Complaints have gotten a bad rap in recent years.
Many people equate complaining with whining, self-pity, and being “vicitimy”. While there can be elements of these qualities when irresponsible complaints are made, there is such a thing as responsible complaining. The distinction has to do with the intention of the complainer.
Irresponsible complaints are generally expressed out of a desire to gain sympathy, validation of the speaker’s grievance, or to unload their frustration to someone with whom they can commiserate. Responsible complaints are motivated not only by a desire to express grievances but also by an intention to seek responses that can lead to a successful resolution. Their motivation is solution-oriented, with an intention to take effective action that results in a successful resolution.
The danger of withholding complaints.
The failure to recognize this distinction can result in withholding complaints because we judge ourselves and assume others judge us negatively for complaining. The problem with withholding complaints is that they can provide us with important insights into our deeper concerns, which we may not be aware of. Complaints can be an opening into desires that we need to pay more attention to, and perhaps take action on. When we don’t acknowledge them, we deny ourselves valuable information into our inner world.
Complains can also help us to get clear about what we don’t want, which can be as important as what we desire. As we get clearer in regard to what we want and don’t want, what matters and what doesn’t, and what works and what doesn’t work for us, we become more able, to tell the truth without blame which promotes feelings of greater trust.
Learning to express complaints responsibly
When we can express complaints responsibly, our partner will tend to feel less blamed and consequently become less defensive. They will not hear our feelings of disappointment as an indictment of them. Because it is so easy to feel blamed when a loved one expresses emotional pain, the tendency to react defensively can be strong. If we clarify our intention in sharing these feelings with them, this tendency can be diminished. Hopefully, they will feel that they are an ally rather than an adversary. The alternative to going public with our complaints is that there is a greater likelihood that undesirable conditions will remain unaddressed and the situation will remain unchanged, leading to resentment, further withholding, and passive-aggressive behavior.
Contained within every complaint is an unfulfilled need that requires attention. Because most of us are sensitive to explicit or even implicit criticism, it’s necessary to become skilled in the art of expressing our grievances without fault-finding. This isn’t easy since very few of us have witnessed examples of responsible complaining.
Responsible complaints are expressed from the speaker’s experience, such as “I was disappointed when you showed up an hour late for our date,” rather than a response like “You’re always late.” Even responsible, non-blaming complaining can still activate reactions where our partner tries to justify their defensive responses. Try not to get discouraged if this happens. It may take a number of repetitions over more time than you think it should.
To interrupt defensive patterns that have been reinforced for years, it takes a while even when both partners are doing their best to hold a higher standard. The challenge for the person taking the lead in the commitment to responsible communication is to resist the temptation to counterattack or withdraw when they feel unfairly treated or misunderstood. This doesn’t necessarily mean to keep pushing if you hit a defensive wall in our interaction. Sometimes all it takes is to take a break if the conversation suddenly begins to turn into an argument, and resuming it another time when things have cooled down.
Harness the power of intention
If both partners have an intention to bring greater openness and mutual understanding, the likelihood of success is greatly increased. The safer each person feels, the sooner that outcome will come about. Feelings of safety are increased when each partner no longer feels the need for defensiveness.
If your partner is speaking defensively, there is a good chance that you may have something to do with it, but there is also a good chance that they, like many of us, are not yet recovered from multiple past experiences of being judged and perhaps punished for behaviors that others disapproved of.
Keeping in mind that these old protective patterns do not easily disappear, even with the clearest of intentions, allows us to have compassion for our partner and for ourselves. At these times, pushing the pause button and taking a breath or two can make a huge difference in where we go from here. And the opportunity to make that choice is always available.