A slice of request from a whole pie of complaint
Updated: Feb 24
When my client complaints of her or his partner, I feel compassionate to the complaining partner. Because a complaint is a history of repeated disappointments and heart-aching wishes. I also feel sympathetic towards the receiving partner. Because I can feel the internal frustration over repeated failing attempts.
Because the couple has had the same complaint-failing conversation over and over, they are about giving up by the time they show up in my therapy space.
What I do is fairly simple:
I explain to the couple that a complaint has an inherent request: In many cases, a complaint started out as simple and gentle request. Yet over the time, the unfulfilled request has turned into a multi-faceted critical voice. The complaint becomes louder and the request becomes inaudible. I help the complaining person to re-state her or his request in a simple yet powerful sentence. Turn criticism into a request.
“I feel this way (feeling word) because that (what happened). I need X (a solution).”
Sometime, the complaining partner has to ask what the receiving partner has heard because the person could be stuck with hearing what he or she did wrong... again.
“I hear you feel this because of that, and you want me to be/do X?” This is a great start.
Now the conversation is on the receiver side. The request is heard, yet does that mean the partner has agreed on the request? No!
I gently help the receiving partner to stay calm and think about the request I tell them, “ hey, I can understand the heavy feeling, yet you could think your partner is asking this because you are so important to her/him. You could hear a complaint as a request of love and a proof of your significance.”
They may not agree with my proving comment, yet I can see a recovery of their sunken posture slightly. I could almost hear their wisher, “that’s right. She loves me.” This internal shift from "I did wrong or failed" to " my partner wants me" is critical to move out of the negative spiral.
Then, I assist the receiving partner to think what portion of the request they can agree or take actions.
A small slice of the request rather than the whole pie of the request!
Again, the internal triumph rings a bell. “I can do that part of your request.”
A smile or a slight shock on the complaining partner reveals a different turn of the too-familiar argument between them. “ok? What do you mean by that? “ Now they are talking.
Turning a complaint back to a request is seemingly simple, yet it is a hopeful and healing step in many couples I work with. It is a nice moment to savor…. a slice of request is enticing for more.