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How complaining—but not criticizing—can help your marriage

Satisfied couples don’t lack things to complain about. They’ve discovered how to complain without criticizing.

How complaining—but not criticizing—can help your marriage

My wife Tami felt angry. “All you do after you get home from work and eat dinner is sit on the couch. Why can’t we talk, or take a walk together, or do both?”


Couples will always have complaints about each other. Unfortunately, instead of expressing their complaints, they resort to criticizing each other. Unchecked criticism leads to contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Dr. John Gottman calls these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—and when couples fall prey to the Four Horsemen, it can lead to divorce.

Tami’s criticism provoked me to defend myself. We were almost three years into our marriage, and hadn’t yet learned how to effectively air our complaints about each other.

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“I’m tired,” I said. As a substance abuse counselor, I spend all day listening to people. “Why can’t you let me relax?”

Tami kept pushing until my temper flared. “Just leave me alone!”

Before we knew it, the Four Horsemen were out of the barn and wreaking havoc on our marriage. Tami and I agreed to get marriage counseling from a clinical psychologist. He taught us how to effectively express and listen to complaints in a way that we could hear each other without becoming defensive.

Dr. John Gottman has refined the skill of effective complaining down to a simple, three-part formula. (I wish we’d discovered and mastered this formula before we went to counseling!) With a little practice and persistence, following the formula will help couples discuss their issues without causing harm to each other.

1. Express how you feel

Effective complaints begin with a soft start-up, and are best launched by stating how you feel. A feeling may be an emotion like anger or fear, or a physical state like tiredness or pain.

The soft start-up is in contrast to the harsh start-up that usually accompanies criticism, and often begins with phrases like “you always” or “you never.”

2. Talk about a very specific situation

After stating your feeling, describe the situation or behavior that caused that feeling.

Many complaints couples have about each other will never go away. If that’s bad news, the good news is that complaints don’t have to drive a relationship to a bitter end. As long as couples can keep their complaints from becoming criticisms, complaints will be a minor nuisance in comparison to the destructive power of criticism.

3. State a positive need

Ask your spouse to take positive action to resolve the complaint.

Using this formula doesn’t guarantee complaints will be resolved. It does, however, give couples a tool they can use to express their complaints without the risk of their requests being sidelined by a spouse who feels the need to defend against criticism.

Let’s apply this formula to the issue my wife raised and my response to see how the discussion might have ended differently.

Tami: I feel sad (here’s how I feel) that we don’t have time to talk with each other after dinner (about a very specific situation). Can we walk and talk for a half an hour (expressing her positive need)?

Jon: I feel tired (how I feel) after listening to people at work all day (about a very specific situation). Please let me rest for a while (express a positive need).

Tami: I’m afraid (how I feel) you’ll fall asleep on the couch and won’t wake up until it’s too late to walk (about a very specific situation). I want you to rest. I’d like it if you’d rest for an hour, then walk with me. If you fall asleep, I’d like to wake you up (express a positive need).

Jon: That’s fair. Let’s do that.

While a resolution isn’t guaranteed, effective complaining enables spouses to engage in conflict and achieve resolutions that criticism puts out of reach. When resolutions are out of reach, it doesn’t have to end the relationship or suck the happiness out of it.

Many couples have built thriving relationships in spite of enduring, unresolved conflicts. Many of these couples have learned to tolerate these conflicts by complaining instead of criticizing. But they also have a powerful, secret ingredient: they use repairs to diffuse the tension that builds up when discussing these issues. This keeps those problems from overwhelming their relationship.

One perpetual conflict in my marriage has been my wife’s tendency to get rid of things that we haven’t used for a while. I’m a saver. After all, you never know when you might need something.

At least once a year, Tami decides to go through the clothes in our closet to get rid of the garments we don’t wear anymore. I’d never do this. She takes clothes from my side of the closet that she doesn’t think I need and piles them on my side of the bed. “Go through these and decide which ones you don’t need,” she’ll say. “We’re getting rid of anything you don’t wear.”

I used to get angry. Now, I laugh. For me, her behavior has become predictable. For her, my behavior has become predictable. She laughs at me as I sort through the stack of clothes, take out one shirt to get rid of and hang the other clothes back in the closet.

Couples who are satisfied with their relationships don’t lack things to complain about. They’ve discovered how to complain without criticizing, keep the issues they have with each other in perspective, and use humor to break up tension that can lead to gridlock. If this doesn’t describe your relationship, try using Dr. Gottman’s formula for complaining, add a dose of humor, and see where it leads.

Original story by Jon Beaty for The Gottman Institute.

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14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

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Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

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Balance board

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Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

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This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

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Wooden doll stroller

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Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

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Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

$30

Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

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Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

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Vintage scooter balance bike

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Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

$121

Wooden rocking pegasus

plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

$100

Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

$45

Wooden digital camera

fathers factory wooden digital camera

Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

$179

Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

$100

Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

$33

Baby forest fox ride-on

janod toys baby fox ride on

Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

$88

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