Complaining – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Communication, Relationship Design

Photo courtesy SuziJane

Editor’s Note: This post is by Simple Marriage contributor Mary Ann Crossno.
Let’s spend a little bit more time exploring the importance of complaining and how that might play out in relationships. Let’s say that you took the complaining steps to heart and you put a good bit of effort into delivering an effective complaint – asking your spouse for a behavior change to alleviate some discomfort you experience around that behavior. Your spouse responded with amazing grace to your thoughtful request and immediately made the desired change, right? That is what happened, isn’t it??????
Or did your partner react to you as though you were still talking in your old critical, contemptuous manner?
Or did your partner eye you suspiciously, agree to make the behavior change at some unspecified point in time, and ask, “Who are you and what did you do with my wife/husband?”
Here’s where becoming a student of human behavior comes into play. Human behavior occurs in knowable, observable, and predictable patterns that shape relationships and these patterns are natural ways of reacting to real or imagined threats. We inherit relational patterns from the families that we grew up in and they inherited their patterns from the families that they grew up in – across generations. The more you know about your family’s history of functioning, the better equipped you will be to understand your functioning.
Ever notice how alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide, affairs, divorces, childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, poverty, etc. seems to leave a trail from one generation to the next? Did you also notice how education, long term marriages, religion, financial success, civic involvement, altruism, volunteerism, etc. also seems to leave a trail across generations? In families, it often seems as though the [emotionally] rich get richer, and the [emotionally] poor get poorer. In many families, there will be one branch moving upward and one branch moving downward. People will say, ‘How did you two come from the same family?”
So what can you know, observe and predict will happen when you get serious about the Power of One – about responding to the challenges in your relationships as a clarion call to take your shape, take on yourself, and become the best you that you can be?
The good news is this:

  • Any one change in a relationship, changes the relationship.
  • Any one change in a family, changes the whole family.
  • You can, with a lifetime of effort, change the trend line for your family.
  • Change requires thinking and action based on thinking.
  • Change requires a realistic perception of who you are, realistic expectations, the will and the skill to change.

The bad news is this:

  • The changes that occur in your relationship or your family may not be the changes you want to happen.
  • Changes in you do not guarantee that your partner will change or want to change.
  • Any change made for any reason other than to change self will fail.
  • Thinking without action is Paralysis by Analysis.

The ugly news is this:

  • Action based on emotion is usually worse than no action at all.
  • Given the right amount of stressors, any change is subject to reversal – we will regress to our immature patterns under sufficient threat.
  • Changing oneself and becoming emotionally mature is taking on a lifetime effort.

What’s the difference between an emotionally mature or immature outlook on life?

Emotional maturity

What does life expect from me?

I am
I believe
I will do
I will not do

Emotional immaturity

What do I expect from life?

I want
I am hurt
I want my rights
I need
When you change your part in a relationship dance, three responses (in word or actions) are likely from your partner:

  1. You’re wrong
  2. Change back
  3. If you don’t change back, these are the consequences

So when you did not get the reaction or the response to your well thought out, softly delivered, effective complaint that you expected, that you wanted, that you hoped you would get, what did you say to yourself?

  • I want him/her to recognize how different I am.
  • I am hurt that he/she reacted just like before.
  • I want you to change your behavior because I asked nicely.
  • I need you to change your behavior or I won’t keep working on changing me.

Here are some possible thoughts to experiment with:

  • This was a good exercise for me. I am pleased with the way I represented myself.
  • I believe that getting the behavior change I asked for is not the goal – becoming the person I want to be is.
  • I will continue to change my part, with or without cooperation.
  • I will not be discouraged – I have a long history of criticizing,  contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling – it’s going to take time for my partner to trust that I won’t resort to my old patterns to get my way.

What has it been like to clearly identify yourself with the four horsemen? How much thought have you put into holding yourself accountable for your past with any of these four? What would it be like for you to write a letter of accountability to yourself? Here’s a brief framework to kick start the effort:

For years, I have resorted to fill in your horse when things don’t go my way. I can think about how I learned this behavior and I can see the effects in me and others. I choose here and now to believe that I have the ability to change. I have the will and I will acquire the skill.
Here’s what I plan to do to be different.
Here’s how I plan to hold myself accountable.

Next, we’ll talk about what it means to give a genuine apology. Till then, do some digging around inside of you. It’s time to go deep.