spouse for “wasting money on all those stupid things you're always buying” invites a battle.
•“Describe the problem in terms of your perception, opinion, or style.”
Saying, “I'm just more conservative about money, and I think you paid too much,” states a perception and opinion. Saying, “Only a complete idiot would pay that much,” is a personal attack.
•“Focus on a specific problem, tackling one at a time.”
If you need help getting the kids to bed, say so. Don't let your frustration build until you explode with what the Gottmans call a stockpile of complaints: “You haven't cleaned out the garage yet, you left your dirty socks on the floor, you still haven't cut the grass and you never help with the kids at night.” Listing stockpiled complaints increases the odds that nothing will get resolved.
•“Focus on the present.”
Only complain about what's bothering you right now. Digging up the past (“Yeah, … and remember three summers ago?”) clutters the discussion, making resolution nearly impossible. Moreover, you're inviting counterattacks based on things you've done in the past. Suddenly, every grievance you and your spouse have ever endured becomes part of a rambling argument with no ending.
•“Pick a time to complain when your spouse can listen and respond.”
Registering a complaint as your spouse is about to leave for work, is dealing with the children or is focused on some pressing matter is more likely to lead to an angry response than productive conversation. If things are busy, set a time when you can talk without distractions.
•“Tell your spouse about your needs and desires.”
Don't hint or use subtle clues. Your spouse is not a mind-reader. The Hollywood myth, “if he loved me he'd know what I want without me telling him,” is romantic drivel at its worst. So say what you want clearly in short, precise sentences.
These suggestions for healthy complaining all involve what the Gottmans call a “softened start-up.”
They explain that the ability to start talking about a complaint “gently, without criticizing or insulting your spouse,” increases the likelihood that your spouse will listen and improves the chances that you'll be able to resolve the matter through teamwork.
And good teamwork makes for a good marriage.
©2012, All Rights Reserved. James Sheridan’s website is www.marriagedoneright.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.