"I Need to Tell You What's Wrong (with You)..."
Most of us spend more of our energy complaining than we like to acknowledge. This is particularly true when it comes to our intimate relationships. We complain to our friends about our partners. We complain to our partners about how they have fallen short, disappointed, or hurt us. If we’re in therapy, we complain to our therapists (who, like our friends, usually get to hear only our side of the story) about our partners’ faults and failings. Most of us complain not because we are negative, unhappy people, but because of our understandable and human need to feel heard and validated. Most of us also complain because, in the moment, complaining feels good as we vent our frustrations, anger, and disappointments. But while complaining may be a potent way to get us what we want when we’re on the phone with customer service, it is rarely effective in making us more satisfied in our intimate relationships.
When we complain about our partners to someone outside of the relationship, we aren’t setting the stage for constructive feedback to support the relationship. Instead, we give our confidant a skewed view of the dynamics in our relationship, making them question if our partner is “right” for us, “worthy” of us, or if the relationship itself is constructive or healthy. When we complain to our partners about our discontent with them, we set up the conversation for them to be defensive, angry, and unlikely to shift their behavior in a way that could give us what we want. These scenarios erode appreciation, connection, and intimacy with our partner and usually leave us feeling even more disgruntled than we felt before we complained.
So, if complaining makes things worse, then what is our other option? Unfortunately, too many of us mistakenly believe that the alternative to a complaint is suffering in silence, sucking it up, and just accepting what we aren’t happy with. But such a move is equally damaging to our relationships. Swallowing our wants and needs creates resentment, and resentment is the most effective accelerant to rotting our relationships from the inside out. But there is a healthy and effective alternative.
The alternative to complaining is requesting. Making a request means clearly and lovingly asking our partners for what we want. The trick here is that many of us think that this is what we are doing when we complain. But there is a critical difference - there is no vulnerability in a complaint. A request comes from a vulnerable place of asking for something from our partners with the understanding that they may not give it to us and that we could be disappointed. A complaint is usually framed in the language of “you.” Describing to our partners just how they have failed to meet our needs or wants. A request is generally stated in the language of “I” - sharing with our partners our wants and needs based on our own limits and vulnerabilities.
For example, when my husband goes away on a camping trip, he usually leaves his gear spread out on the screened porch for several days after his return. Not infrequently, several days can become a lot more than several days. Because I love to sit on the screened porch to work and to relax, I like it to look and feel peaceful, which for me, means that it is clear of clutter. When the space is overrun with stuff, I don’t have a place to sit, and if I move his equipment, there is still a lack of order and peace that stresses me out and makes it hard for me to relax and hard for me to enjoy working in the space.
If I were to complain about the gear, I might say:
“Your stuff has been all over the porch for the last eight days. You know how much I use that space, and for over a week, I haven’t been able to work or relax out there because you couldn’t be bothered to clean up your stuff.”
Even if I didn’t go further with the complaint to point out a pattern of behavior, or to accuse him of being selfish or thoughtless in his use of the space, my complaint would land like an accusation, telling him how he is wrong and how I’ve been wronged. In response, he would likely feel defensive and resent the fact that the way I wanted to use the porch would somehow trump his desire to be able to leave things out for an extended time.
If instead of complaining, I were to ask for what I need from a vulnerable place that acknowledges both of our needs, I could say:
“Honey, you know how much I like to use the porch to work and relax. But I’m not sure if you understand how hard it is for me to focus or enjoy a space when I’m distracted by things not being put away. Can we decide together what is a reasonable number of days for you to leave things out after a trip so that you have time to decompress and recover, and I can enjoy my space?”
In the second scenario, I’m owning my desire for a high degree of order rather than faulting him for failing to maintain the space according to my specifications. By clearly asking for what I want (a clear space after a certain number of days) while acknowledging that my request is coming from my own preferences and limitations (that I can’t fully relax in the presence of disorder), I’m sharing myself with him while increasing the chance that I’ll get what I want (a porch that isn’t cluttered with camping gear).
Of course, none of this is a guarantee that I’ll get that uncluttered and peaceful space that I want, and that is a disappointment that I’ll need to face and manage. But by asking for what I need and sharing why it is important for me, I have a much better chance of my husband understanding and accommodating my desire for order not only on the porch but also throughout the rest of our home. This means that even if he doesn’t give me what I’m asking for on the porch, I may get my larger wish for my husband to be more conscientious about the general order in our home and how clutter and mess impact my stress level and emotional experience.
I invite you to experiment with this shift and see how it feels for you and how it lands for your partner. If this shift feels difficult, start with the small stuff, it’s easier to make a change when a topic doesn’t feel loaded. But if you can change the way you talk about the challenging issues in your relationship, you may find, over time, that those topics become less and less of a minefield.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nikki Loscalzo, Ed. M. is an RLT Certified Therapeutic Coach who helps couples and individuals learn to get past surface issues and heal the damage that gets in the way of intimate connection. Nikki first discovered the tremendous power of Relational Life Therapy when the RLT creator, Terry Real, transformed her own marriage.
Inspired by her personal experience with RLT, Nikki trained directly with Terry Real through his Relational Life Institute to learn how to empower couples to transform their relationships. Through his intensive certification program, she learned the skills that she employs every day in private practice at Savvy Strategies Relational Life Therapy, where she works with couples to quickly diagnose the problems in their relationships, uncover why these issues exist, and repair damage to shift unhelpful relationship dynamics and rebuild a truly intimate relationship.