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8 Strategies to Complain Your Way Into a Happier Relationship

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There was a time back in the early days of my now nearly 30-year marriage when a hand-written sign hung over our toilet. It read as follows: "Please remember to put the seat down or [cover your ears, kids] I may be forced to kill you." Yikes. If memory serves, I believe I signed it, "your loving wife." Not the proudest moment in my marriage, nor my best literary work, but it did the trick. My husband, rather than being offended (or worried), chuckled every time he saw the note -- and, importantly, put the seat down. I felt bad that our gentle-hearted nanny had to witness that whole scene from our marriage. But the fact is that couples therapists might have given me high scores for my off-color antics -- why?

Because complaining is good for your relationship.

Not about every little thing, but when it comes to the things that matter to you (like not wanting to fall into the toilet when it's pitch dark at 2:00 a.m. and you've really got to go), complain! The reason is this: Not complaining and, instead, letting those concerns build up could do more harm than good. The longer you wait, the bigger the problem gets, and the more irrational you become. When you finally explode, and you will, chances are that your complaint won't come out with a cute (however rough around the edges) note. It will be war.

So complaining is good, but it has to be done right.

Researchers distinguish between complaints and criticisms. Complaints are specific concerns about what a person is doing, whereas criticisms are global attacks on why on earth they would ever be doing it.

Shifting from toilet seats to the perennial toothpaste-tube squeezing preferences, a good complaint sounds like this: "Honey, it makes me crazy to see the toothpaste squeezed in the middle because then it will be hard to use it all -- and you know how I'm thrifty. So can you please remember to start from the end?"

Whereas a criticism sounds like this: "I've told you about the toothpaste 100 times! What is your problem? You never listen to me! You're such a slob! Nothing matters to you except your stupid football games! Well I could care less about that!"

We don't have to put on our thinking caps to know which approach gets better results. When you complain, you have a win-win: Your partner gets to be the hero just by not squeezing the middle of the tube, and everyone's happy. When you criticize, you're left with shame and blame. Who would want to touch that with a 10-foot pole? And what even happened to the toothpaste tube issue? Lost in the rapid-fire attack. No wonder the other person never listens. They're too busy running for cover.

Now you may be thinking, why should I work to tailor my complaints about my partner if he (or she) is the one who is doing something wrong (and has been doing it wrong for a long, long time)?

Which gets to the final point: What is your desired effect? Is it to improve your relationship or to make your partner feel bad or corrected? You have to want change more than justice or revenge. When you are ready to make things better -- for both of you -- then, and only then, is it time to dive in. Here are eight ways to be most effective when you do:

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After 27 years of marriage, my husband and I have had our fair share of toilet seat lid and toothpaste-tube discussions. But make no mistake. This is how we got here. Underneath these deceptively small details is the real deal. The motherlode. These complaints are really about respect: Can you respect my preferences even if (or especially if) they don't matter to you? Respect is at the foundation of any relationship that is going to work, so the most fulfilling relationships are built on the brick and mortar of these ground-level concerns. No matter how lofty your aspirations in your relationship -- no foundation, no go.

So next time you are unhappy with something in your relationship -- pause and see the opportunity for these little complaints to do their work for you, or else... I may... be forced to... No, no, no... just kidding! You'll see just how much stronger your relationship becomes.

For more by Tamar Chansky, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

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