When we get together with friends, many of us start complaining about our partners. After all, he missed date night — which you’ve been planning for months — at the last minute. Again. It doesn’t matter what you do; she’s rarely satisfied anyway. He doesn’t listen. She refuses to clean the house. He always wants to be with his friends — it’s like you don’t even exist. She spends too much money. He just bought the most ridiculous thing.
And that’s just the half of it.
While it might feel good for a moment, constant complaining can actually be toxic to your relationship. For one, it feels disloyal to the person you supposedly love, said Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT, a psychotherapist and founder of Love and Life Toolbox. And it borders “on habitually throwing [your] loved one ‘under the bus.’”
“You want [your partner] to feel as though their heart is safe with you; that you will take care of them and have their back,” said Jessica Higgins, Ph.D, a psychologist and relationship coach who specializes in helping couples break free from negative and destructive patterns, so they can generate more love, connection and intimacy.
When you talk negatively about your partner, however, you’re doing the exact opposite.
You also do the exact opposite of bringing out their best. “When someone talks kindly and favorably about us, we typically stand up straighter and feel called to higher character,” Higgins said. “When someone speaks negatively about us, we tend to feel hurt, angry, defensive and resentful.” She’s frequently heard partners say: “If you are going to call me a jerk, I am going to act like a jerk.”
Complaining about your partner colors how others see them. “For example, if you are complaining a lot to your parents about your partner, this could set you up for ongoing bad feelings,” Kift said.
Most people also don’t know what to do. So they just agree with you. But what you might really need is to be reminded of your partner’s positive qualities, Higgins said.
Assess your complaining.
According to Kift, “one way to assess whether the level of complaining is out of hand is to ask yourself, ‘How would I feel if my partner was a fly on the wall and just heard what I’m about to say?’”
If your reaction is negative, keep it to yourself. If it really bothers you, discuss it with your partner.
Before discussing it, though, get clear on your emotional need, said Higgins, who hosts the Empowered Relationship Podcast. “Most of the time, when we have a complaint, we are feeling some level of pain and disconnect. It is more important to look at your underlying need of connection than it is to complain and criticize your partner.”
Your partner also will be more receptive to listening and working through the issue when you aren’t criticizing or blaming them.
Identify what kind of support you want.
“If you catch yourself wanting to complain about your partner, pause and ask yourself: ‘What do I really want right now?’” Higgins said. Often, she said, what we want is acknowledgment and validation. We want someone to listen to us. Fully. And to empathize. This is especially true when we’re not getting it in our relationship.
According to Higgins, we want someone to say: “Yeah, that makes sense. I get how you would feel that way.” Or “wow, you have been going through a lot. Way to stay with it, I know it is hard sometimes.”
Or maybe you want to know that you’re not alone; that you are loved and cared about, she said. “Whether we hear the words, ‘I love you. I am with you,’ or we feel the loving, accepting presence of a loved one, it can make a profound impact.”
Sometimes, we need perspective. For instance, a loved one might say: “When you guys went through something similar before, as it turns out he wasn’t trying to avoid you. He was overwhelmed and needed a minute to collect himself. He means well. When he is ready, he will come around.”
Sometimes, we need feedback. But only ask if you’re ready to hear it, and make sure the conversation stays productive—and doesn’t turn into a complain fest. “[Y]our loved one may help you see how you have more options than you think you do in how to handle the situation.”
Once you know what kind of support you want, be clear and specific. Higgins shared these examples: “I am feeling a little challenged with my significant other. I would love to have a listening ear right now. Can you do that for me?” If you want reassurance, say: “I am feeling a little downtrodden right now. If you have any words of encouragement, I would love to hear them right now.”
“Excessive complaining doesn’t usually occur in one area, like relationships,” said Kift, also creator of Therapy-at-Home Workbooks®, a do-it-yourself, therapist guided, counseling alternative for couples. “Those who complain tend to have a habit of doing so in life.” Some people naturally have a stronger negativity bias, she said. Having a daily gratitude practice helps.
Kift suggested noting three things that you love about your partner or doing this whenever a complaint comes to mind. “Take a breath, and ask yourself what you’re grateful for.” For instance: “What do I love about my partner (e.g., personality traits)? How does my partner make me feel safe (e.g., caretaking behaviors)? How is my partner as a parent?”
Constantly complaining about your partner can feel like a betrayal. Again, it’s more helpful and productive to talk about the issue directly with them. And if you’ve already tried—many times—consider counseling. It’s a powerful resource that can enhance your relationship.