The First, Most Difficult Step: Making a Clean Complaint
When working with couples, I often find that they are more than capable of understanding all the terms and concepts that I use in my practice—rupture and repair, emotional honesty, relational evasion, the art of dissenting—but when it comes time to actually make a complaint, they stumble. This is a pattern I’ve seen come up again and again in my years of working as a therapist. Overcoming this obstacle, the need to make a respectful, “clean” complaint, is truly the first step on any journey to mutual understanding and trust. If we are to make any progress we need to ask: why is complaint so important and why is it important to do it skillfully?
Often, conflicts appear in relationships when one person (or both) provides feedback, which is expressed and/or received in an unhealthy, offensive, or aggressive manner: “I didn’t like how you said that,” “Oh, now you’re complaining!” We learn to think that expressing ourselves is the source of negative feelings, when in fact we simply don’t have the skills to artfully and respectfully engage with complaints together.
Clean complaints are the first step on the path toward emotional honesty and managing ourselves well when differences arise. We cannot dissent, acknowledge ruptures, or repair our relationships without making responsible, “clean” complaints. But whether giving or receiving, navigating emotionally mature complaints is surprisingly not intuitive.
ALIGNMENT. A COMPLAINT IS NOT A STATEMENT OF BLAME OR AN ACCUSATION — IT IS NOT CRITICISM
The psychologist John Gottman identifies criticism as the most common of the “four horsemen” of relationships. Criticism occurs when we start seeking an explanation for negative feelings and we latch onto other peoples’ behavior to explain our own dissatisfactions.
This isn’t to say that we cannot find other peoples’ actions harmful, upsetting, or even simply annoying. The problem is that criticism accuses the other person of having a negative, destructive flaw that they should be ashamed of.
A complaint does not accuse or reject someone else, but brings forward our internal feelings and needs to engage in honest communication together with our partner. Instead of saying “You always do that, and I’m sick of it,” clean complaints say, “When you act this way, I keep getting this feeling that bothers me, and I want to explore what that means for us.”
Complaints are an essential feature of long-term sustainable relationships. The fact that we are separate individuals necessitates that complaints will come up from time to time, especially in the earlier stages of relationship when we are still getting to know each other more deeply. Making a complaint is simply communicating to our partner that we have different needs and intuitions to let them know that their behaviors, words, and actions may not be landing as they intended. It is an invitation to reflect on the impact of our behavior and consider where we can modify our actions.
Therefore, having a complaint is not a problem. It is part of being in relationship; subsequently, we need to be skillful when naming a complaint so that we aren’t creating new problems with our actions and behavior. Herein lies the art of the task:
When complaining, we can take responsibility for our own feelings without denying the impact that others’ actions have on our feelings. We can extend an invitation to discuss the many ways our thoughts, emotions, and actions are entangled in a mutual relationship with our partner.
Hang tight, I’ll give you an example of how to do it well below!
CONSISTENT PATTERNS OF SHUTTING DOWN OR EVADING COMPLAINTS CAN BE A SIGN OF A TOXIC OR ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP.
Before going any further, I want to say that some people are so ill-equipped to apologize or acknowledge dissent that they may attempt to gaslight their partner into believing they have no legitimate complaint. Complaints may be handwaved away as “nonsense” or “just your imagination.”
This is an abusive tactic that makes us feel illegitimate and beneath our partners: it paints them as somehow perfect and infallible, and implies that any negative feelings we experience are solely our own fault.
Gaslighting or blaming the victim for their own negative feelings are signs of narcissistic behavior, which often requires a more extreme intervention to address.
There are many healthy relationships built on the fertile soil of respect and love that still have to practice making clean complaints. It is important to recognize that clean complaints often aren’t intuitive, even in healthy relationships. Experiencing difficulty with this process is not equivalent to an abusive relationship built on denial, gaslighting, or contempt.
A CLEAN COMPLAINT IS MUTUAL: IT INCLUDES MAKING THE COMPLAINT AND RECEIVING THE COMPLAINT.
Oftentimes we find it difficult to make a clean complaint because we are just annoyed or angry that we have to complain at all. We want the other person to already know what we need and what we feel based on our personal connection with them.
Simultaneously, it’s hard to receive a complaint because it triggers old stories of inadequacy from someone we love, whom we want to be a source of reassurance or comfort. Receiving a complaint, especially when we don’t expect it, might make us feel like we’re “failing” in the relationship.
The truth is, it simply isn’t realistic to expect our partners to understand and know all of our feelings and needs. Nobody is omniscient in that way, and the Happily Ever After fairy tale of couples who are in 100% perfect sync is just that—a fairy tale. Relationships are beautiful precisely because they allow us to share our subjective reality with another person and create a shared existence with them through both of our perspectives. This is a mutually creative process that requires communication and collaboration between both partners.
EVERY PERSON COMES WITH THEIR OWN HISTORY, AND THOSE HISTORIES PREDISPOSE US TO BE DEFENSIVE AND PROTECTIVE OF CERTAIN ASPECTS OF OURSELVES.
Some of us might fear that speaking up means we will be criticized or degraded, making it difficult to voice our own emotions without feeling naked and vulnerable. Others might learn to think of themselves as “protectors” or “pleasers” in a relationship, and worry that complaints signify that they are failing in their duties to their partner.
We often aren’t aware of these histories or feelings; they reside below our consciousness. But when we feel targeted, our whole nervous system gets involved and we become emotionally heightened. Engaging with complaints is paradoxical because it is relatively simple to rationally acknowledge that it’s important to convey and listen to new perspectives, but experientially it can be quite difficult to put aside the histories deep inside us that trigger these complex emotions.
It’s natural to have a hard time complaining or receiving complaints. Acknowledging and working through this is part of the process. When we’re giving or receiving feedback, it’s important to do a lot of self-soothing and manage our historical, default reactions. There is always space to acknowledge the legitimacy of our defensiveness and our somatic responses that appear when engaging with complaints.
A CLEAN COMPLAINT ADOPTS A TONE OF FRIENDLINESS, INVITING OUR PARTNER TO BE ON THE SAME TEAM WHEN ADDRESSING THE ISSUE.
When we are preparing to express a complaint to our partner, it is important to recognize that both of us will likely feel emotionally heightened. The giver of a complaint should take the initiative to ground themselves, monitoring their own feelings, thoughts, and body language to have a good start. We cannot give anything skillfully if we are deregulated.
The basic approach to offering a clean complaint has five steps:
- Center yourself and become aware of your own emotions. Give yourself time to sort out your own subjective experiences and understand what you are going through.
- Reflect on the purpose of your feedback and whether that feedback is in the best interest of your partner/ relationship. (And don’t attempt to engage your partner if you are still actively triggered! If you are still triggered, revisit step 1).
- Privately ask your partner in a welcoming, friendly tone if they are in a space where they could receive feedback and have a mutual discussion. (if yes, proceed to step 4; if not, ask them when they will be available and make a plan).
- Give feedback in simple, digestible bits. Be specific, but don’t make it a list of grievances. Here’s the golden rule for feedback: we can generally only tolerate 1-3 sentences of complaint before becoming activated, so keep it short and sweet.
- Check-in with your partner about how they are feeling; see if they are at all overwhelmed or too full to process more.
You can always reaffirm that you want to learn and grow with your partner as you give them feedback. If they feel you are un-triggered, offering a neutral tone and not looking to attack, they will be more receptive.
I often find that it is easier to ask someone “I want to explore this with you, do you have time?” or “I want to understand this with you better, do you have space for that now?” than to ask “Can we talk?” This language sets up the expectation that there is something positive and meaningful that can be reached, rather than making an ambiguous request that may sound like “bad news.”
Here’s an example from my own life. Not too long ago, I had to bring up a complaint to my partner. An experience I had with him kept replaying through my mind, emotionally charging my nervous system. While I could’ve just exploded and said, “What happened really ticked me off! I can’t believe you!” I knew that wouldn’t help either of us. Instead, I took the time to center myself and really think about what I wanted to address. I made sure that I knew this feedback was coming from an authentic desire to strengthen our connection.
When I was ready, I said “I keep revisiting this experience that we had a couple of weeks ago, and I want to share it with you so that we can be on the same page about it. Are you in a place where you are open to that?” That gentle setup allowed both of us to connect with our emotional states and not be thrown off-guard by the defensiveness that comes with complaints. Having the consent and knowledge of my partner made it that much easier to engage honestly without losing control to defensiveness.
Not surprisingly, my partner responded well to my invitation to connect. I expressed an awareness of him and elaborated how I was impacted—without the slightest opposition, we worked through it in a matter of moments!
RECEIVING FEEDBACK IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR TREMENDOUS GROWTH.
I must admit that it took me a long time to learn how to receive feedback. I was the queen of defensiveness (seriously ask anyone who has known me a while!) and raised on patriarchal, zero-sum values that made me completely hostile to apologizing. It was only through experience and lots of unlearning that I learned how transformative it could be to practice engaged listening when receiving feedback from my partner.
When we learn to listen and skillfully hear what our partner is trying to say, we are able to use our relationship as a vehicle for self-discovery and transformation. Ideally, our partner applies the gentle setup above to approach the complaint with our feedback and acknowledgment, but even then we need to learn to apply the right skills for truly receptive listening.
We can always express when we need a moment to acknowledge and process our feelings of defensiveness, fear, or anxiety. We do not need to eliminate these feelings to listen to our partners. Instead, we should accept the presence of these feelings in our bodies without letting them control us. Sometimes we might need to process feedback over multiple discussions, and sometimes we need help to do so.
When we listen, we need to make sure that we are truly hearing what our partner is saying. If they say “I need more space,” we need to catch ourselves if we are hearing “I don’t love you anymore.” That is the result of our own inner fears and wounds twisting our partner’s words. Receiving feedback does not require that you agree with everything your partner says, but you should try to understand it clearly and honestly. Only you can ask for clarification if you feel unsure.
Acknowledging the legitimacy of a complaint does not mean erasing or ignoring your own needs, but the discussion should not become an argument over “wrong” or “right.” Both the giver and receiver likely feel vulnerable when expressing and receiving a complaint. You don’t have to feel bad or wrong for feeling vulnerable. After receiving feedback, you can aim for twenty minutes of space to process what your partner has said and stabilize your nervous system and emotions.
IT IS TOTALLY OKAY TO ADMIT YOU AREN’T IN THE RIGHT HEADSPACE TO HEAR FEEDBACK WHEN YOUR PARTNER FIRST RAISES THE SUBJECT.
Sometimes we simply don’t have the space to hear things, and it’s responsible to admit when we can’t commit the proper attention to the discussion.
When we ask for more time, the onus is on us to circle back and say when we are available. Otherwise, we are committing an un-acknowledgment, or abandonment, where we are leaving our partner to do all the work.
If we are the ones requesting to give feedback, then there is nothing wrong with asking (gently) for a concrete time to talk.
ONCE YOU BEGIN PRACTICING CLEAN COMPLAINTS, EVERYTHING ELSE BEINGS TO FALL INTO PLACE.
Every clean complaint is new, bringing forth new feedback, emotions, realizations, and experiences. Presenting and receiving feedback isn’t about decisively settling an issue once and for all–it’s about realigning ourselves and setting a new course together with a better understanding of each other.
By embracing clean complaints, we can accept the reality of being different people with different experiences. We can accept differences and negative experiences as part of relationships without feeling like we are failing, and we can work towards mutual growth and transformation together.
What makes the clean complaint so difficult—but also so powerful—is that it is the first step towards repair whenever we encounter a rupture in our relationship. My new Rupture and Repair Workbook offers a comprehensive look at the entire process of acknowledging when we feel distant from our partner and engaging intentionally in conversation to come closer together. Complete with applicable exercises to practice with your partner, this PDF can help anyone struggling to begin the process of the clean complaint.