The Complaint Department (Excerpt from Marriage Minutes, available on

Marriage Minute #   1 The Complaint Department


            “Where is your Complaint Department?” Before you figure that some business person dreads hearing this question, think again. Long ago, I attended a marketing class and heard some interesting data about this. It seems that for every customer that addresses a problem, there are about ten who don’t complain, they just don’t come back. To the wise business owner, the customer who complains is the customer who can help improve the business, and is the customer who is more likely to come back. The store without a Complaint Department is soon out of business. As an example, it was said that J.W. Marriott, himself, responded personally to many of the feedback cards that were placed in his hotel rooms. (It’s not the devil that is in the details. Success is in the details.)

            Marriages can benefit from this business concept. Every married person needs a way of hearing and responding to complaints. And, they need a way to voice their complaints, constructively. When issues float, or get consistently negative responses, the “customer” may not come back.

            First, a few caveats. Complaints should not be confused with criticism. As researcher John Gottman says in, Seven Principles for Making Your Marriage Work,[1] criticism and ridicule invite defensiveness and resentment. Criticism becomes denigrating. Sarcasm does this, too. These are not what I mean by giving and receiving complaints. [Another warning is that complaints need to be handled one at a time, and with more care, not less than we give to happier topics. If anger is our most frequently used emotion, for example, the care necessary for a gracious complaint will decrease. One more thing; the complaint should not be over-used, and it should not be the only tool, or even the major one, used to improve the relationship. Unless a particular complaint is consistently disregarded, a major conflict is not necessary.]

            Complaints, given and received well, are good for both business and relationships. If you haven’t heard a complaint lately, there may be something wrong. Does your spouse have the confidence that you will hear and respect them if they speak up about an issue? Is your spouse invested in personal and relational growth? Do you, or your spouse see complaints as a one-way street, or a dead-end? Does only one of you have a Complaint Department, while the other is only set up to deliver complaints?

            How it is done well, begins with motive, and then it involves skill. And, both people need this motive and skill. The motive is loving improvement and growth of the relationship. Criticism and ridicule, on the other hand, often have the motive of revenge. Healthy problem solving, expressing empathy, and mutually committing to the building of relationship will allow you to give and receive complaints as growth projects.

            The listening skills (and motives) necessary for hearing a complaint are just as important as the speaking skills (and motives) in giving them.

[1] From The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver, copyright © 1999 by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver, Used by Permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.


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