Complaining's Place In Marriage

Relationship Design, Simplicity

Photo courtesy Ed Yourdon

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in a discussion with a few people about the difference between a complaint and a criticism. Much like the discussion in the comments from the most recent ask the readers – our discussions have gone from they’re the same, to they’re completely different. From they’re healthy for a marriage, to they could destroy a marriage.
Here’s what we’ve discussed.
First a few definitions:

  • statement of unhappiness: a statement expressing discontent or unhappiness about a situation
  • expressing of unhappiness: the act of expressing discontent or unhappiness about a situation (


  • to consider the merits and demerits of and judge accordingly
  • to find fault with – point out the faults of (

And we must add this from the guru of research in marital happiness John Gottman:

Criticism is making negative remarks about your partner’s personality, usually in a way that assigns blame. Complaints can be healthy for a relationship, especially when one spouse feels his or her needs aren’t being met. But there’s a crucial difference between complaints and criticism. Complaints are aimed at a specific behavior, while criticism attacks a person’s character . . . While a complaint simply states the facts, criticism is often judgmental, suggesting the word “should” . . . Betrayal is another common theme . . . And criticism is often expressed in global terms . . . Criticism is often an expression of pent-up frustration and unresolved anger . . . leading to universal and overwhelming barrages.

Here’s Simple Marriage contributor Mary Ann Crossno’s stance – complaining, properly understood and appropriately delivered, is actually the necessary step to avoid criticism and its deadly derivative, contempt (more on this and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming later).
The key words that distinguish between the two definitions are criticism involves judgment (subjectivity) and a complaint is situationally specific (objectivity).

  • Is global
  • Attacks partner’s character or personality
  • Is judgmental, often expressed with “shoulds”
  • Implies betrayal – “I should have known not to count on you”
  • Expressed in global terms – always, never, only,
  • Expression of pent-up frustration and unresolved anger
  • Often begin with “you”

You are such a slob. You never pick up after yourself- your shoes are always piling up where you left them, you drop your clothes on the closet floor, you have piles of mail everywhere, and you can’t even throw away the envelopes when you open the mail. You don’t care anything about what’s important to me.

  • Is aimed at a specific behavior and is situationally specific
  • Can be stated without blame
  • No more why, you, never, always, only
  • Lots more “I”

I need your help. I react to piles and clutter by getting anxious and tense. Keeping the den and kitchen clutter free will make a big difference in my ability to keep me calm. What are you willing to do about your shoes in the den and the mail in the kitchen to help me?
My stance – I agree with Mary Ann.
Learning the difference between criticizing and complaining requires us to be more thoughtful and intentional in what we say and how we say it. We become aware and sensitive to language that sends judging messages.
When we blow it, which we most certainly will do, we can learn how to hold ourselves accountable and take the necessary steps to rectify the situation.