What Do I Do If My Partner is Constantly Complaining?

I’ve received a few emails as of late asking this question (oftentimes coupled with the question of “how/why would I validate someone if I disagree?“), and I thought it might be helpful to publicly answer, for any others who may be wondering the same. Here is one of those emails:

Michael,

First of all, thank you for taking the time to write a book about your super power. Your super power has been my kryptonite for a very long time.

I’m not very good at empathy, and not very good at validation unless I feel something needs [to be] validated. I have a Bachelor’s in psychology, and have read many self help books. I am happy 90% of the time and love my life.

But I do not communicate well with my wife because of my lack of validation. I have known I need to work on this for years and finally bought your book to try to start on my journey.

Can I share with you my struggle? I have 2 issues with validation.

First, I hate validating something I don’t feel deserves validation.

Let’s say “hypothetically” 🙂 that “someone’s” wife spends a majority of conversations with her spouse complaining about how the kids ruined her day, and she is overwhelmed and stressed and tired and doesn’t feel good.

Years ago, this couple discussed that the wife needed to make sure she was taking time to take care of self. Nutrition, exercise, breaks from the kids, boundaries around social media needed to be put in place for her to feel better. Years later, still the same complaining, but she hasn’t taken all the steps that she knows she needs to take to feel better. So when she shares her feelings, I do not validate them, I don’t even look at her cuz I don’t want her to feel the anger in my eyes.

I know she knows what she needs to do to fix it, and the fact that she isn’t doing it is making my life worse. That makes me feel frustrated, not supportive. If I just continue to validate, I feel I am enabling her to continue not taking action.

Any light to shine here? (This one prob just needs some marriage counseling 🙂 )

The second question will prob be easier for you to answer.

I have a fear that if I validate my wife’s feelings, I will become her venting box.

I make it a point to not vent to my wife (or anyone else for that matter… Except right now to you apparently hahaha!) because I don’t believe it’s their job to listen to my negativity so that I can feel better.

I honestly fear a life of coming home from work to listen to all the things that went wrong in my wife’s day and how the kids did this or that and then I say “oh babe, I’m so sorry. That sounds hard” and then rinse and repeat most days of the week. I want our interactions to be positive. Not negative. Am I wrong in thinking that it shouldn’t be my job to listen to her (or anyone else’s) negativity so that she (they) can feel better?

Any light you could shine on those two things would be more than appreciated.

Again, well written book. I SUPER appreciate you not making it long and full of fluff that didn’t need to be there.
Hope to hear from you soon!

Thanks for your time!

A Grateful Reader

* * *

Hi Grateful Reader,

Thank you for sharing some of the struggle with me. That’s definitely a tough spot to be in—an immediate “solution” didn’t arise for me either. With that said, here are my thoughts:

Concern #1: “I hate validating something I don’t feel deserves validation.”

I’m 100% with you here. What I’d suggest first and foremost is looking at that concern slightly differently. Rather than judging whether or not the “issue” is deserving of validation, ask yourself whether your wife deserves validation. Does she deserve to feel heard and understood? Or would you like her to feel that way? I would expect your answer to be “yes,” because you love her. The beautiful (yet also tricky) thing about validation is that it’s about the person, not the issue.

What I mean by that is this: it doesn’t matter what the issue at hand is. It could be the craziest, most bizarre fear imaginable, and it doesn’t change the fact that she—your wife—needs to feel heard and understood before she’ll put the fear aside and begin taking action. (It does also sound like she may need to work on whatever underlying issues are preventing her from making the changes you both discussed, but we’ll address that in just a moment.)

With that said, I’m making a lot of assumptions for your particular situation, so take what resonates and toss out what doesn’t:

In situations like the one you’ve described, there are generally some deeper emotional issues that the person is not (currently) willing to look at and address. Nothing against your wife—we all have those. Her busy day isn’t the immediate issue, though, and I say that because when you offer/push her to take time for herself, she refuses to do so.

SO: the goal for both of you is to figure out what the underlying concern is. If I’m in your shoes, I would find a moment when I’m centered and calm (not feeling angry at her, stressed, tired, etc) and have a casual conversation with her to try to better understand what’s going on.

That might sound something like the following:

“Hey, can I share something with you? I know you have a *lot* on your plate and I feel badly because I know I’m not very validating when you vent to me. I love you and I *want* to be more validating, AND I have such a hard time because I’m worried that if I *do* validate you, it will make it easier for you to just stay where you are and not make changes that will help.”

“I’m not quite sure how to support you because I don’t feel like you’re making self-care a priority. Could you help me understand what’s preventing you from taking time for yourself, like we discussed a couple of years ago?”

She’ll probably then go through all of the excuses—“no time,” “the kids just won’t settle down,” etc.

Whatever she says, validate it. While it won’t be true that she doesn’t have time (we all have the same number of hours in every day), she *feels* like she doesn’t have time, and since she feels like she has to do everything, she’s going to feel like she doesn’t have time. So you might say:

“Yeah…it’s tough taking time for yourself when you feel like you’re already under water—especially with everything the kids have going on right now.”

After you validate, continue asking discovery questions. You don’t want it to feel like an interrogation or like you’re pressuring her to do what you want—instead, you want to make sure it feels exploratory in nature. A sort of: “Here’s the problem before both of us. Let’s look at it together, side-by-side, and see if we can better understand it.”

I also really like the “What are you going to do?” question. That invites her to take ownership and responsibility and helps prevent endless cycles of complaining. Assuming you are sharing the load in the family and are looking for ways to support her, it’s her responsibility to speak up for what she needs.

It’s a tricky situation, to be sure, and I’m happy to discuss further if you’d like. I’ll be curious to hear how you end up handling it.

Concern #2: “I have a fear that if I validate my wife’s feelings, I will become her venting box.”

You’re not along in this fear either, and it can be an issue. I’ll bet that if you’re able to find a tactful way to explore the issue with your wife as mentioned above, it will help with this concern as well. That “what are you going to do?” question is going to be your best friend. Used consistently—and lovingly—this gently turns the responsibility back to your wife and reminds her that she is responsible for her own happiness, and she has the power to change.

So, for the next week or so, try the following whenever she complains to you:

  1. Listen
  2. Validate the emotion
  3. Ask her what she’s going to do about it

This could all happen in 60 seconds:

“Ugh…that’s tough. It seems like this is always the issue, right? …What are you going to do?”

Now, since she’s in the habit of complaining, it’s still likely that you’ll have moments where you simply aren’t up for any of it. That’s 100% okay, and entirely appropriate to set boundaries to protect your space.

There are a million different ways you could do this, and what boundaries you set will be up to you. For example, you might say:

“I’m sorry—I’m not really in a great place to talk about this right now. I want to help/support you, and I’m pretty worn out at the moment. Could we chat a bit later?”

or:

“I’m finding that, after a long day at work, I want to unwind, relax, or talk about more positive topics, so I get pretty stressed out when we start talking about the day’s problems as soon as I get home. How would you feel about setting a boundary that we keep dinner conversations positive, and save the venting for later in the evening?”

or:

“We’ve talked a lot about this, and I’m not quite certain how to help. I want to help, yet I feel like I’ve just become a complaint receiver and it’s starting to get quite draining. Do you have any solutions in mind? Any specific way I can help?”

Now, your wife may take this well, or she may lash out or withdraw into herself. If she chooses to withdraw, and now refuses to tell you anything, that’s her problem, not yours. I don’t mean to sound harsh; the boundary you set is important for your own health and happiness, and how she chooses to react to it has nothing to do with you. The benefit here, for the both of you, is that you can still choose to ask her how she’s feeling when you’re in a place where you’re willing to listen and validate, which will lead to a more genuine, caring interaction.

I’m not sure how that would go down between the two of you, and—again—I’ve made a considerable number of assumptions in this response. So take what resonates and toss out the rest. In an ideal world, if this becomes an issue, you would both be able to talk about it openly in the same manner described above. (E.g. “I want to support you, and sometimes I feel like I’m just your venting box. Any thoughts on how we could address that?”)

Let me know your thoughts.

Michael

* * *

Have you, the readers, experienced situations like this? If so, how did you handle it? Any additional tips or thoughts? Let me know if the comments below.

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