How to Complain in Marriage

by Willard F. Harley, Jr.


You’re a troublemaker! That’s a common reaction I get when I encourage spouses to complain to each other.

Granted, we would all like our marriages to avoid the need for complaints. But truth be told, we’re not all perfectly compatible, and marital problems arise in every marriage. A complaint is simply the best way to express the existence of a problem.

The best way?

Yes, it’s the best way when you consider alternative ways of expressing problems. And to avoid expressing them altogether invites disaster. One unsolved problem after another pile up until a couple drown in them after creating a relationship of hopeless incompatibility.

Adjustments in marriage are absolutely essential in making it thrive. They represent spouses’ efforts to affect each other in the best way possible. And there are very good reasons to make that effort.

First, there’s the romantic love reason. Since everything spouses do in marriage affect each other, making either Love Bank deposits or withdrawals, if a couple want to create and maintain the feeling of love for each other, positive effects should be maximized and negative effects minimized.

Second, there’s the marital care reason. It’s usually assumed that in marriage spouses should care for each other in an extraordinary way. That means that they should try to make each other happy and avoid making each other unhappy. That’s how couples show their care for each other.

But without feedback as to how spouses are affecting each other, adjustments are impossible. How are spouses to know if they are making Love Bank deposits or withdrawals? How are they to know if their care for each other is effective?

There’s no problem with positive feedback, of course. When spouses express appreciation for the way they treat each other, they confirm that Love Bank deposits are being made and the care has been effective. Furthermore, that positive expression by itself makes even more Love Bank deposits. We all like to know that our efforts are appreciated.

It’s negative feedback that presents a problem. While it’s necessary for spouses to tell each other how they’re being negatively affected, I’ll admit, it does make some Love Bank withdrawals. We usually don’t like to hear about our failures.

So then, what’s the best way to express negative feedback with the fewest Love Bank withdrawals? It’s by making a complaint.

A complaint is simply alerting a spouse to the fact that what they’re doing, or not doing, is having a negative emotional effect.

A complaint is not a criticism. A criticism adds a disrespectful judgment to a complaint, which makes massive Love Bank withdrawals. If you really want to hurt your spouse badly, criticize him or her.

As an example of the difference between a criticism and a complaint, a complaint might be, “It bothers me when you leave your towel on the floor after you take a shower.” It’s a simple expression of a negative emotional effect to a spouse’s behavior.

A criticism would add a disrespectful judgment to the complaint. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you to pick up after yourself? You’re such a slob.” That would certainly end any hope for change.

It’s very important to communicate unhappiness in marriage so that appropriate adjustments can be made. But when that unhappiness takes the form of a disrespectful judgment, all hope is usually lost for change. Instead, it tends to start an argument. Defensiveness takes the place of compassion.

So, a complaint should simply reflect your negative emotional reaction. You felt disappointed, offended, sad, or upset. The finger should always be pointing at you, not your spouse.

What’s bothering you?

In marriage, there are two things to complain about: (1) something you want your spouse to do that he or she is not doing and (2) something you want your spouse to stop doing.

The first kind of complaint should contain two parts: Your emotional reaction to the not having what you need from your spouse and a proposed solution. The solution should in the form of a request, and never be a demand. The request part of the complaint should be in the form of “how would you feel about doing this for me?”

An example of a complaint would be, "I feel very sad that we are not making love more often with each other. How would you feel about making love with me now?”

All too often, this problem is expressed with a disrespectful judgment and a demand: “I don’t think you really care about me any more. If you did, you’d make love with me right now because I really need it.” The clear message is that I want you to prove your care by making love with me immediately. I’m giving you no options.

A request, however, provides options. It’s not assumed that a request will be granted the moment it's made, even if that’s what you would like. By asking your spouse how he or she would feel about it, you’re letting your spouse know that you’re open to discussing options that will take your spouse’s feelings into account. It may require a better understanding of why making love at that moment, or any other time for that matter, has been difficult for your spouse.

A disrespectful judgment and demand, however, create a defensive barrier that prevents a thoughtful solution.

The Policy of Joint Agreement

The second kind of complaint is much easier to resolve if a couple has agreed to follow one of my most important rules for marriage: the Policy of Joint Agreement. (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). The rule encourages spouses to consider each other’s feelings before doing something. It’s a way to avoid gaining at the other spouse’s expense, and to avoid making Love Bank withdrawals.

“How would you feel if I were to do … ?“ is a question spouses should ask each other if there is any possibility that the spouse would not be happy with it. That way, when the spouse has a negative reaction, a discussion should begin about what can be done to turn it into a positive reaction.

But what if the question is not asked? What if one spouse were to go ahead without asking how the other spouse would react? This can happen with couples who have agreed to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement when they assume that what they’re doing is acceptable to the other spouse.

For these couples, when one spouse is doing something that bothers the other, a simple complaint should be sufficient to stop doing it.

An example might be, "I don't feel safe driving this fast." As soon as it's mentioned, the driver should immediately slow down to accommodate the complaint, if he or she has agreed to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement.

But this type of complaint can be turned into a criticism by saying, "You're driving too fast," which can be lead to an argument by the driver observing that he or she is not going over the speed limit. By turning a simple complaint that should have been immediately addressed into a criticism, spouses open themselves up to an argument, which is what I want you to avoid. Even spouses who adhere to the Policy of Joint Agreement can run off the rails when their complaint takes the form of a criticism.

When couples first start using the Policy of Joint Agreement, they sometimes think that it is a punishment. When a spouse says that he or she is not enthusiastic about what the other spouse is doing, it feels like a punishment, because they were enjoying their activity.

For example, if a husband has been accustomed to playing video games in the evening, and his wife tells him that she is offended by his behavior after hearing about the Policy of Joint Agreement, he feels that it’s punishment for him not doing something that she wanted him to do, like help her with the children.

It’s true that she would like him to help her with the children, but she might also be offended that he would ignore her all evening when it’s the only time of the day that they could do something together.

The Policy of Joint Agreement does not leave him with unpleasant alternatives. In fact, it specifically states that whatever alternatives he and his wife can agree on must be enjoyable for him, too. It simply puts a stop to an activity that he enjoys at his wife’s expense, and opens the door to activities that they would enjoy together.

Not everyone follows the Policy of Joint Agreement

But what if your spouse is not willing to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement? Then how should you complain when you want your spouse to stop doing something that is offensive to you?

This is one of the most common and destructive problems in marriage. When a spouse is doing something that bothers the other spouse, and refuses to stop doing it, I call it Independent Behavior. It’s the activities of a spouse that are planned and executed as if the other spouse didn’t exist. It’s independent in that it ignores the interests and feelings of the other spouse.

A complaint about a specific independent behavior will usually be met with the excuse, “ I have a right to make choices that I think are right for me. You need to adjust to the choices I make.”

That excuse may not actually be said when a complaint is made, but it is certainly the justification that’s assumed for independent behavior. Using our driving example, if you complain, “I don’t like driving this fast,” instead of slowing down, your spouse may actually speed up or ignore your complaint entirely.

Why would he or she do something that insensitive? It’s because your spouse doesn’t feel that you have the right to object to his or her behavior.

No amount of tactfulness can change that. You can say all the right words, and they will fall on deaf ears. Under those conditions, you might think that reverting back to demands and disrespect might be worth a try. Maybe an angry outburst might work. But all of my years of experience helping couples create great marriages have proven to me that it just makes matters much worse. And it completely destroys romantic love.

So, if you are faced with independent behavior in your marriage, my advice is to try to convince your spouse that the Policy of Joint Agreement will be good for both of you. It will help sustain romantic love, and demonstrate your care for each other. On the negative side, when one spouse indulges in independent behavior, it’s not long before the other spouse does the same thing. Sooner or later their lifestyles are separated, and they become completely incompatible.

The Marriage Builders website offers you many convincing arguments that independent behavior ruins marriages. They can be found in the Basic Concepts section under the category, Policy of Joint Agreement. I also welcome skeptics to email me directly at mbradio@marriagebuilders.com, where Joyce and I discuss the advantages of the Policy of Joint Agreement on our daily Marriage Builders Radio program. Direct marriage coaching by telephone with a Marriage Builders trained coach can be yet another alternative.

If all efforts fail, I often recommend separation in the hope that you spouse will understand that being married requires consideration of your feelings and interests. If you continue living together, the longer you try to put up with selfishness and thoughtlessness, the more resentful you will become.

A basic rule for complaining: Keep it simple and brief

I’ve already explained to you that a complaint should be a simple expression of your reaction to something you spouse does or doesn’t do. Don’t add a disrespectful judgment to a complaint, or it becomes a criticism, which is rarely persuasive.

But there’s another rule that should be followed: Keep your complaint simple and brief.

For some reason, this rule turns out to be very difficult for some people to follow. If they don’t feel that the spouse has heard them or understood them, they talk on and on about why the behavior is offensive to them, eventually risking it becoming a criticism.

No one wants to be lectured to, and that’s what complainers often do to their spouses. They can’t let go of the topic, and the lecture becomes a threat. “If you don’t respond to my complaint the way I want you to respond, I’ll keep talking to you about it until you do.”

That threat turns your complaint into a demand, and along with it often goes disrespectful judgments if you are given enough time.

Bear in mind that the goal of a complaint is change, and the very best way to motivate change is to use tactics that convey your care for your spouse. Long lectures do not convey that care.

For those who keep their complaints secret because they are either afraid to mention them, or they feel it won’t do any good, I strongly recommend that you learn to express your negative reactions in the way I have suggested. Failing to do so has already, or will, create a very unhappy marriage for you. A complaint is the first step toward recovery.

Marriage is a relationship of extraordinary care, where spouses are willing to accommodate each other throughout their lives together. Change is absolutely essential in marriage because spouses inevitably react negatively to some of each other’s behavior. If that behavior is changed, spouses grow in their love and care for each other. But if it’s not changed, spouses grow apart, and lose the love that had bound them together. Without complaints, change has no opportunity to take place.

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