Relationship Trouble: When Complaining Turns Toxic

Couples who come to marriage/couples counseling often have the agenda to change their spouse/partner in some desired way—in other words, criticisms about each other’s shortcomings frequently overwhelm the landscape of a distressed couple’s interactions.

Complaints that exclusively focus on the other ( “If he would only…”; “Why can’t she just…”) are problematic since they fail to recognize the mutual contributions to any marital/relationship problems that may exist (or may arise).

Yet complaining has a place in your relationship since it is one way couples give each other feedback about what isn’t working in the marriage/relationship (trouble arises when this kind of negative feedback occurs in the total absence of positive feedback).

Marital/Relationship Problems: When Complaining Turns Toxic

Relationship advice expert Dr. John Gottman makes an important distinction between complaining and criticizing:

When we complain to our partner, we are focusing on the specific behavior or issue we find troubling: “I’m annoyed that you forgot to call again after promising me that you would”; “It’s really hurtful to me when you tell jokes at my expense.”

Complaining gives our loved ones important feedback that can be used to make meaningful changes by addressing the specific issue at hand.

Criticism, on the other hand, is more general and usually implies blame: “You didn’t call again. You always ignore what I want and only ever care about yourself. You’re so selfish.” Criticism frequently leads the other to become defensive (rather than remaining open to what is being shared) because of the generalizations used (“You never…”; “You always…”).

Think about how it feels to be on the receiving end of such sweeping, all-or-none critical statements: Being told you never do anything right or always mess up in some way is likely to lead to high levels of frustration and a sense of hopelessness (“If I can’t do anything right, why even bother trying?!”).

Relationship/Marriage Help Action Step:

Our words have great power, and what and how you say things to your partner can dramatically influence the outcome of an interaction. With this in mind, it’s important to be mindful of how you and your spouse/partner give feedback to one another.

  • Do you focus on the specific behaviors that you’d like changed or do you criticize your partner for his/her perceived failings?
  • Do you balance your complaints with positive feedback (expressions of appreciation)? Or have the scales tipped in the direction of the negative with little shared gratitude and few expressions of love occurring in your relationship?

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