Complaining is commonplace. In fact, we’re wired for it. But left unchecked, it can create serious problems in our relationships.
The dishes are piling up again, and you feel like you’ve asked your partner to clean them up a million times. Yet, no matter how many times you ask, it never gets done. Why is that?
It could come down to one thing: complaining.
This is a common, understandable strategy. Spotting problems is one of the many ways our brains keep us safe.
But, if we’re not careful, it can also spell trouble in our closest connections. With a little intel from trusted relationship experts, it’s possible to address problems differently.
Everyone complains from time to time. But how much is too much?
“If you are looking for a rule, John Gottman, noted relationship expert, claims that the magic ratio is five to one,” says Marisa Flood, a relationship coach. “This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five, or more, positive interactions.”
If you find yourself constantly complaining, there’s likely an underlying reason. You may be seeking:
Complaining may have been modeled to you during childhood by your caregivers. You may associate it with love or think it’s the best way to get your needs met.
It can also be cultural. In Ireland, “slagging” is often used to show affection. In the United Kingdom, you may “take the piss” out of someone you feel close to. In Australia, it’s “taking the mickey” out of your mates. All these forms of interaction may be misinterpreted if you’re not used to them.
You may complain because you harbor old resentments. In this case, your pain may come out sideways in the form of a complaint.
Not only can it strain your relationships, but
“When we don’t like something about us — the way we look, how we relate to others, or anything — we can project those shaming feelings onto others,” says Chris Tickner, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, California.
From home to work, complaining can put a wedge between you and those you care about.
Complaining may lead to Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a model of behavior that predicts divorce.
The four horsemen include:
“I’ve never seen nagging or complaining be an effective strategy,” says Jake Porter, a couple’s therapist in Houston, Texas.
“I’ll ask someone to consider how many thousands of times they’ve complained to their partners, and then how many of those actually worked. The only answer I’ve ever gotten to that question is: never.”
Children don’t process information the same way that adults do.
When you complain, it may be difficult for your child to understand why you’re so upset. They can have a hard time separating the behavior from who they are as a person.
They may also miss important context. For example, you’re in a bad mood because you had a rough day at work, you’re exhausted, or you just got some bad news. Instead, they may internalize your complaint as a character defect on their part.
As a result, your child may display:
- avoidance behaviors
- walking on eggshells
Complaining can have a negative impact on our friendships and work connections as well. “Over time, we can pull away from each other,” says Tickner. “No longer do we find the other person safe, or inviting, so we begin to find ways to avoid contact.”
In fact, there’s a “right way” to complain. Effective communication is kind, empathetic, and direct.
Swap your language
|What to do||Complaint||How to adjust it|
|Trade a negative for a positive||“You’re so lazy, you haven’t even gotten dressed yet.”||When your husband gets dressed up, say: “You look so sexy. I can tell you put a lot of effort into looking good tonight. I appreciate you.”|
|Use “I” statements||“Oh, big surprise, you forgot to take out the trash again.”||“I feel hurt that you didn’t take out the trash after you promised me that you would.”|
|Focus on specifics||“You never call me back.”||“This afternoon, I was hoping to talk to you about what color paint to bring home. I felt frustrated when you did not call me back.”|
|Ask how you can help||“You always leave the lights on when you leave the house.”||“When I got home, I was upset to see the lights on. How can we work together on this, so that the electricity bill isn’t so high?”|
Change your tone
What you say is as important as how you say it. Remember, it’s not you versus them, it’s you and them versus the undesirable behavior — you’re on the same side.
Before you share how you feel, try taking a few deep breaths to ground yourself. Consider how you’d like to be spoken to. Imagine the inner child of the person you’re speaking with, and address them with loving-kindness.
“Signal safety to your partner with soft eyes, a gentle voice, perhaps even a smile,” says Porter.
“Call your partner to be on your team, to act with you in the best interest of your relationship. That will get you much further than posing the problem as if the two of you are in such a conflict that someone will win and someone else will lose.”
Pick an optimal time
Timing is everything. If your partner is running out the door on the way to work, that’s the wrong moment to lodge a complaint. Same goes if they have a deadline, a presentation, or a tough day ahead.
Try to pick a time when both of you feel relaxed. Carve out space to sit down and work through the issue. Then, set some parameters around it. For example, “Can we talk about something for 15 minutes?” and go from there.
Write it down
It may help you to stay on track if you write down what you want to say beforehand. Try jotting a few notes on an index card, or send them a polite email as a heads up.
Reflect on your needs
You may think you’re complaining to your partner about not doing the laundry, but chances are it’s much deeper than that. Pull out a journal and do some digging. Ask yourself, “What is this really about?”
“As I say to the couples I work with: The problem is rarely actually the problem. Spending a little time reflecting on what’s beneath the surface level content of our nagging can reveal much larger, deeper needs,” says Porter.
“Sharing from that emotional space, rather than reactionary anger, sets us up to be better seen and heard and known. In short, it’s a much more successful path to intimacy.”
Adjust your expectations
Complaining comes from a gap between your expectations and the reality of the situation. The simplest way to release the need to complain is to reign in your expectations of another person.
For example, if you married someone knowing they love to stay up playing guitar until 2 a.m., it’s unfair to assume they will start going to bed at 9 p.m. sharp anytime soon.
There’s only one person who can change in this scenario: you.
Try to practice radical acceptance of the person who’s upsetting you. Focus on the things you love about them. Decide how you can show up differently in that connection.
Make a gratitude list
Research shows that gratitude can have a profound effect on how you view relationships. At the same time every day, make a list of 3 to 10 things you’re grateful for, including your favorite qualities about the person you’re upset with.
Mirror it back to them
If your partner complains all the time, skip right to the heart of their request. Say, “I hear you saying that you would like the trash to be taken out. Do I hear that right?”
If your partner is always complaining about something, remember: it’s not about you. Underneath it all, try to remember that they love you; they may just be struggling to communicate their needs effectively.
Stand up for yourself
If the complaint hurts you, draw a boundary. You can say, “I understand that you’re upset about this, but I need some time to process what you just said. Let’s talk about this at another time.”
Share how it makes you feel
It may be tempting to fire back with, “You always nag me,” but that’s a recipe for disaster. Instead, use “I” statements. Try something like, “I feel hurt when you use that tone.”
Suggest couple’s therapy
It can be helpful to think of complaining as a symptom of a larger issue. An objective third party in the room can help you make sense of what’s going on.
“In therapy work, we begin to look deep into ourselves, and find the part of us that is hurt, or ashamed, or lost,” says Tickner. “Couples learn simple yet powerful tools and practices that build connection, soften communication, and diminish complaining.”
It’s common to complain or hear a complaint directed at you. But when it becomes too common, it can get in the way of healthy, happy relationships.
“We live in a culture that does not teach us how to love,” says Flood.
“The issue is not the complaint, but the box it comes in. We all have a right to raise concerns to our partner about things that are upsetting us, but not to do it in an unhealthy or toxic way.”