Before you answer, decide how you want the conversation to end. Is your goal to justify yourself, or do you want to resolve the issue and strengthen your relationship? If you're after a stronger marriage, John and Julie Gottman have several helpful suggestions:
•If you've screwed up, take responsibility.
Your spouse complains, “You're late, and you didn't call.” Answering, “I was caught up with work” is a reason, but is neither an excuse nor taking responsibility. “I'm sorry, I should have called when I knew I'd be late,” deals with the issue directly.
•If you're sincerely uncertain what the complaint is about, ask questions. But word your question in a neutral way. The Gottmans suggest: “Do you want me to call as soon as I know I'll be late?” Belittling your spouse for complaining (“I'm only an hour late; why are you such a control freak?”) is an attack, not a question.
•The Gottmans suggest you also “look for the longing in each other's complaints.” Complaints reflect unmet needs to feel secure, cared for and significant. Or, your spouse may feel threatened: Their his or her integrity has been challenged or your actions have undermined trust in you.
Your spouse complains because you're late and you didn't call. There's the obvious issue of the inconvenience you've caused. But, under the surface, there's also the question of whether you can be trusted to come home; do you really care for them, or are they in second place behind your work … or worse yet, someone else at work?
You forget your spouse's birthday? Is your spouse concerned she or he may no longer be significant in your life? She or he complains that you don't spend enough time together, don't cuddle any more or don't have sex very often any more. Is there an underlying fear you no longer may find them desirable?
•The Gottmans suggest it may help to ask questions that respect the fact your spouse is different than you are and has different needs. For example, “What would it mean for you to feel I respect and support your work?” Or, “What does spending time together in bed at the end of the day mean to you?”
Don't look for technical answers. Physical touch and sexual intimacy have a powerful bonding effect (they trigger the release of oxytocin in women and vasopressin in men). But, if your spouse is concerned about the frequency of physical contact (cuddling or sex), don't expect her or him to say, “I'm not getting enough oxytocin/vasopressin released to support a strong sense of bonding.”
The answer will probably be in general terms (“It makes me feel closer to you” or “It makes me feel better about us.”) Don't logically dissect the answer; just try to better understand your spouse.
It's difficult to listen to complaints from your spouse in a way that will strengthen your marriage. But it's a skill well worth learning because it ultimately will lead to greater intimacy and joy in your relationship.
©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.