Transcript below from Marriage Steps Podcast Episode 16 on "Top Six Ways To Manage Complaints In Marriage"
Today, I'm going to talk about the top six ways to handle complaints in marriage. If you've been married for any length of time, you realize complaints are a part of the fabric of matrimony. If you put two imperfect people together in close proximity before long sparks are going to fly.The most forceful complaints usually occur when some of our top needs are not being met. So how to give complaints and receive them well is very important because most couples do it the wrong way. So today's episode is all about training you on how to do it the right way. We'll begin with three tips on what to do if you're the receiver of the complaint.
Tip One For The Receiver
Let's imagine your partner comes up to you and they make a complaint about something you've done that made them feel hurt, sad, lonely, fearful, etc. So what do you do? First thing you do is seek to understand if you're not clear on what they're talking about. Try to understand what they're saying and where they're coming from. Try to understand the language they're using and what they mean by the words they're using. Ask as many questions as you need so that you can understand what they're describing and what their experience was. A lot of times when a spouse makes a complaint, the other partner doesn't quite know what they're talking about. It doesn't compute. So step one is seek to understand and that shows that you care. Don't get defensive, don't counter attack, don't be dismissive, seek to understand.
Tip Two For The Receiver
Step two is empathize with what they're feeling and why. The top two empathy statements that I encourage couples to use is "I can see how you would feel...." and then repeat back their tender underbelly and why or "that makes sense that you feel....." and repeat back their tender underbelly and why. Those two phrases are the most effective ways to empathize. If you say those phrases, it's going to help your partner feel understood and validated. It's going to help them feel like you have their back and that you care. One of the fastest ways to calm your partner down if they're upset is to empathize with what they're feeling. For example, say your wife really desires more emotional closeness and even though she's mentioned it you haven't responded so now she's making a complaint. She's hurt and feels like you don't care. So instead of getting defensive, you're going to seek to understand and then empathize with "I can see how you'd feel hurt that I haven't cultivated more emotional closeness and how that would make you feel like I don't care." That's going to validate her and make her feel understood. Now the challenge comes when it doesn't make sense to you or you can't see where they're coming from. However, if you can only empathize if your partner's experience makes sense to you then you'll rarely be able to give it. You need to rethink empathy! Empathy is kicking off your shoes and putting on your partner's shoes and imagining their home growing up. How was love experienced or not experienced? How was conflict handled or not handled? How was quality time managed or not managed? What are the wounds from their upbringing? As an adult, what's their temperament like? What are their values? What are their top needs? What are their insecurities? You want to be mindful of all these things because it's going to allow you to sincerely empathize with what they are feeling. When you become mindful of your partner's inner world like I just described, what they are feeling in response to what you did will start to make sense. It doesn't mean you would feel the same thing because you're a different person with a different background. But if you really put yourself in their shoes and lose yourself in their world, you can start seeing why your behavior made them feel a certain way. Therefore, you always can empathize, even if you disagree with what they're feeling.
Tip Three For The Receiver
Tip three is make changes. You've sought to understand and you've empathized with their feelings and now it's time to do something about it. You have to make changes when your partner is expressing a complaint. The worst thing you can do is judge and dismiss their complaint and that's what we do all the time. We think "that's stupid" or "that's ridiculous" or "they're being irrational" or "that's not important." We think all these judgmental thoughts and dismiss their complaint. Not doing something about their complaint is the worst thing you can do.They want to see you make changes. They want to see that you care. It doesn't mean you're going to be perfect with the change but the more you try to understand what they're looking for and receive feedback on your efforts the better you'll get at making the change and they'll feel honored by your efforts.
Tip One For The Giver
The first recommendation is you have to express your complaint with a soft startup. I cover soft startups in a separate post so make sure you read it to review the details. To summarize, a soft start-up starts with how your partner has improved in the area you're complaining about, how their behavior may not be entirely their fault or intentional, how you may have contributed to their hurtful behavior or how it may be activating a wound from your past, and then express the complaint with your tender underbelly and not using the words "you, always, or never." The tender underbelly refers to what's underneath your anger, such as hurt, sad, lonely, insecure, fearful, etc. We avoid "you' because it's accusatory and "always/never" because they are generalizations. If you don't use a soft startup and attack, you're going to get the opposite of what you want. Your partner is going to get defensive or they're going to stone wall, one or the other. We're not in a posture to change when we're feeling attacked because we have to defend. So if you want your partner to change and you're making a complaint, it's in your best interest to express it as a soft startup.
Tip Two For The Giver
If you've made a soft start-up repeatedly and your partner still will not change, the next step is to see a marriage counselor. If they continually judge and dismiss your complaint something is broken and you need to get a counselor involved to understand what's happening. Perhaps your partner is still feeling attacked. Perhaps they are misinterpreting what you're looking for. Perhaps they have trauma in the area you're wanting them to change and it's hard for them to move forward. All sorts of things could be happening. So if you are at an impasse and you've expressed your complaint several times using a soft startup and they still won't change the next step is to see a counselor.
Tip Three For The Giver
I would allow 3-6 months of marriage counseling to see if your partner is making the change you're requesting. If at the end of that time your partner still is not changing and refuses to, the next step you may want to consider is a separation. Sometimes partners get complacent and comfortable and they take their partner for granted. Unfortunately, I've seen this in my practice. I'll be working with a couple and one partner will express a complaint centered around a top need of theirs and their partner refuses to change. Despite our best efforts to understand why and make headway they still won't change. When I see this pattern over and over, my recommendation is for them to consider a separation because usually the separation, or even the thought of one, is enough to slap the passive partner into action. Separation is a last resort but sometimes it's a needed one to finally get the person's attention.
So there you have it, the top six ways to handle complaints in marriage. If you are the receiver of the complaints, seek to understand, empathize, and make changes. If you're the giver of the complaint, express your complaint with a soft startup. If that doesn't work, see a counselor and if seeing a counselor doesn't work, consider a separation.
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Which of these steps would help your marriage the most and why?