You may be thinking, “How can my partner’s complaining possibly help our relationship?” Well, there’s a lot of research that shows that complaints can actually lead to some pretty awesome connection.
Complaining is one’s way of trying to express a need of theirs that is not being met, according to Dr. John Gottman & Julie Schwartz Gottman, who’ve studied couples and their relationships for over 40 years. If you see your partner’s complaints, nagging and pouting as their struggle to communicate something to you, doing just 3 things can decrease your annoyance, frustration and anger while bringing you closer.
1. Maintain Mutual Respect.
Avoiding what Dr. Gottman refers to as the 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse helps cultivate respect between you and your partner. The 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse consists of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling or ignoring our partners. If you can avoid doing these when your partner complains, your relationship will start to increase in closeness and conflict will not feel so heavy.
2. Check in.
Sometimes just taking a deep breath to pause and ask your partner “What’s really going on right now? Are my socks on the bathroom floor really what’s bothering you?” Your empathic checking in, provides a fantastic opportunity for the two of you to lovingly come together and discuss your partner’s true unmet need. (Which may be more like “I feel that my hard work to keep the bathroom clean goes unappreciated when socks are left on the floor.”)
3. Offer Support.
In every instance of conflict or potential conflict (i.e. complaining, nagging or pouting) there’s an opportunity to step outside your urge to get defensive, contemptuous, criticize or plain ignore your partner. In order to do this, gently and lovingly ask “What do you need right now?” This is different from “What can I do? Or How can I fix things?” When offering your partner this support, it creates an environment of emotional safety where they can start to open up and talk about their unmet need that lives just beneath their complaint. This simple question also releases you of the pressure to fix things. Win-Win!
Experiencing this is never enjoyable but it can definitely provide a moment for the two of you to deeply connect and address what’s truly going on so that you and your partner feel heard and understood.
The 3 steps are simple but they are not easy. This kind of behavior takes commitment to practicing and being gentle with yourself (and your partner) when it doesn’t always go as you expected.