How to Complain So Your Spouse Will Listen

Author:
Sharon May, Ph.D. and Alan Hart


Why won't your husband listen to the good advice nestled in your complaints? If only he could value the 'suggestion box' you set up for him and read the 'complaints' you regularly deposit. He, of course, would be a better man; and you would both have a better marriage!

All joking aside, how many of us really do feel that if our spouse could only hear our complaints, life would be so much better? Which begs the question why, then, is it so hard for our husband or wife to hear our complaints?

Main Reason: Too often our 'messages' get entangled with our 'methods.' Let me explain using "the slippery slope" as an example…

A Harsh Start Up —You walk into the living room to see your husband on the couch, eating popcorn, again. You go from 0-to-60 in three seconds. You have told him 20 times to put the bowl on a tray to reduce the mess. And so you tell him, once again; but this time with an edge to your voice. And with volume.

John Gottman, a marriage researcher, calls this a harsh start up. When you begin a conversation with a heated, negative tone, you don't increase your husband's chances of hearing you; rather, you trigger a defensiveness in your husband, who reciprocates your harsh startup. You are now both high-volumed, edgy, critical, blaming and defensive. And, ironically, all in an effort to be heard.

Contemptuous Tone — When your tone is filled with irritation and you have a contemptuous attitude, your spouse won't hear you. At this point, all he or she is focused on is that you sound like the scolding 'I am better than you and here to tell you what you are doing wrong' hall monitor.

Nagging Enemy — Your spouse concludes you are 'nagging' and pushes away from you and your suggestion. In reaction, you voice your complaint even louder, with more critical words, and more attitude. I am sure you have figured it out by now. This never works! You became the nagging enemy.

So how can you share a complaint in a way that your spouse will actually "hear"?

1. Pick your complaints, wisely. And be clear about what is really at issue. What would it be like to live with someone who always complains? No fun at all, right? So, let go of things that don't make a big difference.

Separate out what is linked to a deeper more important value, and what is merely annoying, irritating or doesn't fit the way you want something done. Your spouse doesn't have to be reminded of everything they do wrong. Let go of the way the dishwasher is packed, towels are folded, or the way the eggs are scrambled… unless it makes a big difference to you.

Think of some better way to say: "I guess I must not be that important to you if you can't you do a simple thing like give me a kiss as we leave for work in the morning!

Or: "I have to be responsible for everything. You are just like one of the kids! Why can't you remember to put the milk back in the fridge?"

2. Start your next sentence with a compliment. If your spouse knows you are getting ready to say they are doing something wrong, a kind word can help the complaint be heard.

For example: "I know you work hard for us… you do so much for the family … I value you… you know you mean a lot to me… I appreciate you hearing me out on this…"

3. Give information about the situation. Keep your complaint specific about an action rather than an attack on your spouse's character.

For example: "I would like to talk about how we say goodbye to each other before we go to work in the morning. I know we both have a lot going on, but this is important to me."

Or: "Did you know? The milk was not put back in the fridge last night."

4. Share the impact of your spouse's behavior. Be clear, not critical.

For example: "When you leave without saying goodbye, I not only don't know that you are gone, but I feel forgotten by you."

Or: "Milk left out at room temperature tastes awful, and spoils quickly."

5. Share your feelings about the situation. Explain why it bothers you. Maybe you are disappointed, frustrated, hurt; or feel alone, abandoned or uncared for.

For example: "When I realize you have left without a goodbye, I get angry; but I am really also feeling abandoned, forgotten, and not important to you."

Or: "When the milk is left out, I feel frustrated, as though I am responsible for everything in the house, even though I know you work just as hard as me!"

6. Talk about why it is important for your spouse to do things differently. Share how a new approach will improve the situation.

For example: "I know I am important to you, but a kiss goodbye goes a long way. It makes me feel close to you. And that I am valued."

Or: "If you remember to put the milk back in the fridge, it will last longer and that will save us money."

7. Be willing to hear your spouse's perspective. The more your spouse feels heard by you, the more willing he or she will be to listen to you.

For example: "We usually have breakfast together and you know I leave every morning at the same time. I don't mean to hurt you this way."

Or: "At night, I am drinking milk with the kids, and I am not always the last one to pour a glass."

8. Find solutions together. Your way might not be the best way. Present your 'suggestion,' and together put possible solutions on the table to be considered. Don't push your way. Be flexible, teachable, and be willing to work as a team to find solutions as a team.

For example: "Maybe we can both say our goodbyes after breakfast, so we can make sure we both get a kiss and hug before we leave."

Or: "Can you check to see if the milk has been put back in the fridge before you switch the lights off at night?"

9. Remind with a word. No need to lecture, get upset or scold. Just remind your spouse with a word or phrase.

For example: "Time for our kiss?"

Or: "Milk all tucked away in the fridge? Thanks!"

Most couples are striving to connect and find ways to get along. But no one wants to be in a marriage knowing they are a constant disappointment. Learning how to love well and how to be there for each other, will help your spouse "hear" your grievances.

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