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A note from Dr. K

Lesson 17 Module 3

One of the couples I saw recently in a Couples Intensive Therapy Retreat had a common problem: They didn't know how to complain.

It surprises most of the couples I work with that learning complaining is a skill they really want to learn to develop.

Most couples think complaining is a sign that something’s wrong.

The reality is that not complaining usually is a worse indication of problems.

Complaining clears the air. Complaining tells your partner “I don’t like this and I want it to be different.”

But how you complain really matters.

After bringing my couple through a structured exercise on how to phrase responses that are “critical,” into ones that are “complaining,” I have them bring this skill into real-life.

For most people, this is a big challenge.

Oh it’s not that they don’t have complaints. Instead, they sometimes have so many that they've not felt heard about, that they don’t know how to phrase them nicely any more.

The challenge comes with trying to phrase the complaints as "I complaints" instead of criticisms.


Criticisms attack the person. They usually start out with words like: “you always” or ”you never.” They sometimes attack the person’s character, as in:

  1. “You’re so lazy.” versus:
  2. “It’s upsetting to me when clothes are on the bedroom floor."

Most of us know that name-calling and insulting is not the right way to talk to people. But some of us don’t know how to phrase things when you’re not happy with the way things are between us.

Here’s the formula:

X = I feel….

Y = about this particular situation,

Z = … and here’s what I would like.

As I mentioned in previous e-mails, some of us have a difficult time identifying our feelings. But once we do identify what we’re feeling, stating them as a feeling can also be a challenge.

We can sometimes follow the phrase: “I feel…” with the word ”that.”

Big mistake.

“That” changes the feeling phrase into a “thinking” phrase.

As in “I feel that you’re lazy,” versus “I feel disrespected.”

The X part of the formula can also be a challenge. The tough part is being specific enough. Global complaints are hard for your partner to figure out how to meet.

Take a closer look at these two sentences. If your spouse said them to you, which would you have an easier time knowing what was upsetting them?

  1. “I can’t stand this filthy house.”
  2. “You left your clothes on the floor in the bedroom.”

Finally, Z is the hardest for most people. Even those of us who can complain well have trouble knowing what specific thing we want our partner to do. We stop at the specific action that makes us unhappy.

Here’s a specific request:

“Can you please pick up your clothes from the bedroom floor and put them in the hamper?”

Now let’s put them together and notice the difference:

Wrong Way: “You’re such a slob. I can’t stand this filthy house.”

Right Way: “I feel disrespected when you leave your clothes on the floor in the bedroom. Can you please pick them up and put them in the hamper?”

This is the first of the four horsemen that Gottman identified as behaviors that lead to marital break-up.

Warm regards,

Dr. K