Don't Make This Common Communication Mistake
One of the most common communication mistakes I see among couples at my office is a tendency to address problems in the form of a ‘complaint’—focusing on describing the bothersome and ‘wrong’ behavior of their partner, e.g. “You work too much.” “You’re too lenient with the kids.” "Stop nagging me about the chores.” They focus almost exclusively on what they don’t like and what they don’t want their partners to do.
Thinking in terms of complaints is a natural tendency for almost all of us. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains have a ‘negativity bias’—quickly registering and categorizing situations that we don’t like. This is a survival skill our brain likely developed over thousands of years so that we can quickly recognize a potentially dangerous situation and take action to protect ourselves (Ito et al., 1998). Although it may have some purpose for survival, focusing on what we don't like when we communicate with our partners is almost always ineffective at influencing change.
The Problem With ‘Complaints’
When we talk to our partners using our brain’s ‘survival mode’ tactics, we launch into a description of what our partners are doing wrong. We focus on describing what we don’t like and what we don’t want our partners to do. Unfortunately, complaint-focused conversations almost never result in actually influencing change in our partners. Instead, after hearing our complaints, our partners are likely to feel attacked and defensive. They will often respond by citing examples of when they haven’t engaged in the bothersome behavior, e.g. “I don’t work too much. I just took time off last month for our family vacation.” Or they may even just fire back a complaint they have about us, “I’m too lenient? Well, you’re too harsh with the kids.”
Neither in my office (nor in my own marriage) have I ever actually seen someone respond to a complaint by enthusiastically saying, “Wow. Thank you for letting me know. That’s such helpful feedback. I will immediately work to change that about myself.” It’s just not how we’re wired.
Translate Your ‘Complaint’ into a ‘Wish’
In his research studying couples’ interactions, psychologist John Gottman found that 96% of the time when couples start conversations with complaints and criticism, the conversation will end negatively (Gottman & Silver, 1999). His research also showed that an on-going pattern of these conversations leads to an increased chance of divorce. Thus, the research clearly underscores that learning effective ways to initiate and discuss problems is vital to the happiness and longevity of your relationship.
So what do we do? The good news is that there is one simple shift you can make that will greatly increase the chances that your partner will make the changes you want:
Translate your complaint into a wish and then talk to your partner about your wish.
Wishes are the opposite of complaints—whereas a complaint focuses on what you don’t want, a wish focuses on what you do want. When translating a complaint into a wish, the main objective is to specifically identify what you actually want your partner to do instead.
In his research, Gottman found that when couples discuss problems with a focus on what they want and why it holds such importance for them, there is a significant increase in emotional connection, understanding, and empathy (Gottman, 1999). It also greatly increases the likelihood for creative problem-solving and compromise. Thus, learning how to translate complaints into wishes is a simple, yet crucial skill to learn and implement in your marriage.
What Does This Look Like In Practice?
Example #1: “You work too much.”
Let's translate that complaint into a wish and then look at what it might look like to talk to your partner about your wish.
- “I didn’t like when you worked late four nights last week.”
- “I felt disappointed and alone having so many family dinners without you there.”
- “I wish you would be home most nights by 6:00pm.”
- “This is important to me because I want our family to have dinner all together a few times a week.”
Example #2: “You’re too lenient with the kids.”
Let's translate that complaint into a wish.
- “I didn’t like when you let the kids leave a giant mess in the living room.”
- “I felt worried thinking about how the kids are going to be when they get older if they don’t learn how to clean up after themselves and respect their things.”
- “I wish you would set consequences for the kids if they leave a mess.”
- “This is important to me because I want the kids to learn to pick up after themselves.”
Example #3: “You always nag me about chores.”
Let's translate that complaint into a wish.
- “I didn’t like when you reminded me over and over about chores I need to do.”
- “I felt belittled and controlled. I felt like a little kid who was in trouble.”
- “I wish you would tell me once about the chores and then let me do them on my own schedule.”
- “This is important to me because I want to organize my own time and enjoy spending time with you.
Warning! When crafting the language of a wish in Step 3, you are not allowed to use the words ‘don’t’ or ‘stop.’ It can be tempting to write what you didn’t like in Step 1, how you felt in Step 2, and then to move to Step 3 and write that you wish your partner would ‘stop’ doing that annoying behavior from Step 1. For example, if you fill in the first sentence with “I didn’t like when you left dirty laundry on the floor,” an incorrect Step 3 would be to say, “I wish that you would stop leaving dirty laundry on the floor.” That’s not a correct translation. That’s still a complaint because you haven’t identified what you wish your partner would do instead. Instead, write a wish that paints a picture of how you ideally want the situation to be, or what specifically you want your partner to do instead: “I wish you would put your dirty laundry in the hamper when you change clothes at night.”
Focus on Your Wish—Not Your Complaint
After you have translated your complaint into a wish, focus the conversation with your partner about your wish—not your complaint. By outlining and describing what you want—instead of what you don’t want—the conversation shifts from one of blame and defensiveness to creative problem-solving and future-oriented planning. After hearing about your wish and why it’s so important to you, your partner will be much more likely to respond with understanding and a willingness to grant your wish, or try to find a compromise.
In my office, when couples make this one simple shift of focusing conversations on a wish rather than a complaint, I see a remarkable improvement in creative problem-solving, receptivity to change, and overall closeness in the relationship. When we focus the conversation on what we want, we open up the possibility of having a dialogue focused on figuring out how to get there.
Most people in relationships genuinely want their partners to be happy. Knowing what your wishes are gives your partner specific ways to make you happy—and you just might be surprised that when you make this one simple shift of translating complaints into wishes, your partner may enthusiastically and genuinely want to implement the changes that will make you happy.
Now, you try it!
What is something your partner does that really bothers you? Follow the four steps to translate that complaint into a wish. Then, focus on talking to your partner about your wish and why it's important to you.
Gottman, J. M., Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K. & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 887-900.
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