Many married couples are unable to resolve their conflicts because of one primary factor: they don’t understand the difference between complaining and criticizing. This is such a crucial distinction to understand when we are trying to work through problems.
All of us need the freedom to complain to our spouse. We also need to make sure our spouse knows they have the right to complain to us. In a healthy marriage, there is a freedom of expression that allows us to talk openly without fear of retribution or shame.
All of us need the freedom to complain to our spouse. We also need to make sure our spouse knows they have the right to complain to us.
When we complain, we must remember that it isn’t about our spouse, it is about us. Even though we may be complaining about something they have done that bothers us, the focus is on how we feel. In other words, if Karen has done something that bothers me and I confront her about it I would say something like, “Karen, you were short tempered with me this morning and it bothered me. I don’t know what was wrong, you could have been mad at me or it might have been something else, but I don’t like it when you respond to me that way. If I’ve done something to make you mad then I want you to tell me.”
Notice that I didn’t begin by accusing or attacking her. I began by talking about how I felt and my desire to understand what happened. I also said that if I had done something wrong, then I wanted to know it and take responsibility for it. Complaining gets everything out on the table without demeaning our spouse or putting them on the defensive.
Criticizing is different.
Criticizing focuses on the other person as it accuses them and immediately puts them on the defensive. If I were going to say the same thing I said before to Karen, but I did it in a critical manner here is what I would say: “Karen, you were short tempered with me this morning and I don’t appreciate it. There is something wrong with you and I want you to figure out what it is and stop it. I don’t deserve to be treated like that. I’ve done nothing wrong and you’re just a hot head. The next time you do that I’m going to let you have it.”
Notice the difference in complaining and criticizing? Complaining explains the problem, but gives our spouse a gracious way to respond and explain their side. Since it focuses on how I feel and doesn’t try to interpret their actions, it keeps the conversation civil and constructive.
Criticizing immediately puts you in a battle mode. The confronter becomes the judge and jury and the confronted spouse becomes the criminal trying to prove their innocence in a hostile environment. Bottom line — criticizing doesn’t work.
You must be careful to begin your confrontations with affirmation and respect for your spouse. Research has proven that a conversation will seldom rise above the tone of the first three minutes. Also, complain but don’t criticize. Get your emotions under control before you confront and keep your mouth in check. Focus on how you feel and allow your spouse the right to complain back to you and explain what is going on inside of them.
If you will do this, you will see a lot of fruit from it. Your confrontations will be much more pleasant and productive. You will also be able to talk more freely with each other without the risk of hurting each other. This creates intimacy and friendship. That is the end result of successful conflict resolution. It let’s you work through problems as you preserve and enhance the good will between you.