Court and Complain

Court your spouse. Be kind in bringing up complaints, but be sure to bring them up if you want your marriage to last.

You would think we’d remember the courtship part of making marriage work, but people do forget. They get busy with children, work, and social activities and courtship gets what is left over. Ironically, people get married to enjoy living together and then have little time for each other. I often begin marriage counseling emphasizing the activity of courtship knowing we will run into an emotional roadblock right away. The roadblock: negative emotional reactions learned in response to unresolved issues.

Making sure you bring up complaints with your spouse predicts long-term marital satisfaction. That seems counter-intuitive. However, if you keep complaints to yourself and develop resentment, you risk growing further apart. If you voice your complaints as criticism, you can bet your spouse won’t want to cuddle up with you. Your short-term loss of affection may be the least of your worries. You and your spouse may be teaching your brains to react with defensiveness and your body to produce more stress hormone.

A study reported in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology[1] reported that newlyweds’ stress hormones foreshadow relationship changes. Adrenocorticotropic hormone levels of couples assessed during the first year of marriage was related to the break-up of marriage and satisfaction ten years later. Couples shouldn’t wait to learn: 1. Give proper attention to affection and appreciation, and 2. How to complain without criticism.

Couples often wait until their marriages have been in trouble for years before seeking help. John Gottman learned from his research that couples in conflict show increased stress hormone levels just by being in each others presence.

After years of letting their courtship drop and allowing differences to build into resentment, I have couples begin learning to be together again without conflict. We’ll often start with a few rules:
1. Agree to resist talking about areas of conflict away from the counseling office (that hasn’t worked, yet);
2. Agree that arguing is not problem-solving and learn how to problem-solve;
3. Learn how to complain without criticism;
4. Make a radical change and spend time together without interruption and re-learning courtship; and,
5. Turn toward each other when you speak to your partner or your partner speaks to you. An increase in the frequency and duration of positive time spent together will allow your brains to engage with the positive mood of your partner and the stress hormones that have kept you on high-alert for threat will not be an obstacle to your courtship.

Bane, Cynthia, et al. “Love, marriage, and divorce: newlyweds’ stress hormones foreshadow relationship changes.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 71.1 (2003): 176+. Gale Power Search. Web. 28 Aug. 2012. Document URL:

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