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Conflict is a normal part of being a couple, and how we manage it determines not just whether our relationship lasts but the quality of our relationship. At times we all have complaints and can feel grudges against our partners.

It is important that we learn to raise any issues with them in constructive ways and not be destructive in how we raise them, or let them fester on in the background to emerge destructively later.

What follows are six simple rules for raising a complaint that I teach the couples that I work with. They come from the Gottman’s Couples Method Therapy that I use with them and are the rules for softened start-up.

First of all, be polite. Just because you are in a relationship with someone is no reason to be rude, aggressive or offensive. That means raise the issue gently, do not criticize the person’s character by attacking them. So look out both for ‘you’ statements and look out for generalisations such as ‘always’ or ‘never.’ Put together as ‘you are always late’ or ‘you never wash up’ is a sure way to get nowhere and often to start a fight.

If you do this, it is important to learn to check yourself and use the following to make sure your complaint gets heard. To start your complaint, describe as neutrally as possible what you see as happening. It helps to be specific and to use 'I' statements while including a statement of how you feel. So ‘I felt angry when you when you were late this evening’ or ‘I have washed up for the last week.’ Then ask for your need in positive terms. ‘I would really appreciate it if you were on time’ or ‘please could you help me wash up this evening.’

Finally give appreciation to your partner for what they do do. You can raise a complaint very successfully this way by remembering a time when your partner has done what you needed or wanted. ‘I really liked it when you cooked last week, it made me feel great,’ is a good way to prime someone to want to do it again or to preface an explicit request for them to cook again.

In summary the rules for Softened Start-Up are

  • Be polite.
  • Complain, do not criticise or blame.
  • Start with ‘I’ or ‘I feel’ and not ‘You never…’ or ‘You always…’.
  • Describe the situation neutrally, do not judge.
  • Ask for what you need clearly, specifically and positively. It has to be something the other person can do.
  • Use appreciation.

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