Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Complaining to Your Partner Doesn’t Bring About Change

man woman arguing

When you complain to your partner you expect your partner to listen and respond. Yet typically this is not what happens. Why is it that your partner resists responding to your complaints?

Here are three reasons why complaints are not heeded:

First, complaints are often taken as criticism. The tone of voice is harsh and the focus of the criticism is one’s partner. Criticism automatically places one on the defensive. Instead of hearing a call to change, the criticized partner hears a message that he or she has fallen short or is a disappointment. This triggers a defense of one’s self-worth not a willingness to change.

Second, we don’t like to be told what to do! Complaints can be a not-so-subtle message, “Do what I say.” This is typically met with passive resistance – “You can’t tell me what to do.” The interaction quickly ends up much like a parent and a teenager arguing over the teen cleaning up his or her room – a power struggle over seemingly simple tasks (i.e. put your socks in the hamper).

Third, complaints are really register with your partner as a complaint about the cost of living with the partner rather than a call to change. If you were to pay $65,000 for a new automobile, you may well be entitled to complain about how much the car costs. However, the car salesman is likely to be rests assured that you believe that the car is worth the price.

Similarly, when you complain to your partner, he or she can see this as you complaining about the cost of being in the relationship rather than a call to change. Teenagers listen to their parents complain about their messy rooms secure in their place in the family regardless of how messy the room is.

For these three reasons, and probably others, complaints tend to be an ineffective means of eliciting change. I have written previously on developing a cooperative relationship in which each partner responds out of mutually caring rather than arm-twisting to get what you want.