Perspective is Important
Listening to complaints is an occupational hazard of couples counseling. There is no getting around it. Complaints about a spouse, after all, are why people come to counseling. What is interesting, however, is how we fail to recognize that complaints are really just requests presented in an insensitive way. Not just and only insensitive to the other, but to the complainer him/herself. As complainers, we are often insensitive to what we need and, therefore, can only express what we don’t like. Here are a couple of examples that I see in practice.
1) Husband complains about the house being a mess when he comes home from work. He focuses on the mess, but what he feels when he walks into the house is a) unappreciated, b) disrespected, c) anxious, d) other, e) all of the above. What he expresses is frustration and anger. Wife responds with defensiveness and anger, thinking he’s an unappreciative ogre. And the back and forth begins. What’s the solution? If the husband can step back, identify his need and express it in a sensitive way, he has a much better chance of getting what he wants. Example: “Honey, I really feel appreciated and it helps me relax when the house is picked and you smile when I come home. Is there some way we can make that happen?” Now the wife has a choice of perspectives. She can choose 1) to see his request as a demanding imposition on her agenda or 2) to see her efforts as a caring gift to the man she married that will make him want to be home.
2) Wife complains that her husband is always late and doesn’t call to let her know when he will be home. She focuses on his inconsideration but she feels a) unappreciated, b) unloved, c) anxious, d) other, e) all of the above. What she expresses is frustration and anger. He responds with defensiveness and anger, thinking she’s controlling and unappreciative. And the cycle begins. What’s the solution? If the wife can step back, identify her need and express it in a sensitive way, she may get what she needs. Example: “Honey, I feel loved and appreciated when you let me know your plans. I know you sometimes have unexpected things come up, but is there some way we can make that happen?” Now the husband has of choice of perspective. He can choose 1) to see the request as an imposition on his agenda or 2) to see his efforts as a loving gesture to the women he married that will help her respect him.
The key is to keep the perspective that we will be happier if our partner is happy and our efforts have the power to contribute to that happiness.
What complaints do you have or hear? Let’s find a better perspective on them.
Joe Pollon is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in couples counseling.