How to Tackle Complaints
in Your Relationship
Ever notice how much we all complain? I mean really…if you start to pay closer attention it’s likely to blow your mind! Complaining is everywhere! It’s all around us. It’s an absolute pandemic! It’s with you at the grocery store when the person behind you in line rolls their eyes and says, “Can you believe this?,” pointing to the injustice of a person with 20 items in the “10 and under” line. It’s with you on the elevator on a rainy day, when some stranger is sure to make a smart a** remark about the “crappy weather we’re having.” It’s with you at the office when that one person is just waiting for their moment to pull you into a closed office to talk sh*t about whoever. And if you’re like me and are lucky enough to have spent Thanksgiving with lots of family, you are sure to have just gotten a nice big dose of complaining from someone! Complaining is everywhere! Here’s the thing. You may not believe this but what complaining really is, what it really comes down to, is our human need for connection! If you’re not quite sure what I mean, the next time you find yourself at a loss for words, try finding something to complain about. Maybe just complain about the weather or traffic, the state of the world or some big work project! Most of the time you’ll find no one ever misses an opportunity to jump in and commiserate with you. On the other hand, God forbid, you show signs of *gasp* being a happy, joyful, or grateful person. Whether it is a group of coworkers, dinner with the family, or strangers on the street, the fastest way to make people scatter is to come in bright eyed and say something chipper and cheery. No one wants to be that person. You know, the person who always has something nice, fair, kind, and positive to say. Unfortunately, the message we’ve all gotten, loud and clear, is not misery loves company, but just the opposite, “company loves misery.” The point being, deep inside, on the level where we act without thinking, we turn to a complaint for connection.
So, what do you do when this shows up in your romantic relationship(s)? If you are in a romantic relationship or if you have been, then you’ve most definitely experienced your fair share of complaints from your partner. Often our solution can be to ignore and numb out the complaint, hoping it’ll go away or they’ll handle their problem on their own. But the problem isn’t just theirs. If this is a relationship that you are committed to and want to be in, then ignoring it, unfortunately, will not help you. Ignoring it will not lead to increased connection, intimacy, trust, or the feeling of being taken care of by your partner. A passive approach may ultimately unravel your relationship. Of course, it can be difficult to understand what’s really going on. No one is a mind reader and unless words are expressed that explain why. Then how could you possibly know? As always with relationships, communication is key. Here are some tips, tricks, and insights into what is potentially going on in your partner’s mind.
Behind Every Complaint Is a Secret Desire
You come home from a long hard day at work and all you want to do is throw yourself into your favorite spot, kick up your feet and play your video game to take your mind off things. Next thing you know, your partner is coming at you with, “You and your stupid videogame. Can you ever do anything else?” Or you wake up on Saturday morning excited about hanging out with your buddies a bit later, and then your girlfriend complains, “You’re hanging out with them again?” Or, she gets upset when you don’t want to help around the house, exclaiming, “You never want to help out with the shopping (or dishes or laundry…etc.”), whatever the case may be. Sound familiar? You like your video games. You want to hang out with your friends. Why does that have to change? Well, underneath her complaints about what you’re doing “wrong” is actually her *desire* for your attention. It’s her desire to feel important to you. To feel as though you want to spend your free time with her! It means she doesn’t feel she is getting enough of your attention. Of course, there is no need to totally abstain from things you love and want to do. She fell in love with you, those things and all. If you simply put more effort into giving her the attention she is longing for, you’ll get to have your cake and eat it too! When you find yourself in this situation, rather than feeling defensive, or attacked, or as though she’s trying to take something you value away, can you try to be curious? Ask, “What is it about my video games and spending time with my friends that bothers you?” Her answer may surprise you. Through discussions with my clients, I have learned it’s not that they care so much about their partner playing video games, it’s that the first thing the partner does when they walk through the door is kick off their shoes and turn on the game console. She wants you to want to engage with her first. She wants you to ask her about her day, or to communicate in some form or fashion that she is on your mind, that she is a priority, that you care about her and the relationship. She wants you to want to spend time with her. If you truly value your relationship, it is possible to show up, connect with your partner, care for her, and still play your video games. Remember it’s the quality of the interactions that matter most. She doesn’t want to compete for your attention with your video game console. When you start communicating in a more curious, open, and honest way, it will inspire her to do the same. The relationship is then bound to improve.
2. Look for Truth
Behind every complaint there is someone’s truth. Remember their complaining is information about how they really feel, and can be a great asset to you if you pick up on the clues!
Complaints are ways that we feel victimized by life, to shun responsibility, and when someone commiserates with you about these things, they are validating that powerlessness! They are offering you support for that which you feel powerless over. Even when we complain about the weather, what we are really saying is, “I feel powerless over this thing (that is out my control) that has a negative impact on my life!”
Can you learn to listen more carefully to what it is you are hearing yourself or someone else saying?
If your partner is nagging at you saying, “You never help out around here!”, what they are really saying is they feel victimized by something you are, or are not, doing. That’s not to say that you are in the wrong, or that it’s even your fault they feel that way. It is more information about them, not information about you! It’s what’s going on with them on the inside. Ask yourself what are they saying they feel victimized by? If your partner is nagging you about watching too much television, watching sports, playing video games, or spending too much with friends, you now know it probably means they want more time, attention, and support then they are getting from you. These situations have very easy solutions.
If you find yourself stuck in a complaint about your partner, take a second to reflect. What are you really complaining about? Rather than putting the responsibility on them, how can you take responsibility for your emotional wellbeing? For example, if you find yourself complaining that your partner never takes out the recycling, maybe ask yourself, “If it bothers me so much, should i just do it myself?” Chances are good that it’s not really about recycling anyway, so ask yourself what it is that you really feel so victimized by?
The Truth is you always have power, even when you don’t realize it! When you hear yourself complaining, ask yourself, “What am I really saying I feel victimized by?” Then ask yourself, “What can I do to change this?” Sometimes the change can be something as simple as looking the other way!
3. You are Making It Bigger!
Unfortunately, what you may not realize is that by complaining, what you are actually doing is making this “problem” bigger, rather than making it smaller. You are feeding it! Whenever you look at anything, you are unknowingly putting that on your perceptual radar. Much like programming your car’s GPS system, you are plugging into your brain the coordinates of exactly what it is you do not want! That means that you really are doing it to yourself.
In our intimate relationships, if you are noticing that your partner is complaining more frequently, ask yourself, Have I been complaining more often? Am I communicating clearly? Am I being evasive and intentionally withholding something? Are you secretly resentful of them for something you’ve been barely willing to admit to yourself? The nature of the brain is such that when we are feeling powerless, we are far more likely to notice those things in the world around us. If you are seeing an uptick in your partners complaining, maybe deep inside, you’re the one with the complaints! Are you clear in your communications or are you expecting them to magically figure everything out? It can be a fun game deconstructing our complaints and reframing everything to be in our power, instead of being a victim of our circumstances.
4. Complaints are Often Old New
Often complaints are thought loops that play over and over simply out of habit. They are negative habits of thought. When you keep reaching back to reference the past, you are reaching back and bringing this thing you do not want into the present. In order to stop this insanity, see if you can’t become more aware of your inner dialogue. You may find that these complaints you routinely make, even the small stuff like complaining about the smell or paint color in your office, the fact that your favorite baseball team always seems to choke in big spots, or that the commute to work in the morning takes longer than it should, may not be as annoying as you think they are, if only you stopped telling yourself how annoying they are.
When it comes to relationships the same thing applies, only you may have to pay closer attention to your instinct to really know one way or the other how you feel. Have you ever had the experience where someone wasn’t explicit with you, but you had a sense – a gut feeling – of what would probably be the ‘right’ thing to do? This is your instinct, your inner voice speaking to you. You would be wise to listen to this voice, as this is you!
For example, you may think, well I didn’t do the dishes because she didn’t ask me to do them! Life is rarely black and white or clear cut. If you knew you ought to be doing the dishes, then why does she have to ask you? No, my partner may not remember to remind me to pick up groceries every Monday on my way home from work, but it’s a kind gesture and offering to the relationship. Listen to and feel for what’s being asked. You’ll probably be met with, “Wow, I didn’t even have to ask you this time! Thank you so much, babe.” Emotional intelligence and intuition go a long way in relationships and intimacy. Learning to listen to you will not only benefit you here but in all aspects of your life! Developing a mindfulness practice and cultivating your awareness moment to moment will strengthen this muscle for you.