Turning Complaints into Connection: Couple Relationships

Rylaan Gimby

Winter can make me grouchy. Living in Manitoba, Canada, means winter holds many days of harsh, biting winds, and long nights of cold temperatures. Because of this, a recurring thought often runs through my mind: “When will this end and why do I live here?”

As I sit with a couple in my office in the middle of winter, I reflect on the parallels that can happen in the seasons of a couple’s relationship. I know this particular couple well, so I easily recognize the shift in Sue’s body language as she pulls her feet in under her chair and lowers her chin (I can almost hear her teeth clenching). Jo is seemingly oblivious, continuing their monologue about how hosting the extended family for dinner went. At this point, Jo is no longer looking at Sue – instead they are getting louder, as if that will foster agreement with their analysis and perspective.

Finally, unable to contain it, Sue blurts out: “If you could get past listening to your own voice for a minute, you’d notice that nobody else was interested in hearing that story for the 100th time.” I see Jo’s eyebrows fly up, and their hands clench the chair. I know that this is my cue to interrupt this familiar pattern of hurling little daggers at each other that inevitably ends in more disconnection, frustration, and someone uttering something along the lines of, “This is never going to end! Why do we keep trying?!” This is the wintery cold of disconnection.

Despite their arguing, this couple actually has a pretty healthy relationship. They both have a strong commitment to their relationship, offer a lot of love, and (usually) really like each other. However, they fall into very common patterns when they lose ground on nurturing this connection. This results in them feeling farther apart, disconnected, and underappreciated by their spouse. One of their habits is to express a frustration or need through the harsh tones and rigid body language of criticism, rather than a healthy complaint.

Criticism often feels like an attack, especially when it comes from our loved ones. The words and tone can feel like more than just a jab, triggering deep instinctual fear centres in our brain that are linked to monitoring rejection and survival. We often respond instinctively in order to protect ourselves and ward off the threat, which usually results in us flinging back our own dagger of criticism.

Partners can learn to help each other put down the daggers and express their frustrations and needs in such a way that actually builds connection, rather than destroys it. When there is an atmosphere of connection and trust, the presence of one’s partner can soothe fear, allowing a complaint to be heard as a request for more attunement, rather than as an attack.

Complaints are inevitable, and even necessary in a couple relationship. Complaining well is one way couples can nurture healthy patterns of communicating needs, and learn how to better support each other. Here are some tips for turning your complaint into an opportunity for connection:

  1. Breathe.

Calm yourself down and open yourself up. Take ownership of the temperature you bring – is it boiling hot or icy cold? Creating the right atmosphere to be heard and understood takes two. If you’re the one with the complaint, you set the tone.

  1. Talk about yourself first.

When we have a complaint or need, it’s easy to fall into the habit of targeting our partner either as the cause or solution to our problem. Often the words that first come out of our mouth sound something like, “If you would just…,” “You never…,” or “You always…”. This rarely gets us what we need. In fact, it almost guarantees we will get less of what we need, resulting in more disconnection. Rather start these types of conversations with, “I feel…,” or “I am thinking about…”. Describe your concern or need clearly, and base it on your own experience.

  1. Tell your partner what you want more of.

Focus on a positive action to suggest. This primes both your brain and your partner’s brain to accept what is possible. In contrast, when we hear criticism or something we should change, we close up and become more distressed. Rather offer a suggestion of something your partner’s done in the past that was helpful, or suggest something different that matches your needs.

  1. Offer the same generosity when listening to your partner’s complaints.

In our love relationships, we have to be the change we want to see. Recognize the powerful impact you have on your partner, and vice versa. Together you can create the kind of atmosphere that allows both of you to express your needs clearly and congruently, and to offer each other the gift of a trusting, soothing presence.

I reminded Sue of the way she’d been practicing voicing her complaints with Jo recently, and asked her if she could try the new strategy rather than fall into old patterns. Sue was able to take a breath, relax her shoulders, and say to Jo, “I had a very different experience of dinner. I’d love it if you could slow down and hear my version too.” Jo also took a big breath, took Sue’s hand and said, “Tell me.” They both chuckled, and the room felt much warmer – like the sun had come out to sparkle on the snow. Winter can be quite beautiful.

References and for further reading:

Beckes, L., Burgess Moser, M.,  Coan, J. A., Dalgleish, T., Greenman, P.S., Halchuk, R., Hasselmo, K., Johnson, S. M., Merali, Z., Smith, A. (2013). Soothing the threatened brain: Leveraging contact comfort with emotional focused therapy. PLOS ONE 9(8): e105489. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0079314

Johnson, S. (2013). Love sense: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Process, 41(1), 83-96. Doi: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11924092

Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Random House.

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Vicki Enns, MMFT, RMFT
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.
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