If you are in a committed relationship, you are occasionally going to complain about your partner. Valid complaints help us grow and become better partners.
But how do you complain without it resulting in a fight? The key is to soften how the complaint is voiced.
In Dr. John Gottman’s research, he found that the first three minutes of a discussion almost always determines how it will end. Therefore, it’s really important to bring up topics in a gentle manner.
Things usually go off track when a complaint is heard as criticism. A complaint becomes criticism when it is discussed as a character defect in the partner. Words like “never” and “always” are often included.
The antidote to criticism is to soften the start-up.
Imagine that you came home late, tired and hoping to just relax. Instead, your partner cooked their meal and left the dishes in the sink. A harsh start-up might look something like this: “You never do anything around here! I work late. I’m exhausted. And I have to come home to a sink full of dirty dishes! Why don’t you ever think of me!”
Most likely, a critical statement like that would be met with defensiveness. There is a high probability that the conversation would not end well.
Here are a few steps for how to soften the start-up:
- Soften the start-up. Bring up a topic as you would to a dear friend, especially if it is a topic that tends to be more sensitive to you than your partner.
- Talk about your feelings.
- Talk about the situation, not the person.
- Make requests, rather demands. State what you would want to happen, not what you don’t want to happen.
This is what a soft start-up might look like: “Hey, I know this might not seem like a big deal to you, and in truth, it probably shouldn’t be a big deal to me but, I feel hurt and irritated when I see the dirty dishes in the sink. I was so tired and just wanted to relax and spend time with you. In the future, it would really mean a lot to me if you could just make sure that the dishes are done before I get home. Would that be okay with you?”
At first, you’ll find that you may have to be very intentional when you practice a softer start-up. But after a short while, you’ll find it becomes natural. If you find that even with a gentle start-up, you still find your discussions escalating into a fight, it might be time to talk to a couples therapist to help the two of you discuss difficult topics.
Written By: Jackie Dunagan, LAMFT