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Complaint is a longing for connection

Depressed Indian Wife

When I change TV Serial channel to some other channel, my wife fights with me. When I look at attractive women in sexy dresses in opposite and nearby homes for a long time, that time wife scolds me.

Kalai Selvam once shared his marriage travails with me. Complains in relationships is nothing new, every couple goes through it. Having complains about each other in a relationship is normal. The problem arises when you have the same complaint over and over again for your partner. A lingering complain that persists even after repeated voicing out. So much so that you stop focusing on the complaint itself and more on the doer. This is criticism!

You start criticizing the doer. The difference between criticism and complain is that while in complain you focus on the problem; in criticism, you target the person’s character instead of their complain related behavior. It is most often packaged in “you always” or “you never” statements. The pitfall of criticism is that the accused gets in a defensive mode. And this leads to a gridlock where a temporary truce can get ensured either by threat or fear or an urge to restore the peace back in the house. But soon the issue resurfaces because the core underlying expression failed to get acknowledged and understood.

In Kalai Selvam’s case, his wife goes into the criticizing mode when

She comes near him in the bed during the night and he is not inclined to romance her. Kalai Selvam is not having an interest in sex. So, she gets angry with him.

What we have to understand is that under every complaint lies a deep longing for connection, but the recipient doesn’t always see it. Instead, they see the complainer as an adversary. Even the complainer fails to understand their goal behind complaining and that is why most nagging happens because we fail to address the root cause of the complaint.

It requires detachment from the obsession to prove the other person wrong and instead focus on “your own needs”

Angry Indian Couple
Angry Indian Couple

So the next time you’re going to complain, ask yourself, “What do I need?”

Some if not all complains can be sorted if we follow a 3-step approach of effective expression and effective listening.

  1. Soft start-up – When we are hurt or when we find that our needs are not met up, it is too easy for us to resort to a harsh start-up that targets the character of the person. Instead, we can begin with a soft start-up by stating how we feel. This feeling is usually an emotion like anger, pain, fear, abandonment or a physical state like tiredness. Expressing such deep emotions often involves a state of vulnerability and most of us shy away from doing that. But it is important even for the benefit of our own clarity that we should know how a particular situation or a certain act has made us feel?
  2. Keep the discussion limited to the situation – Now that you spoke about your feeling, you should talk about the behavior or situation that caused that feeling. A lot of times we are driven by the impulse to prove ourselves right at any cost and thus we start counting incident after incident and affirming our “position” by talking about a set pattern of repeated mistakes/ ignorance of the doer. It will help if you stick to one incident as a barrage of accusations relating to other incidents is more likely to turn the complaint into criticism (remember criticism is “always” or “never”).
  3. State a positive need – Finally, ask your partner to take positive action to resolve the complaint.

Now let’s apply this formula to the issue between Kalai Selvam and his wife, and see how the discussion might have ended differently if they try following the 3-step approach

His Wife: I feel neglected (how I feel) that you change the channel all of a sudden (specific situation). Can you let me finish my favorite serial first that makes me feel attended to (express a positive need)?

Kalai Selvam: I feel tired and unmotivated (how I feel) after a long grueling workday (specific situation). Please let me watch tv for a while once I come back home that helps me recoup from work fatigue (express a positive need).

His Wife:  I’m sad (how I feel) that you simply get to watch TV until its time for dinner and then do not even look at me (specific situation). I want you to feel good. I’d like it if you watch tv for some time to change your mood and then talk to me (express a positive need).

Kalai Selvam: That’s fair. Let’s do that.

The secret recipe

While a resolution isn’t guaranteed, effective complaining enables partners to engage in conflict and look at resolutions that criticism puts out of reach.  It is not that happy, satisfied couples do not fight or do not have complains about each other. Many couples have built thriving relationships in spite of long-lasting, unresolved conflicts. These couples have learned to steer through these conflicts by complaining instead of criticizing. Remember again! Complaining targets the problem, criticizing targets the character of the person. Keep your complaints from becoming criticisms, complaints will be a lesser nuisance in comparison to the destructive power of criticism.

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