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 spouse 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” spouse spends a majority of conversations with their spouse complaining about how the kids ruined their day, and they are overwhelmed and stressed and tired and don’t feel good.

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

I know they know what they need to do to fix it, and the fact that they aren’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 them 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 spouse’s feelings, I will become their venting box.

I make it a point to not vent to my spouse (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 spouse’s day and how the kids did this or that and then I say “oh, 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 their (or anyone else’s) negativity so that 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 spouse deserves validation. Do they deserve to feel heard and understood? Or would you like them to feel that way? I would expect your answer to be “yes,” because you love them. 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 they—your spouse—needs to feel heard and understood before they’ll put the fear aside and begin taking action. (It does also sound like they may need to work on whatever underlying issues are preventing them 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 spouse—we all have those. Their busy day isn’t the immediate issue, though, and I say that because when you offer/push them to take time for themselves, they refuse 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 them, stressed, tired, etc) and have a casual conversation with them 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?”

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

Whatever they say, validate it. While it won’t be true that they don’t have time (we all have the same number of hours in every day), they *feel* like they don’t have time, and since they feel like they have to do everything, they’re going to feel like they don’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 them 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 them 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 them, it’s their responsibility to speak up for what they need.

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 spouse’s feelings, I will become their 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 spouse 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 spouse and reminds them that they are responsible for their own happiness, and they have the power to change.

So, for the next week or so, try the following whenever they complain to you:

  1. Listen
  2. Validate the emotion
  3. Ask them what they’re 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 they’re 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 spouse may take this well, or they may lash out or withdraw into themselves. If they chooses to withdraw, and now refuses to tell you anything, that’s their problem, not yours. I don’t mean to sound harsh; the boundary you set is important for your own health and happiness, and how they choose 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 them how they’re 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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4 thoughts on “What Do I Do If My Partner is Constantly Complaining?”

  1. I’ve been looking for this advice for over 30 years. Everywhere. With marriage counseling as a couple for over 10 years, and in private counseling with 4 counselors. I read this blog in less than 10 minutes. Your method Is brilliant, your examples are beautiful. You have validated ME. Now I know for sure it’s not me and not my responsibility to make my husband happy. And I feel free to give this marriage another try by putting the responsibility for change off my shoulders and back where it belongs. Whether it works as a catalyst of change isn’t up to me. But if it doesn’t work I will be at peace knowing I truly gave my best – in addition to having given it my all. Having this validation, today, is more valuable to me than being in an unhappy marriage. With heartfelt thanks, God Bless You.

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Cindy,

      Thank you for taking the time to send this—it’s comments like these that keep me writing. While I am saddened to hear of your situation, I am thrilled to hear you have found this article empowering. Coming to a true understanding of what is “ours” and what is “theirs” is life changing. I wish you the very best.

      Michael

  2. Nobody can see a subtle gender violence here? Just in this history. Poor husband.. What an awful wife complaining!!! Well, kids and home are not stressful, and men need to relax, and women be happy and comprehensive. This woman has to shout her mouth and take the newspaper and a cup of tea to her husband, and stop complaining!!!!

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Carol,

      I can absolutely see how this can come across that way. In my discussions with this individual, he mentioned that he had sat down numerous times with his wife to figure out what more he could do to support her and help ease the stress of the day. While it is not evident in the excerpt I posted, I understood his frustration to be around the fact that he is *trying* to lift the load and make sure he is carrying equal part of the responsibility, yet she brushes him off while continuing to complain.

      My intent in sharing this exchange is to discuss healthy ways of approaching a situation in which a partner has received offers for help and viable solutions, but nevertheless chooses to remain in a victim mindset.

      Regardless, I appreciate you raising this concern, as I am a strong proponent of both partners being complete equals in a relationship. The above situation could just as easily be a husband complaining to his wife, or a wife to a wife, or husband to a husband, a co-worker to a co-worker, a child to a parent, etc. As such, I have changed the pronouns to be gender neutral, so as to no longer detract from the principles being taught.

      Kind regards,

      Michael

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