A few days ago, I was asked to run for a seat on the university grievance committee of the university for which I work.
I said “No!” I could not imagine hearing grievances all day—against faculty, against administrators, really, against anyone.
What’s worse than hearing grievances against other people is hearing grievances against yourself! I had an idea about grievances when I first started studying love and the years have proved it to be not only right, but SO right!
Talking about failures in previous relationships? Easy!
The idea was that, although levels of intimacy would rise during the early days of a successful relationship, eventually, even in largely successful relationships, levels of intimacy eventually would start to go down.
The reason was simple.
In the early days of a relationship, couples establish intimacy by talking about their past relationship successes and failures, but really, mostly, their failures.
If they had been all so successful in their past relationships, they would not be there starting a new relationship with a new partner.
It often is satisfying talking about one’s past successes and failures, and what one has learned from them.
The not-so-hidden message is that “I had some screw-ups in the past—many of them other people’s faults, of course—but I’ve learned not only from their screw-ups, but also, from my own. I’m a more mature person now, someone with whom you can have confidence entering into a relationship.”
We hope to establish our new successes by building on our past successes but also our past failures. We are now a better and more mature person than we were in the past.
Talking about complaints and failures in your current relationship is harder
As the relationship develops, however, inevitably, we will screw some things up. That’s just the way humans are.
If you are not screwing anything up, ever, you are, well, not human! But it is so much easier to talk to your partner about your past screw-ups with other partners than about your screw-ups with them or during your time with them—your present partner, that is.
So, you start keeping secrets, probably some of them little but maybe others of them pretty big.
It’s just what happens over time. You may even resolve to have no secrets, but those secrets just tend to sneak in.
They may not even be acts, but rather just thoughts. Nevertheless, they are thoughts you would just as soon not share.
So, as time goers on, you start to have a list of your screw-ups, perhaps just below consciousness.
But you have not just a list of your own screw-ups but, let’s face it, of your partner’s screw-ups, too. After all, you’re not perfect and neither is your partner (if you have a partner who constantly seems to blame you, read here).
In the ideal world, you would talk to your partner each time an issue comes up. But talking about frictions is unpleasant.
Most conversations don't make things better
And when we do talk about them, sometimes things come out better, but much of the time they come out worse or, at best, the same as they were before.
So, one may have invested in having an uncomfortable conversation with little positive to show for it.
Having a list of grievances is a bit like having tinder for a fire. All it takes is one “sock-it-to-‘em” argument and the whole list may come pouring out.
The argument is the match. And then the fire starts and spreads, and spreads. Almost for sure, nothing good will come of it.
You may feel that you are just airing your grievances, but in the process, you will be damaging your relationship and the chances of anything changing, at least in a positive way, are small. Who hasn’t done this? Admission: I have!
You may feel satisfied to have aired your grievances.
Your partner is likely to react much less positively, as you will if they dump their grievance list on you.
You have just taken a step not to making your relationship better, but to burning it up.
How to deal with the inevitable grievances in your relationship
There's no question that you will run into issues in your relationship - you will have complaints, you and your partner will experience failures, and the time will likely come when you feel a need to do something about them.
There are a number of things to keep in mind when you do:
1. Don't make a list
If you have grievances, don’t compile them into a list—conscious or preconscious. And if you have a list, for sure, don’t dump the list on your partner all at once.
2. Discuss one topic at a time
If you need to discuss grievances, discuss them one at a time. It’s hard enough to deal with one. Dealing with a list is going to get you nowhere you want to go.
3. Frame things in a positive way
If you need to have the discussion, frame it positively—not in terms of what your partner did wrong, but in terms of what you believe you and your partner jointly and together could do better together.
Framing the problem as one of blame is likely to backfire. Not: You did this wrong! Rather: Here is what we can do to make things right!
4. Is it worth talking about?
Ask yourself whether the grievance is even worth airing. How perfect are you?
If you are expecting perfection from your partner, look at yourself first.
Everyone has their annoying quirks. Often, we are happiest when we learn to live with both our partner’s and our own quirks, annoying though they may be.
5. Show your vulnerability
Finally, if you do want to have a conversation, start with a weakness of your own to make it clear that you are not just a bomb-thrower aiming to bring down your partner, or your relationship.
Show your own vulnerability and your understanding that you are not perfect. As long as you are going to work on one of your partner’s weaknesses, work as well on one of your own.
And hey, look. Just to show you I’m serious, I’ll tell you one of my grievances—against myself.
I often think that because I have formulated my own theories of love, I therefore can find ways around them—that I can be the exception to the rules I have discovered.
It hasn’t worked that way. Coming up with a theory provides you no protection against the implications of the theory for you.
The theory can take you down just as quickly as anyone else! So that’s one of my many weaknesses. What are yours? What are you going to do about them?