In the exciting, falling in love stage of our relationships, what we want to change in our partners is often furthest from our minds. We’ve got stars in our eyes, we’re wearing rose colored glasses, we’re in the honeymoon stage—pick whichever metaphor works for you. It’s wonderful and fun; I don’t mean to dismiss that. However, the reality of being two complex, dynamic individuals in an intimate relationship with each other over an extended period of time brings conflict. It just does. These conflicts might be personality differences, cultural differences, differences of opinion, habit, or tradition. In very simple terms, you might make a request for change, something along the lines of “this thing isn’t working for me, can we talk about changing it?” This post is about how you bring up complaints in your relationship. Spoiler alert! Less is more.
How it starts
I’m going to walk you through a typical scenario:
You get up your courage to finally talk about something that’s bothering you. It’s maybe been bothering you for a while. It’s something your partner ‘always’ does that drives you nuts or leaves you feeling bad about yourself. You don’t want to be an overly critical or nagging partner, so maybe you’ve been trying to let this particular thing go for a while now. Or maybe you’ve talked about this a million times and can’t believe your partner still won’t change.
If you’re lucky and being your better self, you wait for a good time to bring up the topic. That doesn’t always happen though. Sometimes you run out of patience and ‘snap.’ Or your partner does the thing when you’re already tired, stressed, and/or hungry. Worst case scenario, you’re discussing something different with your partner, you feel attacked or unfairly criticized, and in your attempt to defend yourself, you decide to bring up thisthing that’s been bothering you, to show your partner they aren’t so perfect either.
Where it goes wrong
However you get there, you start in. You describe exactly how horrible this thing is that your partner says or does and how it makes you feel. You want to make sure they get the point and understand how important this is to you, so you make sure to give all the examples you can remember when they did this horrible thing. If they are not immediately apologetic and remorseful, or even worse become defensive, you work even harder to drive home the point. (Or maybe you give up in frustration and walk away, only to let it keep stewing for later.)
Maybe you’re nervous to talk so directly, or maybe you’re afraid of what they have to say back, or maybe it kinda feels good to get some of this off your chest, so you keep going. Once you get started this ‘request for change’ starts to take on a life of it’s own and you’re in the rhythm of a good rant now, a real admirable lecture.
Most partners won’t just sit there and take this forever. They will either match your intensity and fight back or shut down and walk away.
But wait, fight back? What’s this about fighting? We started here with a request for change, something legitimate and important. How are we fighting now?
If you recognized yourself in the example above, I feel your pain, and I’ve got some advice for you: Say Less!
Seriously, say less. Way less. Like 90% less. Here’s why: when you go on for too long, give too many examples, or move into criticism (blaming the problem on your partner’s character flaws), you activate their defensiveness. You make the problem too big to solve. Your partner gets overwhelmed. Many people in my office when faced with this type of criticism will respond with some version of “If I’m really that bad, I can’t imagine why you want to be with me!” Now your partner is defending themselves and their character, maybe throwing counter-attacks back at you. And you’re fighting with each other about who’s been worse to whom. That legitimate and important request for change you started with is completely lost and forgotten. It never gets addressed.
If you want to be heard, want your partner to take you seriously, and want change to happen, say less. Stick to the point. Take it one thing at a time and don’t go into personal attacks. This only comes back to bite you in the butt anyway. Your rant or lecture has now given your partner something else to focus on—you and your behavior! It’s easy to not address the complaint you had in the first place.
How to do it
Now, some examples. As you read these, think about what it would be like for you to say something like this and what it might be like to hear it from your partner.
I didn’t like it when I told the kids they couldn’t watch any more shows today and you said they could. I think it sends a message that they don’t have to listen to me.
When our friends were over and you shared that story I told you about what happened at work, I was so embarrassed. Everyone seemed to think it was funny, but I feel humiliated. Please don’t do that again.
When I came home from work today you didn’t look up from what you were doing to greet me. I tried to get your attention because I was so happy to see you and you said “oh, hey. I’m busy.” I felt so lonely and rejected. It would mean a lot to me if you could take a minute to greet me when I come home.
Can we talk about keeping our bedroom cleaner? It’s really bothering me.
What did you think? Could you say any of that? If it felt eerily simple or scarily vulnerable to you, you’re not alone. Making change like this can be hard, but it’s worth it to preserve love, admiration, and friendship in our relationships. How would it be to hear a request for change like this? For some people it’s hard because it shines a light directly on your inconsiderate, hurtful, or annoying behaviors. For most people, hearing a request for change like this is easier to take in than a lecture about how you’re the worst.
So give it a try, and see what happens. If you’re not sure how you could boil your frustration down to two or three sentences like the examples above, a therapist can help you get clarity on what the issues are. If you think you’ve been in bad conflict habits for so long that there’s no way you and your partner could talk like this without falling back into fights, a trained marriage counselor can help.
For more information on this topic, see my post about changing criticism to complaint here.