Navigating marital complaints can be a crucial pathway to intimacy in relationships, yet for conflict-avoidant couples, these conversations often remain uncharted territory. While Gottman couples therapy advocates for efficient conflict resolution, conflict-avoidant couples tend to evade such discussions altogether. They then deprive themselves of the chance to deepen their bond through complaints. In this post, I delve into the intriguing idea that embracing complaints might lead to enhanced intimacy, even for couples who are inherently averse to conflict.
Can marital complaints lead to intimacy?
Marital complaints are a frequent topic in Gottman couples therapy: how to make them, what they mean, etc.
Learning how to repair during disagreements can lead to intimacy. While that advice may be helpful for most couples who aren’t shy about engaging in marital spats, some couples hardly ever fight at all.
And as a result, they never learn to repair efficiently. We call these couples conflict-avoidant. In this post, I will address the notion that complaining can also offer a path to deeper intimacy…even for conflict-avoidant couples.
Couples therapists have differing opinions over working with conflict-avoidant couples. Gottman considers conflict-avoidance as a relatively healthy style for couples and, as a result, science-based couples therapy is more tolerant of conflict avoidance than other more theoretical approaches.
Marital complaints are a challenge for conflict-avoidant couples
While it is true that conflict-avoidant couples become anxious at the thought of making active requests of their partner, I kinda like the fact that they value peace and tranquility. They are often empathetic and fair-minded. However, they also tend to be emotionally muted, and content with low-key “good enough” communication.
Some therapists might prefer to work with the conflict avoiding couples, rather than take the heat in a relationship where the aggression is more on the surface. However, while superficially compliant, conflict avoidant couples are challenging to work with. They require a great deal of deliberate and intense concentration on the therapist's part, to discover any hint in their speech or body language that there is a repressed disagreement.
In these relationships, each wants the other one to unilaterally introduce something they don't agree with, so they can talk about it. However, they, themselves refusing to take the initiative because it feels too risky. This is seen most obviously in initiating complaints.
There is a particular gentleness that is needed when working clinically with these couples. They often don't believe the therapist when they tell them that fighting isn't a problem in marriage. This is not true for these couples, given their histories. When their disagreements have arisen, they explode into angry diatribes and other equally scary behavior. The lesson seems to be: "Let's stay away from bringing up disagreements. It's pretty damaging."
For this reason, progress is slow and incremental. Like someone who has been bitten by a shark, they go back into those waters gingerly.
For this reason, they may look to "keep the peace" by agreeing to actions that they don't actually agree with. They are fearful of upsetting their partner by being honest and direct about what they want instead. However, this doesn't make the hidden agreement go away. It remains, in Gottman's terminology "poop in the pipes" of the marital home. The solution to that build-up is effective marital complaints.
Conflict-avoidant couples making marital complaints
Recently John and Mary (not their real names of course), a conflict-avoidant couple sought out a marriage intensive.
They have been together for over 30 years. But Mary was the only one who would ever initiate marital complaints.
But she was timid about it. Once she saw the pained look on John’s face, she would always decide that the risk of upsetting him was more important than any change that she was hoping to see happen. So she would drop the issue quickly, and either go silent or change the subject.
What I learned from this couple was that they saw complaints as a risk-laden path to disconnection. I had to offer them my Developmental Model disco ball reframe.
The disco ball marital complaint reframe
There’s an old therapist joke that before couples therapy it’s the same damn problem over and over, but after couples therapy, it’s one damn problem after another.
And there’s a lot of truth in that joke.
I asked John if it was true that he never complained.
John was known for never airing complaints, a quality he believed prevented unnecessary disagreements. Intrigued, I asked about a hypothetical scenario where any other guy might have expressed discontent if in his shoes. Without hesitation, John admitted to a recent incident: that very morning while packing their suitcase.
He recounted Mary’s comment about not needing perfection in his packing, followed by a seemingly innocent remark about his pants-folding skills.
“I felt criticized,” John confessed, but remained silent at the time. When Mary affirmed this interaction, stating she assumed he was struggling and was trying to offer help.
John clarified that he hadn’t been struggling at all; he simply wasn’t making an effort as per her initial statement.
Mary’s and John’s reality was clearly different.
I suggested that delving into their differing concepts of “perfection” could be illuminating.
A popular concept in The Developmental Model is to describe an imaginary disco ball you hold in your hand. Only one side of the ball reveals the intricate facets of someone's personality.
When conflicts are brought up, it is like offering your partner a chance to turn the disco ball slightly to reveal other parts. Each learns more from the other as a result.
John might have opened up to tell Mary that her words felt like a criticism, and asked her to rephrase it. She might have been surprised that she came off that way. She then could apologize, ask for clarification about whether he was struggling, and he could say he was not.
This willingness to briefly engage could unveil facets of understanding, preventing similar misunderstandings in the future.
Should they slow down and be willing to risk this minor conflict, they could enrich their bond and avert future conflicts. If they truly disliked conflict, as I knew they did, these types of discussions could prevent future hurt feelings: brief dialogues for the sake of long-term relational harmony.
The John in her head…
Processing even minor annoyances allows us to have a more accurate picture of the person we're married to, rather than the outdated version in our heads.
For Mary, she imagined John was struggling with the suitcase. John imagined that Mary was expecting "perfection" from him.
.But unless John was willing to risk conflict by complaining, they would never be able to unpack those differences.
Tips for conflict avoidant couples… and all other couples too!
- Complain Briefly… But Complain Early. Conflict-Avoidant spouses often suffer needlessly. If your feelings are hurt…say so. Express your feelings. Make a marital complaint. Ask for clarity. “Ouch!… What did you mean by that?”
- Complain When it Matters. If you have a feeling…talk about it. You might just learn something that might prevent you from having a similar feeling in the future because you now understand a facet of your partner that up to this point has escaped your notice.
- Put A Time Limit on The Complaint. conflict-avoidant couples fear endless conflictual conversations…even if they’ve never had one. Set a time limit that’s comfortable. Chip away at the tough stuff. Be patient. Take it slow.
- Use a Softened Start-up. Softened Startup comes more naturally to conflict-avoidant couples. Remember your partner is probably as anxious hearing about your marital complaints as you are making them.
- But Don’t Beat Around the Bush. Get to the point. “I feel_____ about______ and I would prefer________. That would make me happy. What do you think?”
- No Kitchen-Sinking. Deal with hurt feelings and resentments that occur in the moment. Let your marital complaints focus on one issue at a time. Don’t store them up. And don’t go global. Be specific.
Ask for what you need…
- Ask For What You Need. Tell your partner what you need to repair. Tell them early and tell them often.
- Have Your Batna in Place. Professional negotiators always keep in mind the BATNA, the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Don’t worry if you can’t find a workable long-term solution to your marital complaint. What will work right here… right now?
- Don’t Hide Facts to Avoid Conflict. Forgiveness may be easier to get than permission in the business world, but in marriages, unilateral action without consulting your partner is highly problematic. You want to avoid conflict, not delay it and heighten it by hiding pertinent facts.
- Some Issues Require Total Agreement. Don’t be afraid to discuss your differences on issues that require a united front. Letting your cousin Elmo lives with you until he finds a job is not a decision you can make alone.
- Kill Fear With Curiosity. Have a curious conversation. How do you see this issue? Conflict-avoidant couples want to avoid repetitious fighting so the meaningful conversations fizzle. You want to tell your partner exactly what you think…and learn what they think as well. You can do so kindly and with respect. You might uncover some interesting differences during your marital complaints. Ask good questions. Use a list of great questions if you have to. The answers might offer new facets of mutual understanding for your disco ball.
- Don’t Allow Fear of Unresolved Conflict Derail Your Complaint. You might need time to think about what you learned about the situation. Then agree to have another conversation after a period of reflection. Nobody is forcing anything on anyone. Take your time
- Own What You Want. Just because you want something and your partner doesn’t isn’t a good enough reason to drop the subject entirely. It isn’t a moral issue. Nobody is right or wrong. Some marital complaints indicate a difference of opinion.
Embracing complaints, especially for conflict-avoidant couples, can be a transformative strategy to fortify intimacy and prevent future misunderstandings. By navigating these brief discussions, couples can unravel hidden facets of their personalities, bridging gaps in understanding and fostering long-term relational harmony. Learning to engage in gentle yet productive complaint dialogues can provide invaluable insights into each other's perceptions, allowing for growth, understanding, and ultimately, a stronger connection.
Originally published August 14, 2017.