The Complaint Trap

November 11, 2019



The complaint trap.


It's when you get stuck just complaining about what you don't like instead of telling your partner it is that you want.  


It sounds like this "I hate when you leave your clothes on the floor."  "We never go do anything."  "You always say things like that." 


When you phrase things as a complaint, your partner will most likely get defensive.  It feels like they are getting attacked so their instinct is to tell you how you are wrong.  When that starts, you get stuck going in circles without changing anything.  And do you want to know one of the worst parts about it?  You end up feeling angry because you don't feel heard!  


It's a trap because when complaining about each other becomes a habit, it's a nasty trap that you get stuck in.  So what do you do?  


Switch from complaint to request. 


This will take some thinking.  Ask yourself, "what is it I would like instead?"


So let's take the examples from above and switch them from complaint to request. 

Complaint: "I hate when you leave your clothes on the floor."   Request: "Can you please put your clothes in the hamper?"


Complaint: "We never go do anything."  Request: "I'd love for us to get out more.  Let's plan an activity." 


Complaint: "You always say things like that."  Request: "I'd like to hear what you think about (xyz)."  


Giving someone an action that you would prefer makes it easier for them to see what's possible.  When we focus on the things we don't like, a lot of people feel despair.  It's hard for them to think about what it is you want instead.  


Now one criticism someone might have about switching from complaint to request is "isn't that walking on eggshells?"   I'd argue no.  It's taking into account the human tendency to focus on the negative which is called the negativity bias.  It's a psychological phenomena that when someone mentions something negative, our brain focuses there as a survival technique and struggles to see the positive (or possibility).  We're just helping beat that.  And we're helping you both be kinder in your relationship.  Which is something a lot of people need to be doing.  


So how about it?  Would you look at all the times you think you're requesting and see if you're actually just complaining?  



Corrin Voeller is a couples counselor in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.  She does in-person and online counseling and coaching with couples and individuals to improve the relationships in their lives. She specializes in couples counseling, marriage counseling, discernment counseling and sex therapy. She lives with her husband, children, and extremely fat dog.


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