When Leslie gets home from work, her partner Jace often opens their conversations with a complaint. “The kids were awful today.” “I am so sick with how this country is run.” “Did you hear that Masha and Jenn’s ceremony is going to be in Mexico? It’s so rude to ask people to spend that much money on your wedding.”
Leslie’s spent the entire day taking care of patients in the ER. She’s stressed out and looking forward to a reprieve from the fluorescent lights, incessant beeping, and unruly patients. But instead of feeling like home is a haven, she describes feeling suffocated by all of the negativity. If only Jace would have a more positive mindset, she thinks, he wouldn’t be so miserable all of the time.
“Why are you always so negative?” she asks. “You have nothing to complain about. I’m the one who is dealing with real stress all day long.”
As you can imagine, a fight ensues. Jace defends his right to complain (“I can never tell you anything! You want me just to be positive all the time?”) and Leslie continues to express her frustration. After the argument, they both walk away thinking something along the lines of This is why I don’t share anything with them! They just don’t get it. If this interaction is not corrected, over time, it will result in emotional disengagement and loneliness.
Complaining, though, is commonplace. All people vent and if you want to be in a relationship you are going to have to learn to accept that and navigate complaints together. However, each individual has a different threshold for complaining that depends on their own philosophies and current emotional state. Handling constant complaining in a relationship — for both the person doing the complaining and the one who is frustrated by the complainer — takes a united effort.
Why Constant Complaining Starts Arguments
One of the big reasons the “You’re always complaining!” argument happens is because when people hear a complaint they tend to feel stressed. And people struggle to respond to each other’s stress in an effective way.
Rather than help each other to feel more calm and secure, people tend to sense another person’s stress, feel stressed themselves, and then react in ways that cascade both people in the interaction into more stress.
However, there are more factors that lead to fights. Using Jace and Leslie as an example, here are a few reasons why people complain and why they can lead to arguments.
People bond over joy and pain. It’s very possible that Jace is trying to connect with Leslie when she gets home from work through his complaints. Sometimes, people have the initial go-to to connect over the pains of life and sometimes over the joys. Both are OK (and actually necessary) when it comes to human bonding.
2. Stress Regulation
It’s possible that Jace has had a stressful day. When Leslie walks in the door, he’s trying to regulate some of that stress by sharing it with someone he loves through complaining. However, when Leslie is also feeling stressed, she doesn’t have the bandwidth to receive what Jace is sharing.
3. Physiological Overwhelm
Jace and Leslie’s argument escalated because they were both stressed out and dismissed what the other person needed. When this happens, our bodies respond by feeling more stress. “If you don’t sense my stress,” our bodies say. “I am going to need to make it louder.”
4. Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how difficult or dire a situation, people should keep a positive mindset. When we respond to another person’s stress with toxic positivity, it often leads to poor communication outcomes. Jace and Leslie might have a low threshold for hearing other people’s complaints and thus turn to this tactic.
We aren’t going to rid ourselves of these reasons for complaints, but we can learn to better respond to them.
4 Ways to Solve the “You’re Always Complaining!” Fight
When this argument happens, there are a few things both partners can start implementing today to see a change.
1. Identify Whether The Complaining Is Healthy or Unhealthy
It’s important to recognize that complaining isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if no one is complaining in a relationship it means they probably aren’t talking enough. There are plenty of healthy complaints and it’s important to recognize them so that we aren’t dismissing or shutting down our partners when they actually need our support.
Whitney Goodman, LMFT, author of Toxic Positivity, says that healthy complaining tends to be:
- Helps you work through an issue or solve a problem
- Creates a sense of connection with your partner.
On the other hand, Goodman shares, unhealthy complaining tends to:
- Threaten the relationship by being the only way people connect
- Places the burden onto the other person
- Becomes continuous and circular with the same problem
- Involve not taking feedback or ever solving the issue
If complaining is healthy then you’ll notice that it tends to be helpful because the person complaining will find a solution, feel relieved, or feel connected to you after talking.
If complaining is unhealthy, it will feel repetitive and burdensome and you’ll notice that it neither relieves the person complaining nor creates a connection between them and other people.
In this case, you’ll want to bring up this issue to your partner so that it can be dealt with in a healthier way. I like to suggest that people follow this format when they need to bring up something difficult:
I noticed + I think + I need
For example, “I notice you’ve been really upset with your boss lately. I think it’s starting to overwhelm me to be the only person that knows about this. I need us to figure out a way that I can be there for you but also other ways to help you deal with the stress of work.”
2. Work to Understand Why Your Partner Is Complaining to You
If we immediately react to our partner’s complaint by shutting it down or serving up our own, then we’re going to miss the mark. By reacting instead of responding we aren’t meeting the need they had with the complaint in the first place — to either connect with us, get some reassurance, or relieve stress.
The better tact is to be curious. It helps us to avoid assumptions and better understand our partner. Goodman says that before you jump to dismissing your partner’s complaint, simply identify what they’re complaining about and why.
“Sometimes people complain about one thing because they’re trying to open up a dialogue about something else,” she notes.
3. Respond with Empathy
Complaining often escalates the more that we try to shut it down. It becomes the “itch that isn’t scratched” and will get louder and louder until it is. When I work with couples, they’re often blown away by how the simple act of responding to complaints with empathy can combat negativity in their relationship. When your partner complains, Goodman recommends saying something as simple as “wow that sounds annoying” to neutralize a conversation or open up space to change the subject.
4. Stressed? Take a Mini Break
Complaining can be a great source of connection, and we need to be responsible for how much of it we bring into relationships. If you recognize that you’re in a bad mood and are feeling irritable, take a beat and see what you can do to take responsibility for your own stress. It might be as simple as taking a deep breath before walking in the door or writing down your frustrations on a sheet of notebook paper. Find whatever works for you.
The Long-Term Solution
If you believe complaining is an issue in your relationship, there are a few things you’ll need to commit to over the long haul.
The first is diversifying your support system to make sure you aren’t putting all of your rotten eggs in one basket. If you only complain to your partner, they’re going to get overwhelmed by it and you aren’t going to get as much diversity of thought and response as you might need. Look to friends, family, and maybe even a therapist for support, too.
“People often use their partners for all their complaints,” Goodman notes. “It’s important to diversify who we’re talking to and about what.”
Even if your partner is the more empathetic and understanding person, she adds, it might be challenging for them to hear about the same topic over and over.
Next, if you’re the complainer, it’s important to reflect on whether your partner has given you feedback that you’re complaining too much. It might be hard to hear and it’s natural to feel defensive, but take a moment to think through if there is any truth to what they are saying. Write down the top things you complain about and then explore whether or not you’ve also sought solutions. Changing the dynamic in the relationship might mean looking for a way to move past the complaints by creating a plan to solve them.
Finally, if you think “positivity” is the key to happiness, it’s important to recognize that a positive outlook isn’t the solution to everything. In fact, when people dismiss other people’s complaints it tends to be more about them than the complainer. It might be time to reflect on how you respond to difficult feelings and experiences and get curious about whether you avoid them. This is important for staying close to your partner, not only for better but also for worse.
So, if you tend to complain a lot, find more people to vent to — your partner can’t take it all. And, if you tend to be on the receiving end of complaints, learn how to expand your tolerance for it by showing curiosity and offering empathy. If it gets really unbearable, set a boundary, letting your partner know you love them but can only take so much complaining in one day.
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