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How to Complain So a Partner Will Listen

There are, always, a range of awkward but legitimate things we want and need to complain about in a relationship. Why do they never call us during the day? Do they truly have to spend quite so long at work every evening? Why are we the ones who have to initiate sex every time?

The questions might be sound, but there are two ways we can guarantee that expressing our grievances will end in humiliation. The first is the path of bitterness. Bitterness is rage that has been muffled by shame. We resort to bitter attacks when we don’t, deep down, feel we are entitled to protest and when our complaints have to seep out in a gaseous form from below a bedrock of compliance. ‘I suppose it was another oh so busy day at work again…’ we say, our lips quivering. Or, with our voice reedy and icy, we ask mockingly: ‘Your phone must have been out of batteries, right?’

The target of our rage knows well enough that we are annoyed. But we have neither managed to impress them with the justice of our complaint, nor moved them with a rendition of our dependence and vulnerability. We haven’t stirred their conscience or pulled their heartstrings. We have just made it very easy for them to think us a pain.

A second, equally disastrous path is that of fury. We say nothing for far too long and then abruptly give way to disproportionate and seemingly unreasonable anger. Over one particular, ostensibly minor incident, we deposit six-months-worth of surreptitiously accumulated fury – and thereby make ourselves an easy target for accusations of insanity. Our response truly is outsize in relation to what is apparently at stake. It was only one missed call; or a dinner that went on for an unforeseen half hour. But that, of course, is not why we are so upset. Nevertheless, the accused has no difficulty in smiling benignly, reminding the invisible jury of their fundamental decency – and labelling the prosecution unbalanced.

Swept along by rage, we may also make the mistake of forgetting to restrict ourselves to pointing out that our partner did a bad thing; we overplay our hand and charge them with that far heavier offence: being a bad person – which gives them all the encouragement they need to avoid the task of introspection and to trust that we are unhinged and mean, when, in truth, we are merely desperate and sad.

At the root of both bitterness and fury lies a feeling that it is not legitimate to ask someone to love us properly, to look after our needs or to be kind. We can’t complain well because we are ashamed of ourselves and somewhere convinced of the essential rightness of humiliation. As ever, the conviction has a past. In the psychological history of the person who is launching bitter barbs or hurling insults, there is typically something a great deal more poignant to behold: a child who was at one time made to feel that their needs were irrelevant, that an angry father or depressed mother would not listen and that all attempts to express themselves calmly and logically would founder. We cannot complain properly if we do not first believe that we have the right to do so. Tragically, our repeated failures to be heard only confirm our initial background thesis: that we are undeserving wretches.

To master the art of successful complaint, we need to trust that we are not – as our past would have us believe – forever worth ignoring. We are allowed to feel unhappy, to let our partner know as much and to expect restitution and understanding. They probably didn’t do it on purpose anyway, something it might be hard for us to believe until we can bring a degree of self-love to bear on ourselves. When we start to trust in our right to be upset, we can also take our time, prepare our case and level our gripes with strategic intelligence. Were the other person never to understand or to be lastingly mean, we would also know full well that we had the capacity to walk away.

We aren’t in relationships to suffer in silence or fury; we may have come from unhappy muzzled childhoods, but it is the prerogative of adulthood to be able to complain; we simply need to give ourselves the space and compassion to learn to do so successfully, which means, with an absence of sarcasm or rage.

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