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How to Complain to Your Partner

The following might meet the definition of 'fighting fair rules' that are often asked of me as a therapist, but I think of them as suggestions for making fighting 'satisfying'.

Complain early and often. Being long-suffering just leads to suffering. Remember that the self-expression contained in an honest complaint can be an end in itself, apart from how it influences the other person. Conflicts are best dealt with early, as long as they are dealt with non-destructively

Don't make complaining a routine. At best, regular complaining makes a relationship a negotiation, at worst, a war. Reserve complaining for issues which seem resolvable, but have defied resolution by other methods.

Don’t nag. Although you may not have been wholeheartedly listened to the first time, mere repetition of your complaint will increase this, not decrease it. Instead, assume you were heard the first time. If your partner has a style of stonewalling or being stubborn, having in mind and using your solo alternatives, (see below) will tend to rapidly increase your partner’s interest in the complaints you bring.

Start gently. Fear of not being taken seriously provides a strong temptation to speak in loud, harsh, and apocalyptic terms. Such harsh start ups however, usually stimulates the other person’s defenses.

Don't Hint. At times a hint is a tactful way of communicating a single message. However there is no sane way to have a two-way discussion with hints. Opening up a conflict with a hint sets an adversarial tone with no way to work things out. Be direct and matter-of-fact about what you want to talk about. Sometimes hints are used to provide plausible deniability, that is, if the reaction is 'bad' to the hint, the meaning is disowned. This of course is toxic. If you really feared your partner, you wouldn't even be hinting.

Enact a statute of limitations. Two weeks for example. Don’t accumulate a gunnysack full of misdemeanors ready to spring when a serious argument erupts. Temporarily establishing the moral high ground by reciting a list of your partner’s old ‘crimes’ may seem to bring brief satisfaction, but it certainly doesn’t increase influence.. A statute of limitations will lead, on the one hand, to just letting some smaller things go, but on the other hand, to bringing a bigger complaint more promptly, before resentment has taken root. (This of course does not apply when there has been abuse in the past that has not been dealt with. It is in the nature of abuse that it cannot be addressed promptly.)

Own what you went along with. It is not legitimate to hold it over your partner's head if something turns out badly, if you originally agreed to it. Presumably you were willing to enjoy the fruit if it did work out, and to complain that it was your partner's idea only when it doesn't work out is dishonest. There is a pattern wherein 1) one partner criticizes or drags his or her feet on most things 2) takes no major action themselves, 3) relies on the partner to initiate anything, 4) goes along 5) blames partner for any less than optimal result, citing the original criticism. This pattern is very destructive to relationships, and gives complaining a bad name.

Avoid demands. Anything that satisfies has to be given freely. Think of that when you are struggling to welcome the answer ‘No.’

Have in mind your alternatives. Professional negotiators always keep in mind the BATNA, the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. This is not the same as planning to rupture the relationship or ‘go to war.’ Unilateral action means problem solving steps, not one party trying to punish the other into submission. A strong relationship can tolerate and even benefit from some unilateral action by both parties. But having in mind what you can do without cooperation actually increases collaboration because you can approach conflict without a feeling of desperation or being trapped. This is a good test for an underlying power struggle. If the conflict is really driven by a struggle to control or punish the other person, it will be very hard to even imagine taking steps on your own, let alone entertain them seriously. Unilateral action does not mean secret action.

Do not hide what you want to do to avoid a conflict. There is a truism that it is easier to get forgiveness than permission. Making use of this is pragmatic but does not strengthen relationships, just the opposite. Of course permission is not really necessary but being open about your intentions acknowledges that others are affected or interested.

Some things require unanimity, for instance non-monagamy or inviting someone to stay in your home. This gives rise to a de facto veto power. These issues should be precious few, to avoid the possibility of stonewalling and strategic non-cooperation.

Don’t identify your partner as “the problem” in the relationship. If you are staying in a relationship, (and mere threats to leave don’t count), then this is the person you are looking to love and be loved by. If you are unsatisfied, then you are the owner of a problem.

A great obstacle to solutions is one or both parties enjoying the 'moral high ground' Any mutually satisfying, durable solution will leave both parties labeled neither good or bad, just content. Moral high ground is identifiable by a heady feeling and righteous attitude. It can provide momentary comfort, but it is emotional junk food.

Unless it affects you, directly, don't complain each time your partner does the same thing you don't like. Once is enough because he or she heard you. Complaining each time is an effort to ruin their experience and 'win' that way. Short of moral turpitude, your partner has a right to enjoy even what you don't like. Using complaining to ruin enjoyment gives complaining a bad name.

Don't use disapproval to get what you want from your partner. The same goes for approval, (which is really the threat of imminent disapproval) Disapproval makes the other person 'less than'. You may win a conflict on this basis but the relationship suffers. Making the semantic distinction that you disapprove of actions etc..., and not the person is not really believable. To disapprove of preferences, tastes, inclinations, characteristic actions, etc is really to disapprove of the person and everyone feels it. It is possible to disagree and dislike without feeling disapproval. It is difficult if not impossible to merely conceal disapproval. What is necessary is to accord the same respect for your partner's wants as you do for your own.

Bring genuine curiosity about what your partner's desires and point of view is. We all at one time or another lock into an idea of what our partner must be for us to be happy. But our partners always surprise us, in good relationships and bad ones. Complaining should not be an attempt to stuff our partner back into our previous image of them. Rather a complaint is a process to see how best newly emerging behavior can work for both parties.

Don't allow threats of divorce or breaking up to derail the complaint. The divorce or break up 'card' usually pops out when one person cannot imagine changing/accepting change, which with humans is fairly often! If your partner threatens to end the relationship, respond with something like "That option is always available to you and is really a one person decision. Right now, since we are still at the moment together, the threat can only be coercive and has no place in settling this complaint."

Don't derail into a dispute about your partners choice of words or examples he or she uses in discussing the complaint. We all exaggerate or pick extreme examples when we fear we will not be listened to or understood. Instead refocus back on the basic meaning and the original conflict.

Don’t reference right or wrong. Stand behind and take ownership of what you are requesting. If you want to spend more time with your partner, have more sex, etc…just say so, unhesitatingly. How your partner responds may disappoint you, but it is not wrong in a moral sense.

Acknowledging something or 'confessing' to it cannot provide immunity from being responsible for the consequences. The same goes for apologies.

Everyone has a right to a say about what they use and the area in which they live. In the law, the person that pays for something gets complete control of it, but it common usage things are considered to belong (mostly) to whomever uses's them. "I paid for it" is a disastrous way to pursue a conflict in a personal or family relationship, not just on a moral but also a practical basis, because nothing will ever really be finally settled if people feel they have been dealt with unfairly.

Don’t guess or analyze your partner’s motives. We all like to think that our partner’s actions are motivated by love for us, and we are vigilant for evidence that they aren’t. But love will easily show in actions over time. When it comes to any one action, pure motives are hard to identify with or without the partner’s openness. To make any one action a test of our partner’s love usually just results in a projection of our fears at the time.

Concentrate on behaviors, not attitudes. We usually try to change someone’s attitude when we can’t change their behavior. Of course we can’t force a change in either. But when we influence cooperative behaviors, a cooperative attitude follows.

If a general on-going attitude of the partner is actually the 'problem', curiosity, not a complaint, is in order. Simply ask the other if they can be more specific about what a tone of voice, or facial expression, or sarcastic retort means, and really mean the question. Don't treat the 'attitude' as a crime but rather an incomplete communication. 'Attitude' is disguised indirect communication, and if directness isn't punished in a relationship, attitude has no reason to linger.

Examine whether the complaint is about a preference or liking of your partner--these may be upsetting but are not legitimate causes of complaint because that would be controlling. Remember you are not compelled by your partner's preferences and so you do not need to stifle or criticize them to protect yourself

Focus on results not intentions. Usually a complaint will start out about a particular result but immediately and unproductively jump to intentions as one or both people become defensive. However, intentions are endless and not really provable or pin-downable, so a discussion of intentions in the context of a conflict is crazy-making. Talking about results, on the other hand, brings clarity if not automatic resolution. It is results that matter in the long run. If, in redirecting the discussion to results, you are then accused of harshness by the other, calmly explain 1) you are not insisting on perfection, 2) you do not doubt the goodness of the other, and 3) you are not trying to coerce anything they do not want to do. Rather you are insisting on clarity about what is actually happening for you. (This is different from 'setting the record straight' below.)

If your partner expresses guilt about a behavior, that can be acknowledged, but it should not be allowed to become a 'don't go there' card. Guilt does not solve problems, actions do. Guilt seems to express the intention to do something, but guilt can become a cover-up for no real intention to take effective action, while at the same time it often blocks others from taking effective unilateral action.

Be specific and stay specific. The more global a complaint becomes, the harder it becomes to address with actions. Broad ‘character’ complaints may have some truth to them, but almost always leave everyone feeling helpless and misunderstood.

Offer interests, not fixed positions. Positions are demands that one and only one thing happen. Often they are formed in irritation at your partner and intended to be a hard swallow or a punishment. Often your partner already has an idea how he or she can accommodate your interests and still keep his or her sense of integrity but if the framework is one of positions, anything different your partner offers may feel like a rebuttal. But in the context of discussing interests, what your partner offers may feel like collaboration.

Requesting any type of spontaneous behavior puts your partner into a bind. Anything they offer at that point won't have a spontaneous feel to it. They know it, you know it, and everyone feels bad. It is better to discuss the conditions that promote spontaneity, which tend to revolve around acceptance and non-judgment. Consider your own options to act spontaneously, which can be contagious.

If you and your partner derail into "setting the record straight", stop immediately! There is no foolproof, objective, indisputable way to characterize what has happened between two people. Your partner will misquote you, and misunderstand you (and also sometimes understand you better than you do yourself.) The good news is, there is far more useful information in what your partner thought you said than in what a transcript would show. If in fact what you and your partner are trying to do is cooperate voluntarily and willingly than the 'actual historical record' doesn't compel anyone to do anything anyway. Understanding your partner, especially how they perceive your actions and intentions, is the core of collaboration

Be prepared to participate in a solution. Complaining and expecting others to fix it in such a way that you do not have to do anything differently is unrealistic. Complaining as if one expects a parent figure to come in and fix things is sometimes called 'whining' and gives complaining a bad name. The function of a complaint is to remove an obstacle to something you were actively doing or truly willing to do. Consider whether the 'complaint' arises simply from a reluctance on your part to take action.

If you state clearly what you feel and what you want, that at least can’t be disputed But you must remember that how you feel does not compel your partner. If your partner believes that, he or she will frequently end up denying your feelings in order to 'defend' him- or herself from having to do what they do not want to do, but unlike a simple no to a request, the conversation will be crazy-making.

Don’t defend It is not necessary. Remember it is possible to accept something without agreeing. Defending is impossible without counter-attacking, which invites defensiveness and soon two people are exchanging unproductive distortions. It is also impossible to listen and defend at the same time. Instead accept what your partner says as really what they feel in that situation and worth attention. If your partner has exaggerated, they will usually self-correct when his or her point of view is taken seriously.

If a 'secret' is discovered, do not make the creation of the secret alone a crime. Rather get curious about why the partner felt they needed to conceal what was happening from you. Does your partner feel unfairly limited by you? Unfairly judged by you? All adults have 'secrets'. Remember that deceit only has a use in a setting of opposition or contention. In a collaborative enterprise, secrets will have no role. The great majority of people use secrets to try to protect integrity and sanity, in the setting of insecurity. A very small minority of people use secrets to get 'power over' their partner, and if that is the case, the relationship is abusive and safety is the issue, not bringing a complaint. The newly discovered information may contain a cause for complaint, but getting stuck on the effort to conceal is a red-herring.