How to bring up marriage problems: Changing criticism to complaint

You have conflict with your spouse. Okay, that happens. I’m here to help you know how to you bring up marriage problems in a way that gets you listened to and not dismissed. You may have very good points or legitimate concerns but the way you talk about them with your partner sets you up to not be heard or to be easily dismissed.

Have you ever had the experience of trying to talk to your partner about something, they become defensive and point out something you did wrong, and then you end up fighting about something different? The thing you tried to bring up gets left in the dust.

Your approach might be partially at fault; you may be getting in your own way. If you come at your partner with an attack, they are likely to respond with defense. This is natural; it is not a failing in your partner. Someone feels attacked, they defend. They may then counter-attack or withdraw completely. If they hurt you worse then maybe you’ll stop attacking or they just run away from the attack. Either way, your partner is looking to feel safe. Again, this is just human nature. You probably react similarly when you feel attacked.

Okay, so don’t criticize, don’t attack. But you can’t just not talk about problems. That’s not a solution either. The relationship skill to work on is bringing up problems in a gentle way, a way that doesn’t look like an attack to your partner. Drs. John and Julie Gottman call this changing criticism to complaint.

Changing criticism to complaint

A criticism is an attack on your partner’s character. It’s blaming the problem you see on your partner’s character flaws or defects. A complaint is talking about how an issue or situation affects you and asking for specific change. Let’s take a look at some examples:


You had plans together after work, and your spouse is late. Again.


I can’t believe you’re late again! You always do this to me! Don’t you care about anyone but yourself? Now our whole night is ruined!

What you are suggesting but not saying exactly is that your partner is selfish and uncaring. It’s a character attack. Stay away from always and never. They are attack words and are likely to lead to defensiveness. Let’s look at the same situation with the problem phrased as a complaint rather than a criticism.


I’d like to talk to you about something that’s a big deal for me. When we have plans and you show up late, I feel frustrated and uncared for. I get to thinking about all the things I could have been doing instead of waiting for you and I wonder whether you’re even excited to see me. Then when you do show up, I’m angry. And I don’t like feeling angry with you. When we make plans together I need you to be on time. I understand that sometimes things happen that make you late, and when that happens I need you to communicate with me so that I’m not left getting angry and wondering if you forgot about me. Can you do that for me?

Putting the effort into approaching problems in a more gentle way will do wonders for your relationship. But wait a minute! There’s a problem—and it’s obviously your spouse’s problem—and now I’m asking you to put in extra effort to soften the way you talk to them about it? Yes, that is what I’m asking. It doesn’t seem fair but here’s why: getting rid of criticism is what’s best for your relationship. Approaching problems without criticism is a more direct and easier way for you to get more of what you want in your relationship.

What’s required to change criticism to complaint

Taking responsibility for addressing problems

When you’re really upset about or bothered by something, it often seems obvious to you what the problem is and why. But it’s not always obvious to your partner. Or it could be that something that’s a problem for you isn’t a problem for your partner. Take the example of the spouse who arrives late. Arriving late isn’t a problem for them, the only problem they may see is that you’re criticizing them. If something is a problem for you in the relationship, you need to take responsibility for seeing that the problem is addressed. That means it’s your job to bring it up. This might be especially hard for you if you were brought up in a home where problems were’t addressed openly or if it’s in your personality to avoid conflict.

Owning your own need/wants

Another place where people get tripped up in turning criticism into complaint is putting into words what they do want and not only what they don’t want. It’s a lot easier for most people to point the finger at someone else and say “don’t do that” and harder for us to say “I want or need something different from you.” Again, elements of your culture or how you were raised might make this more challenging for you. Many of us were taught, either directly or by example, to put others’ needs before our own. We may find it hard to even identify what we want or need much less ask for it. It’s easier to point to our partner’s flaw and say “You always ignore me” than to own our own needs and say “I need to feel like I matter to you. Please pay attention to me.”

When your partner complains

As a final thought, let’s talk about how to respond when your partner voices a complaint and asks for you to change. Please don’t become defensive. Recognize that it takes some care, thought, and work to bring problems to you in a gentle way. Appreciate that your partner cares enough about making a satisfying relationship for you both that they brought this issue to your attention. Take responsibility for where you may have gone wrong, been insensitive, or hurt feelings, even if you did so unintentionally. Remember that you love your partner too. Do what you can to change so that they feel loved, valued, and respected.

Conflicts and disagreements happen. They just do. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because your partner is bringing a problem to your attention they are just making it up, trying to pick a fight with you, or making a big deal out of nothing. The situation might not be a problem for you, but if it is a problem for your partner, it’s worth talking about. This is your spouse, your lover, your best friend; if they have a problem, help them solve it, even if and especially if the problem is with you.

If you are in or near Riverside, California and would like help changing your criticism to complaint, give me a call at 951-999-7775. I’m also available for online sessions for anyone in the state of California. Read more about my services here.

How to bring up marriage problems: Changing criticism to complaint

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