How to Complain and Get What You Want

Principle Skills: How to Complain and Get What You Want

As a marriage therapist and counselor, I find that many people are in painful or unfulfilling relationships because they do not know how to make proper complaints. Complaints, made correctly, can get you what they really want or need without harming your relationship.
A complaint? Yes, a complaint! A complaint made correctly is actually a “Bid.”

A complaint made incorrectly is “Criticism.”

Criticism is one of the most disastrous behaviors and a leading predictor of divorce, according to The Gottman Institute, a center that studies relationships and marriage.

So, then, what is a proper Complaint, or Bid?

Making a Bid is a 3-step process. A Bid shows that you honor and value yourself, as well as trust your partner. Such feelings are the foundation of a happy, successful relationship.
I also teach clients the importance of accepting their partners’ Bids. To accept a Bid is to communicate, “I understand you” and “I’m on your side.”



First, let’s start with learning how to make a Bid.

1. Set aside criticism and recognize all its subtleties: Words like "you always" or "you never" lead into criticism, and expresses an air of finality.

The underlying tone is hurtful and destructive. It insinuates, "What's wrong with you?"

Try this: Once you recognize your behavior of Criticism, you can use simple devices to build awareness and change habits. This includes self-cautions and internal reminders, such as:

    “Be careful, you're moving in on criticism."
    “Focus more on describing yourself.”
    “What is it that I need or want?”

2.Transform Criticism into a Complaint and a Bid: Using a soccer ball metaphor, Criticism is equal to you kicking your partner around, rather than the ball. A Complaint allows you and your partner to kick the problem around, gently back and forth, until the issue is resolved. Complaints convey, "You, I love. This problem, not so much."

Try this: Precede the Complaint with appreciation or give the other person the benefit of the doubt. For example:

    "You may not be able to do anything about this … ."
    "I'm sure you didn't realize or mean to … ."
    "I appreciate your help with this … ."

Complaining focuses on your experience, whereas Criticizing focuses on your partner's actions. How should you begin statements?

    Do this –

    "I feel … .”
    "I think …. ."

    Not this –

    “You are … .”
    “You do … .”

If your Complaint includes a Bid for what you need or want, you are helping your partner know how to respond more effectively. In fact, I've often found going straight to making a Bid for a want or need is even more effective than making the entire Complaint.

3. Make a Repair: If Criticism occurs, both the speaker or the listener in the interaction can take action to Repair the situation, rather than escalate it.

    Have you ever said this to your partner?
    "What were you thinking?”
    “You did … ."
    “You didn't … ."
    “You need to … ."
    “You should … ."

If so, make the Repair. Try this:

    "Sorry. That came out too harshly."
    "Whoops, can I try that again?"
    "What I meant to say is, I need/want/would appreciate it if … ."

The listener can also make an effective Repair by saying:

    "I'm feeling criticized. Could you please try saying that differently?"
    "I need you to speak more softly/kindly to me."

Learning to make and accept a Bid is a skill, and one that is taught and practiced at the weekend couples workshops, The Art and Science of Love.  


If you are in a relationship that is hurtful or unfulfilling, honestly assess your behavior and see if Criticism is the norm.

Many people, who are in distressed relationships, read my materials and are anxious to share them with their partners. However, if your partner is unwilling to study or is uninterested in this material, please exercise restraint. Do not force this information upon your partner. You may want to practice making a Bid, instead of expressing Criticism, in inviting your partner to learn, practice and apply the relationship skills that I have shared.

One reason your partner may not be interested in reading relationship information is that your partner may be the type of person who learns verbally or experientially. If so, respect your partner’s learning style.

One reason I recommend The Art and Science of Love to all couples is because the workshop is effective for all learning styles. It provides written resources, verbal instructions and lectures, and opportunities to practice skills under the guidance of certified Gottman therapists.

The weekend workshop covers relationship skills such as how to better nurture each other, overcome gridlock, solve problems together, and improve their sex lives. And, at the workshop, certified Gottman therapists are on-hand to guide couples through the process of making proper complaints.

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