"Today at work, Sarah…"
"THERE YOU GO! Talking about your damned job again. You're always complaining about your job. You know what I think about that. Why don't you quit if you don't like it."
Ding! It's on. I think you can imagine where this communication is headed.
The goal is to make sure your partner always feels like they can turn to you.
Mammals are different from other animals. When we feel confused, frightened, or overwhelmed, we turn to each other. Harry Harlow, an American psychologist best known for his maternal-separation, dependency needs, and social isolation experiments proved that primates that experienced trauma, like the loss of their mothers, lose the ability to turn to each other for comfort and support. Rather than turn to each other they turned on each other. Establishing and maintaining a secure relationship is of utmost importance to us. One way to do that is to remove obstacles that prevent your partner from turning to you. Overreacting makes it difficult for your partner to turn to you for comfort—especially if they anticipate your reaction being more severe than the problem they are experiencing. Decreasing reactivity will help significantly. You always want your partner to trust that they can turn to you.
Because many of us have not received the best support in the past, many of us do not trust that we can turn to others when we need them. Especially when we have a complaint. We often rehearse in our minds what we are going to say to support our claim, strengthen our shaky confidence, and defend against being blamed for the problem we experienced.
Often, we express our complaints angrily. Anger in this instance is used to disguise, even from ourselves, our insecurity about asking for help.
As the receiver of the complaint you need to be careful not to respond to their upset in a way that escalates the conflict. That takes skill and practice. Here's a suggestion that may help. The next time your partner complains, try saying this:
"I'm sorry that happened. Thank you for telling me."
It's too easy for anything else you say to be perceived as criticism.
Next say, "Tell me more."
You may fear that they might talk forever, but that won't be necessary because you are listening to them. The object, at this point, is to allow them to sense that you are validating their feelings and that you are not criticizing them.
Active listening phrases like, "Awh, Uh Huh" work well.
When they stop talking, ask this question: "How can I make it right or what will fix it?"
They will tell you exactly what they need. The benefit is that you will not have to guess and because you are not guessing, you can meet their needs in the most efficient way possible. Many people fail to get that information prior to trying to work through the problem.
If what they ask for is something you can do, great. If what they ask for is something you need to check on, and get back to them say so. Give them a time when you will get back to them and hold yourself to it. That builds trust.
I know this sounds prescriptive and it is, but this is probably the best thing I have ever learned about how to handle complaints. Complaints handled incorrectly cost businesses thousands of dollars. Mishandled complaints in relationships cost happiness and friendships.
Strengthen your marriage. Learn how to handle complaints.