Criticism Versus Complaints: Communicating Discontent in Your Relationship

Criticism Versus Complaints: Communicating Discontent in Your Relationship

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Though all of us would love to have conflict-free relationships, the truth of the matter is that all relationships, no matter how strong, involve disputes and arguments. The way in which we discuss our differences of opinion, however, can make or break the bond we have with our partner.


Whether you’re currently in a relationship or are just starting the dating process, it is important to learn how to best express your discontent to your partner. Are you able to voice a complaint in a way that doesn’t hurt your partner’s feelings, or do you tend to speak in a more critical tone? By learning the differences between criticism and complaints, you can better work through conflicts with your current or future romantic partners. 



The Difference Between Criticism and Complaints


At certain points in our relationships, we are guaranteed to encounter feelings of unhappiness and discontentment. Perhaps our partners are not meeting our needs, or something they are doing is making us feel unseen. To resolve these feelings, we will need to talk to our partners about them. Will we become critical and nagging, or can we complain in a way that will lead to a resolution of the conflict?


Criticism is a personal, harmful attack on your partner. Your partner will likely feel as though their character or personality is under assault based on what you have said. Criticism often involves name-calling and black-and-white descriptors such as “always” and “never.”


Criticism may sound like this: “You never think about how I’m feeling when you go out drinking with your friends. You always prioritize them over me. You’re such a selfish jerk!” 

When you criticize your partner, they will likely respond from a place of self-defense. Criticism makes us feel rejected and hurt. We often feel helpless and struggle to defend ourselves. When we feel personally attacked, it can be difficult to speak and think rationally, making it even harder to find resolutions to our conflicts. Over time, constant criticism can lead to emotional withdrawal, resulting in feelings of loneliness and rejection. Though almost every couple occasionally falls prey to critical, angry fighting, doing so on a regular basis can be toxic to a relationship.


A complaint, on the other hand, addresses a specific area of conflict within a relationship. The same issues can be addressed, but in a far less personal manner. Complaints can be expressed gently, and can acknowledge problem areas in the relationship in a constructive manner. A good complaint expresses a partner’s feelings about a specific problem, while also acknowledging that both partners are likely responsible for the current situation. A good complaint conveys an individual’s needs clearly to their partner, allowing them to reach a mutual solution and ultimately overcome the problem. 


A well-voiced complaint may sound like this: “I realize that I haven’t always expressed to you how your nights out with your friends make me feel. When you went out with them this week but postponed our date night again, I felt like you were rejecting me. Could we work on making sure we stick to our date night schedule, even if it means that you can’t meet up with your friends every week? I think that would make me feel a lot better about our relationship.”



What Triggers Criticism?


In relationships, we all encounter differences between ourselves and our partners. Criticism is usually the result of not expressing one’s needs clearly. Your partner, for instance, may have fallen into a certain pattern of behavior that annoys you. As time goes on, you begin nagging your partner about this behavior. Ultimately, you may grow frustrated and lash out at your partner, attacking them on a personal level with name-calling and insults.


Those who constantly swallow their feelings may find that they are more prone to exploding at their partners. Instead of communicating their needs directly, these individuals may continue bottling up their feelings until they are seething with resentment. Oftentimes, these individuals think they are avoiding negativity in their relationships by suppressing their frustrations. Ironically, however, doing so only contributes to their own negative internal dialogue about their partner. When these frustrations are finally unleashed in a torrent of bitter criticism, both partners suffer. Worse, the partner who is the target of the criticism may be caught by surprise. They will likely feel as though they were unprepared to meet your needs, as these needs were not expressed clearly in the past.


Instead of allowing pent-up anger to be unleashed in a critical attack, work on finding a way to express your complaints in clear, calm, and specific ways. By learning how to effectively express your complaints, you can build intimacy in your relationship and solve problems with minimal strife and conflict.



How to Phrase Complaints


When bringing up a problem with your partner, it is important to be as gentle and kind as possible. When both partners remain calm and speak to each other with gentleness and understanding, a solution is often reached far more quickly than when either partner becomes critical or defensive. 


When issuing a complaint, do your best to focus on a specific issue. Be detailed in explaining what went wrong, how it is bothering you, and what sort of solution would make you feel better in the future. Begin by acknowledging what you could have done better in the situation. Maybe you didn’t express your feelings clearly before, or maybe you realize that both you and your partner approached the situation in the wrong way. Then, express how you feel. Does your partner’s behavior make you feel sad, lonely, or neglected? Do you feel as though they don’t care about you or your home? Are you stressed out and annoyed by their behavior? Clearly express the way that you’re feeling as a result of this conflict. 


Be sure to specify the event or behavior that is upsetting you. Instead of mentioning a wide array of things that bother you, focus on a specific event. In our example above, this would be the partner’s willingness to go out drinking with their friends, while cancelling date nights with their partner. 


Finally, express exactly what you need from your partner. In regards to the previous example, the complaining partner likely doesn’t have an issue with their partner meeting up with their friends. In this case, the complaining partner would express that they simply need their partner to prioritize date nights and quality romantic time together before making the time for their friends. Perhaps a balance can be struck. 


If you find yourself focusing on a negative need, such as “I want you to stop this behavior,” consider pausing and rethinking your approach. Instead, end your complaint with a “positive need.” Instead of saying “I want you to stop prioritizing your friends,” say “I want us to increase the amount of quality time we spend together.” Focus on positive changes that can be made, rather than emphasizing what needs to be stopped or fixed. 


Note that your partner may still respond negatively to well-phrased complaints. If you’ve been highly critical in the past, your partner may react as though they were being criticized, as they are used to critical responses from you. Instead of getting frustrated, accept that they may need some time to process your complaint. Continue being patient and kind. If you need to step away from the situation, do so. You can continue the discussion again soon. 



Responding to Complaints and Criticism


Whether your partner approaches you with a well-phrased complaint or has gotten frustrated and unleashed their criticism on you, responding in a calm and understanding manner is the best way to resolve the conflict. 


Strive to really listen to your partner. Take responsibility for your own actions, offer up a heartfelt apology, and let your partner know that you are grateful that they’ve taken the time to talk to you about the things that are bothering them. 


Consider how you might respond to the complaints listed in our earlier example. You hear that your partner feels neglected because you’ve canceled your date nights and have continued going out with your friends. You might respond by saying, “I’m so sorry for making you feel that way. I guess you’re right. I didn’t want to let my friends down by canceling on them, but I ended up hurting you instead. I do miss spending quality time together. Thank you for talking to me about this. Let’s make it a priority to go out once a week for the rest of the month.” 


By responding like this, your partner will see that you’ve seen things from their perspective. Listening and being understanding will help you in resolving these complaints, allowing both you and your partner to get your needs met. Focus on appreciating your partner, listening to them, and expressing your complaints in a kind and patient manner. By doing so, you can strengthen your relationship and overcome any obstacles that may come your way. 



In Conclusion:


No relationship is perfect, and all of us feel frustrated sometimes. Studies have shown that even healthy relationships often involve bouts of fighting and criticism. This doesn’t mean that your relationship is destined for failure! Strive to pay more attention to your words; if you catch yourself speaking to your partner in a particularly harsh way, apologize for your tone and work on rephrasing your criticism as a healthy complaint. By correcting yourself and working to modify your behavior, you can ultimately learn how to overcome conflicts in your relationship while strengthening the bond you have with your partner.



Photo: ©  Mustafa Sehadeh / Pixabay

Editor, 09/24/2020