We all know that complaining is bad. …Right? Well, research shows that some complaining in marriage is not only okay but good! Hold on. Complaining can be very destructive when done in the wrong amount, about the wrong things, or in the wrong way. So how should you complain in marriage and why?
1. How often to complain
Let me introduce you to my friend, The Golden Ratio. 5:1. That’s the key. John Gottman, the world’s leading marriage researcher, has found that couples who say 5 positive things for every 1 negative are the happiest.
Why not 5:0? Conflict avoidance is actually unhealthy for relationships. Every marriage will have disagreements. When those are pushed under the rug and left to fester, they can create bitter and resentful feelings. It’s better to talk constructively about aspects of the marriage that can be improved so that the marriage can do just that—improve!
2. What to complain about
Be careful not to contract a deadly marital disease called The Grapefruit Syndrome.
“I told him that I didn’t like the way he ate grapefruit. He peeled it and ate it like an orange! Nobody else I knew ate grapefruit like that. Could a girl be expected to spend a lifetime, and even eternity, watching her husband eat grapefruit like an orange?”
The Grapefruit Syndrome, complaining about irrelevant or preferential things your spouse does, is not healthy for your relationship. When deciding whether or not to complain, consider these questions: Does it actually matter? How is it affecting your relationship? Can you decide to just get over it?
Be respectful of your spouse. They have the right to be their own person, just like you. You’re two different people, and you need to be able to overlook small, insignificant differences.
3. How to complain
What makes a good complaint? Complaints should be specific, true, and actionable.
Not specific: “Why do you always do that?”
Specific: “Could you please help me get dinner together and watch the game later?”
Not true: “You never do any of the housework!”
True: “I wish you would help me do more of the housework.”
Not actionable: “Your family drives me crazy!”
Actionable: “I feel like we need to reconnect after being with your family. Could we go on a date, just the two of us, after the party on Saturday?”
Be careful to distinguish complaints from criticisms. Criticisms attack the person. Complaints address the situation.
Criticism: “You are so selfish!”
Complaint: “I feel upset and betrayed when you spend money on things we don’t need. Our budget is tight, so we need to be more careful. Will you please talk to me first before making big purchases?”
Complaints, though negative and sometimes difficult, can be acted on and have a happy ending. Criticisms never end well. Here’s a tip: try using I-statements. “I feel…” “I’m worried that…” “I hope…” This will help you stay away from criticism by taking ownership. Your spouse will be less likely to get defensive and more likely to be open to your complaint.
Above all, be kind! Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best. Say lots of positive remarks to your spouse. Compliment them, thank them, love them. In that environment, occasional complaints will strengthen your marriage instead of hurting it.
Ashley LeBaron is a Family Studies graduate from Brigham Young University. She is preparing to be a professor, marriage & family therapist, and mom. Ashley has published and presented research on topics such as emotional reconnection between spouses and how parents teach their kids about money. In her observation of families in 22 countries, she has found that family is where the greatest happiness and success is cultivated.
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically-based marital therapy. WW Norton & Company.
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. Harmony.
Walters, L. B. (1993). The grapefruit syndrome. Ensign.