Complaining Doesn’t Work — Here’s What Does
A criticism is just a really bad way of making a request … so just make the request. ~Diane Sawyer
There’s a great deal of wisdom in that quote from journalist Diane Sawyer. And I’m betting that wisdom played a role in her happy, 26-year marriage with director Mike Nichols.
As a psychologist, I’ve seen many relationships where the opposite is going on. Couples get stuck in a frustrating — and stereotypical — pattern. The wife points out something that’s wrong, hoping her husband will address it. He doesn’t. So, she complains some more. He withdraws, telling her to back off. Met such a reaction, her initial complaints sometimes escalate into full-blown criticism: “I don’t know why I’m even married to you.You never do anything around here!”
If this sounds familiar, don’t beat yourself up. The fact that you’re being upfront and asking for what you need in your marriage is great. Keep talking about what’s on your mind, but try the communications tweak I’m about to show you. I think you’ll see better results.
How Men Process Complaints
Before we talk about how to be more effective in your communication with your husband, I think it would be helpful to understand why you’re getting a negative reaction from your spouse in the first place.
For the most part with men, pointing out what’s wrong usually will not get you anywhere, no matter how often or loudly you say it. (Women may not be so receptive either!)
Think about your goal when you complain to your husband about something he’s doing (or not doing!). You probably just want him to change a certain behavior or deal with a particular situation, right?
But because of the way most men are raised, chances are he’s interpreting what you say in ways you don’t intend. Men grow up hearing they must be competent, independent, and do a good job of taking care of their loved ones. They’re taught not to ask for help, so they may not understand why you keep asking them for little things. Because of these messages, men will often react to complaints with irritation or defensiveness, jumping to the incorrect conclusion that you’re just trying to tell them they’re inadequate or failing.
An example: You say, “I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?” In your mind, this remark is about meal-planning — nothing more. But what he might hear is, “You let me down. You’re failing as a husband.”
Another aspect of how men often get socialized in the U.S. comes into play in how they react to complaints. Renowned communication expert Dr. Deborah Tannen’s research shows that in general women communicate to connect, while men typically talk to establish their status. Speaking broadly, men tend to pay much more attention to hierarchy than we do as women.
For example, you tell your spouse, “Honey, the trash can is overflowing again!” You just want him to take care of the trash. That’s it. You’re not trying to establish yourself as the dominant one in the relationship, right? In fact, you usually assume that the two of you are co-equal members of the same team, and that nothing you say changes that. However, he may be very sensitive to any phrasing that could seem like you’re trying to “boss” him around or convey that you’re better than him. If he thinks that’s what’s happening, he’s much more likely to be defensive and will get to the trash when he feels like it, not necessarily when you ask.
Turn Complaints Into Requests
Like Diane Sawyer, I believe that a direct request beats pointing out what’s not working any day. And there’s a way to make requests that spurs your husband to action and builds positive feelings in your marriage.
What’s important is how you phrase the request.
Right now, you might be feeling a little frustrated. Maybe you’re wondering why you have to do all this work to be heard. Or you’re questioning why he doesn’t just address your complaints so you can both quit worrying about them.
I understand. Things would be a whole lot easier if he just “got it.” But waiting for that to happen isn’t the best way to get your needs met, so focus on how you can be most effective in your relationship.
I suggest that you make a direct request for what you need, but make sure you include the following information:
- What you need from your husband and
- How his action will benefit you.
Instead of feeling like he’s failing you, or that you’re bossing him around, he’ll feel that he’s succeeding at his favorite role: the competent guy who makes your life better.
Let’s go back to the earlier example of a typical complaint:
“I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?”
You could voice the same need in a very different way:
“Honey, I know it’s worked for us for a long time to have me be the one who takes care of dinner. But since I changed jobs, this has gotten a lot harder for me. You’d really be helping to get my stress level down if we came up with a plan to share dinner duty.”
Do you see how your husband might be more receptive to the request vs. the complaint? Don’t forget to voice appreciation if your husband responds positively to your request, as you would with anyone else.
This week, think about something that you frequently complain about in your marriage and try this communication technique instead. Let me know how it goes!
If you and your husband are interested in learning more about gender and communication, check out Deborah Tannen’s books, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Communication or That’s Not What I Meant, You’ll also find many more ideas about understanding and connecting with your husband in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.