By Darren Wilk, MA, RCC Certified Gottman Therapist/trainer and co-owner of Bestmarriages
As a marriage therapist for 20 years I have noticed that couples avoid bringing up complaints because of the fear of a fight, or worse – apathy. Some even believe that if they can avoid a fight they will be happy, and fun will amazingly just appear in the relationship. Typical complaints around house cleaning, laundry, sex, putting kids to bed, lateness, Facebook, or friends start to sound like nagging or negativity and are met with a wall of defensiveness.
Why do we avoid conflict?
“My partner should be happy. I am telling him what I need and how to make me happy, how much simpler can I make it?” However, what the partner hears is “Oh great, one more thing I am failing at. I will never make her happy, because she is impossible to please. I have complaints too, but I’m the kind of person that learns to suck it up and get over it. I wish my partner was more like me.”
If this happens too often couples will start storing up their complaints until they have evidence to prove their point. This lawyer type approach seems logical and goes something like this:
“I want to have sex, but my partner never initiates. I really want to know if my partner desires me and loves me and I am missing the connection. I know! I will stop initiating and just wait for them. I am determined to see this research through, because the result will prove once and for all that my partner is not interested in sex, or me!”
Two months later… there has now been no sex. Now you can approach your partner and say with confidence, “I have been watching you for two months and I guess you don’t love me, because you have no interest in sex… or you’ve got a problem that needs to be fixed.” Well how did that work out? It didn’t, right?
So how should we complain?
Well there are a lot of answers that work, but for now I will give two. The worst thing you can do in your relationship is avoid conflict because it will not make things better, in fact it makes things worse.
To avoid conflict in relationships is avoiding intimacy. The only way to build trust, grow and get closer is to have constructive conflict. Under every negative emotion or complaint is a longing, wish or desire.- Dr. John Gottman
Research from the best couples scientists today like Dr. John and Julie Gottman, have found that when someone complains, even negatively, there is a deeper longing underneath. Complaints should be recognized as information into a partner’s heart and soul. These things are important to them. Instead they are often heard as failures of the other person. So, for the listener that means trying to discover what the deeper longing is by asking “Can you tell me what is bothering you most about this? How would you feel if I did what you want more often?” Of course, this is hard to do if you feel like the subject of your partners wrath, but try it if you can. For the speaker, let your partner know about your desire and the motivation behind what you want. Often there is something there that would make you feel wanted or desired. The above example of sex is perfect. The person wanted to know if they were wanted or special. Sex was not just about fulfilling an urge, but rather a desire to know if they are desired. In so many complaints the common needs are connection and trust.
“Do I matter?”
“Are you there for me?”
“Can I count on you?”
“I miss you and need connection”
These all relate to trust in a relationship.
Constructive conflict builds trust, and trust leads to a strong commitment. Commitment once established is like a powerful magnet that nothing can pull apart. It protects the relationship from falling apart and increases the likelihood of working through conflict. Commitment is the cement of the relationship hardened by trust. It says “I am not going anywhere and cannot imagine finding something better. You and I are a team and we will work this out, no matter what. I am not threatened by our conflict because it will never break us apart.”
Love is the motivation behind all of this. “Do you love me?”. “If you get the bedtime routine done earlier, like we had agreed upon, we can spend time together. Maybe even go to bed early…wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”
Giving a target verses being a target
By giving your partner positive motivation or the positive need behind the request, you are giving them a target to hit. Too often someone sees their partner coming and feels like they have done something wrong once again. They feel like the target of the complaint. This will cause a “run and duck for cover” type response. Successfully avoiding being hit becomes the goal of the relationship.
It is better to see every conflict as an opportunity to get closer
The Seinfeld solution: be with someone just like you- Jerry Seinfeld
Secondly, it is often thought “If my partner were only more like me, we would be happy. I let so much go and sweep it under the rug, its not even funny.” The wish often is that they were more organized like I am, or more relaxed, or more motivated, or able to handle crisis better, or were less sensitive, or more sensitive – the list goes on. The great philosopher Jerry Seinfeld once thought this was the perfect solution for his dating fails. I love watching Seinfeld because in every scenario I have thought of doing what they have done, and I can live vicariously through them and not make that same mistake.
The episode is Jerry falling in love with himself.
Synopsis: Jerry is walking across the street and almost gets hit by a car, except a girl pulls him to safety. She is a spitting image of himself. She talks and sounds just like him and even looks like him (but of course is pretty). They go to his restaurant and both order a bowl of cereal. He later tells Kramer a girl saved his life today.
He says “she is just like me. It’s been there my whole life. I now know what I have always been looking for…
I have been waiting for ME to come along! … And now I have just swept me off of my feet!”
Later in the episode after getting to know her, he is laying on the couch depressed. Kramer comes in and asks what’s wrong. Jerry says “I think I have made the biggest mistake of my life. I can’t be with someone like me! I hate myself! I need the complete opposite of me! I can’t take it, I can’t take it!”
What is the take away? Be careful what you wish for.
Most people that have to live with themselves have learned to put up with their irritating traits. We often get together with people who can handle our traits. We also intuitively choose partners that can fill in some of our missing qualities with the thought that together we will be amazing. Never forget that your partner cannot be all that you want them to be, and that to expect them to be exactly like you means they may have to give up something about themselves you need and like. I think it’s helpful to remind ourselves of what our partner has to put up with in us, so we can extend the same grace in return. This is not saying that there are not legitimate unfair situations where there is clearly a need for change to make things more fair and equitable. That solution will be for another article on how to compromise fairly.
Bottom line is that trust and commitment are the bedrock of a relationship and are only built by working through problems, not avoiding them.