Most people would agree that the immediate goal of their complaints about their partners is to improve the situation. Most report that their ultimate goal is to feel closer and more connected.
Yet complaints rarely improve situations and almost never make partners feel closer and more connected. Even on those relatively rare times when you feel heard making your complaints (your partner isn’t defensive or stonewalling or critical), you’re unlikely to feel connected.
The problem with complaints is usually not in their content. Whatever you’re complaining about is probably valid and justified. And it’s not in the words you use. Studies of happily married people show that they do not use the communication techniques you read about on the Internet and in magazines. They express themselves quite naturally, occasionally saying the wrong things and putting things awkwardly, just like unhappy couples.
The great difference in the success or failure of complaints in love relationships is which part of the brain controls of the complaint.
When the Adult brain is in charge, the complaint is:
- Considerate of our partners’ perspectives
- Less likely to oversimplify
- Using the Adult brain coping mechanisms: improve (try to make the situation or experience a little better) appreciate (the subtleties of the situation) connect (work as a team, cooperate), or protect (look out for our partners’ well-being).
When the Toddler brain is in charge:
- We’re unable to see our partners’ perspectives or any nuance about the situation
- We’ll use the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial (of responsibility), or avoidance (of underlying issues)
- The complaint takes the form of the toddler’s favorite two words, “Mine!” (My way!), which is likely to get the Toddler response: “No!”
Briefly list your complaints about your relationship:
Write next to each complaint the coping mechanism underlying the complaint: Toddler brain: blame, denial, avoidance. Or Adult brain: improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.
Apply the Adult brain coping mechanisms to see how they might change your complaints.