The best way to deal with relationship dissatisfactions is to identify important complaints and find ways to express them constructively while letting go of less important ones. Before voicing a complaint, think through how to express it effectively. Your visiting mother-in-law might be driving you up the wall, but blurting, “Your mother drives me crazy!” while your spouse is rushing to leave for work is not a wise M.O. So here’s a checklist that should lead to a satisfying result:
1. What do I want to achieve?
Do you want the other person to understand how you feel about something? Do you want an apology, atonement, a behavior change or corrective action? The answers will help you express and clarify your goal so you’re more likely to attain it.
2. Who should I complain to?
If you’re upset about something your in-laws did, perhaps you should bring it up with them. If you’re angry at your in-laws and want your spouse to act on your behalf, be clear that you’re asking for help and not blaming him or her.
3. What’s the best venue or method for my complaint?
Some couples do better when discussing things in person; others do better over the phone or over email. While talking one-on-one is generally best, if one member of a couple tends to be explosive or defensive, or if one is more skilled at expressing feelings and debating, email might keep things calm and give both a chance to carefully consider their responses.
4. When is the best time to complain?
No blindsiding: Start by stating that you want to discuss something so the other person can be fully attentive. Framing the conversation this way also helps your complaint to be taken seriously. Assess the other person’s mood. (When in doubt, ask when you can have a discussion.)
5. How should I phrase my complaint?
Ideally, state a positive sentence, the complaint and another positive sentence. The first positive sentence defuses defensiveness; the second is motivational, communicating that a positive response to the complaint will prevent lingering resentment on your part.
“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”—Maya Angelou