Complaining is gender-linked behavior. John Gottman says women make 85% of complaints in a relationship, while men complain 15% in heterosexual relationships. When done well, it is the secret to better emotional connections (and I’ll explain how to do it below).

An effective complaint

Gottman’s concept of “complaining” refers to expressing one’s concerns or grievances in a healthy and constructive manner. Complaining can contribute to a stronger, more beneficial relationship when done effectively.

It involves six steps here at Couples Therapy Inc.

Take a situation in which a wife complains that her husband took the dog out but didn’t wipe its wet feet when he let it back in.

An effective complaint might look like this:

  1. Wave the white flag – You initiate a softened startup by letting your partner know that what you are about to say is not the beginning of a fight. You might compliment them for the very thing you also complain about (“Thanks so much for getting up with the dog every morning. It really helps me sleep in.”)
  2. “I feel ___.” The second of the six steps involves identifying a feeling. (“I feel shocked when…” in our example).
  3. What is your complaint? It is not enough to be global. It has to be about a particular thing. (“…when you let Spot off the leash, and he jumped on the bed with his wet feet.”)
  4. Now what do you specifically want your partner to do? (“Before you let him off, will you wipe his feet?”)
  5. “That would make me happy.” Let them know that you are complaining to make your life better, not just to complain. (“I’d really appreciate you doing that.”)
  6. The Four Magic Words. Pete Pearson, of the Developmental Model, talks about the four magic words, “What do you think?” We add that at the end to make it a conversation and not a mandate.

A complaint is brief and to the point

Put it all together, and an effective complaint is brief and to the point:

Trisha: “Roger, thanks so much for getting up with the dog every morning. It really helps me sleep in. I felt shocked awake when Spot jumped on the bed with his wet feet. Can you wipe his feet before letting him off the leash? I’d really appreciate it. What do you think?”

This communication raises her concern in a gentle, non-confrontational, and non-critical manner. It does something else, however.

Clearing the poop in the pipes

Underneath all metaphorical houses of love lies a symbolic pipe. Like a sewer pipe, it moves “poop” out of the house. Gottman encourages spouses to stay metaphorically “close” to that pipe and notice whether the relationship pipe smells foul.

When present, poop causes distance and movement away from emotional connection.

A complaint is one way to “flush” the “poop,” according to Gottman. The more complaints are made, the cleaner these pipes remain. When complaints are avoided, the poop backs up. When a fight ensues, it usually contains multiple complaints that can turn into criticism, and emotional flooding happens.

The way you express your needs, desires, or complaints really counts

Follow the six steps, and you are much more likely to elicit a positive response from your partner. The goal is to boost constructive dialogue and clear the air.

By starting a conversation with a softened approach, couples can set a positive tone for discussing sensitive but solvable topics. This will reduce defensiveness and increase the likelihood of productive problem-solving and understanding.

It is, however, only the first step.

Non-defensive response to complaints

How partners respond to complaints will validate or discredit the other partner’s perspectives. Trisha feels heard, respected, and understood if Roger does it effectively. He can do that by responding non-defensively. For example, Roger might say:

“Oh boy, Trisha, what a way to wake up! Sorry for the shock. Sure, I’ll wipe his feet from now on.”

Criticism vs. complaining

In contrast, criticism puts the problem inside Roger. It might sound like this:

“Roger, I can’t believe you are so inconsiderate. You let Spot off the leash without wiping his feet, and he jumped on the bed and woke me up with a start.”

Now the issue is no longer Spot’s wet feet. It is now Roger’s lack of consideration.

Criticism is challenging to respond to non-defensively. The “guilty partner” defends their innocence. Roger might say:

“It wasn’t me. The dog got away from me before I could do it!”

He might also get hostile and say,

“You can walk him from now on!”

This knee-jerk reaction, while understandable in the heat of the moment, only serves to escalate the conflict and create more distance between the couple.

The dance of complaining and non-defensive responses

Engaging in softened start-ups and sidestepping defensive reactions is like a delicate dance between partners. It requires attunement, coordination, and a willingness to work together towards a shared goal of mutual understanding and resolution. Just as dancers must be responsive to each other’s movements and cues, couples must be attuned to each other’s emotional states and communication styles to navigate conflicts gracefully.

When one partner initiates a conversation with a softened start-up, they invite their partner to join them in a collaborative problem-solving process. By avoiding harsh or accusatory language, they create a safe and non-threatening space for dialogue. In turn, when the other partner resists the urge to react defensively and instead listens openly and validates their partner’s perspective, they step into the dance with a spirit of cooperation and empathy.

Through this reciprocal exchange of gentle communication and receptive listening, couples can gracefully navigate even the most challenging discussions. They move together in a symbiotic rhythm, each contributing to a harmonious resolution that strengthens their bond and deepens their understanding of one another.

Prevent conflict from escalating by using a gentle tone, devoid of harsh or accusatory language, by using “I feel” statements, avoiding “you always” or “you never,” and by avoiding criticism and contempt. In addition, finding something you can agree with in your partner’s complaint, as Roger did here (“What a way to wake up!”), allows your partner to feel heard and validated.

Expressing concerns or grievances in a healthy and constructive way drains the resentment pipe present in every relationship. It fosters open and honest communication. It also allows each of us to be more vulnerable to each other.

Why men should complain

During intensive couples therapy, men are often encouraged to voice their needs, frustrations, and disappointments to their partners in this constructive way. Sometimes I find that men are reluctant to complain because they expect hostile responses from their wives. It may also be an unconscious stance to keep relationship distance.

The “Happiness Recipe”

Husbands offer their wives “happiness recipes” through complaints. I have watched husbands brace for hostility and are pleasantly surprised to learn that their wives respond non-defensively. Most wives want to know how to make their spouses happy. When both husbands and wives are comfortable asking for behavior change in their spouse, and are met with a cheerful and helpful response, a new mood is created between them. There is no longer backed up “poop in the pipes” that everyone smells, even the children.

Withholding complaints means nurturing hidden resentment

These men learn that by refusing to complain, you will sometimes foster deep resentments that grow. He may believe that his marriage is inherently “unfair.” Deliberately withholding his own complaints may be an attempt to stop his wife from doing so through his “noble silent example.” He’s “a bigger person” and doesn’t “lower himself” by concentrating on “petty complaints.” He then might respond angrily when she eventually complains (because, of course, she is unaware of the hidden “Silent Pact”).

Partners sometimes struggle to air their grievances directly and ask for specific behavior changes. For some, it exposes the same resentments they hold onto, and problematically believe they gain superiority from doing so.

Solvable vs perpetual problems and complaining

It is worth noting that a soft start-up is just one element of effective communication and works on solvable, concrete problems. Other approaches are needed for perpetual problems. I talk about this as the difference between “fly fishing” for trout vs “deep sea fishing” for tuna. Both are fishing, but they have different approaches and require different equipment. One is a complaint that “stays near the surface” while the other tends to require “going deeply” to uncover why the issue is so deeply meaningful to you.

Complaints are designed to create an environment where both partners feel heard, respected, and understood. For this reason, they are important for both men and women to incorporate as a regular part of their disclosures.