4 Ways to Complain without Criticizing

If you are in a committed relationship, you are occasionally going to complain about your partner. Valid complaints help us grow and become better partners. We have to learn to complain in healthy ways.

But how do you complain without it resulting in a fight? The key is to soften how the complaint is voiced.

In Dr. John Gottman’s research, he found that the first three minutes of a discussion almost always determines how it will end. Therefore, it’s really important to bring up topics in a gentle manner.

Things usually go off track when a complaint is heard as criticism. A complaint becomes criticism when it is discussed as a character defect in the partner. Words like “never” and “always” are often included.

The antidote to criticism is to soften the start-up.

Imagine that you came home late, tired and hoping to just relax. Instead, your partner cooked their meal and left the dishes in the sink. A harsh start-up might look something like this: “You never do anything around here! I work late. I’m exhausted. And I have to come home to a sink full of dirty dishes! Why don’t you ever think of me!”

Most likely, a critical statement like that would be met with defensiveness. There is a high probability that the conversation would not end well.

Here are four steps to complain without criticism:

  1. Soften the start-up. Bring up a topic as you would to a dear friend, especially if it is a topic that tends to be more sensitive to you than your partner.
  2. Talk about your feelings.
  3. Talk about the situation, not the person.
  4. Make requests, rather demands. State what you would want to happen, not what you don’t want to happen.

This is what a soft start-up might look like: “Hey, I know this might not seem like a big deal to you, and in truth, it probably shouldn’t be a big deal to me but, I feel hurt and irritated when I see the dirty dishes in the sink. I was so tired and just wanted to relax and spend time with you. In the future, it would really mean a lot to me if you could just make sure that the dishes are done before I get home. Would that be okay with you?”

At first, you’ll find that you may have to be very intentional when you practice a softer start-up.  But after a short while, you’ll find it becomes natural.  If you find that even with a gentle start-up, you still find your discussions escalating into a fight, it might be time to talk to a couples therapist to help the two of you discuss difficult topics.

Written By: Jackie Dunagan: LMFT, AAMFT Approved Supervisor

Article Updated: July 8, 2024

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *