Why We Complain

by Kevin-Joel Coupland, RP

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Shortly after I met “Steve and Julie” (not their real names), I asked them what they thought were some of the main challenges that they experience in their relationship. It wasn’t long before Julie began to identify some of the short comings of her husband. Julie shared: “whenever I try to talk to him about how I’m feeling, he always shuts down and won’t talk to me.” This type of complaint is all too common.

In relationships, we have two desires that both work for and against each other. We have needs for connection and protection. The need for connection starts when we are born and absolutely need people in our life that will nurture us and care for us. Humans thrive on safe and healthy connection with other humans. There is also a primal instinct for protection that drives us to defend ourselves when we perceive danger or disconnection. Often the desire for protection overshadows our desire for connection in the moment. The instinct to protect also has a way of causing us to inflate the danger and see threat in an exaggerated way. When you hear words like: “always and never” it is a pretty good indication that the defensive system is noticing all threats and working at optimal levels to ward off danger.

This desire for connection and protection can influence us to complain, or as Dr. John Gottman calls it, we “protest” the feeling of disconnection or lack of protection. This is the main role of complaining. Julie wanted Steve to pay attention to her and connect with her. She wanted him to initiate conversation and stay even during hard conversations. For Steve, this was just too overwhelming and in his attempt to preserve the connection they had, he attempted to avoid difficult issues. However this strategy just wasn’t working for Julie, and when she couldn’t get him to engage, she resorted to complaining to get his attention.

“What is wrong with you?” was a common question that inferred that Steve had some character flaw that prevented him from connecting with her the way she desired. Each time Steve heard this message he felt both judgement and frustration which boiled over into anger. He couldn’t understand why she had to make a big issue out of everything when he, on the other hand, could so easily forgive and forget. It felt like she intentionally was trying to create new drama every day and he was tired of it.

The good news is that Julie still cared enough about Steve and the relationship to complain. If her feelings had completely disconnected, then she would not have wasted her energy trying to repair the disconnection. The other good thing is that Julie knew what she wanted from Steve. However, her hurt over the disconnection and her internal protection system prevented her from telling Steve directly what she really wanted. Instead she resorted to letting him know how much she was hurt by him and how he continued to disappoint her. Her negative reaction was getting in the way.

Over the following sessions, we spent time unlearning the complaining process and learning how to ask in a safe and healthy way for what she desired in their relationship. Old habits die hard, and at times she fell back into the old defensive trap of complain and blame. But as time went by, both Julie and Steve learned that the complaining was not because she hated him, but because she actually loved him so much that the disconnection was just too painful to endure. She then learned how to open up and ask with kindness and patience for what she desired from him.

Steve also made changes. He started to see that by trying to preserve the connection through silence, he was upsetting and triggering his wife and that wasn’t a healthy strategy for their relationship. Instead, little by little, he began to lower his old defensive strategy and re-interpret Julie’s attempts in a much more positive light. He even began to initiate conversation and really tune in to what she was thinking and feeling and the changes were miraculous. When Julie felt more connected, then she didn’t need to focus on protecting herself, and felt more at ease to even dish out the occasional compliment. Steve especially appreciated this treatment and became even more enthusiastic to try even harder to make his wife happy.

Complaining is the negative way to let someone else know what you want or what you don’t want to happen. We do it because it works… in the short term. The long term effects of complaining results in a toxic environment. It is far more effective and healthy to instead say what it is that you want in the most positive way possible. To start, express appreciation. Follow that up with a strong dose of “the benefit of the doubt” and be mindful of the undermining words that counteract what you are trying to say. Words like: “actually” can poison a request. For example, Steve had promised to do some extra duties around the house. However one night he was feeling lazy and sat on the couch. When he got up to clear the dishwasher Julie noted: “thanks for actually doing the dishes.” It was her backhanded way of thanking him and complaining at the same time. Julie would have done well to learn where to stick the period in her sentence, but she just couldn’t bite her tongue because she was annoyed that Steve had promised to do more and let her down. She really believed it was important to tell him so he wouldn’t disappoint her again. She wanted to protect herself. The complaint didn’t result in greater connection. Quite the opposite, Steve returned to his defensive posture and wondered: “why do I even bother?” The couple overcame this speed bump, but it took bit of time to work through it and repair the resulting disconnection.

Complaining is not always a bad thing. In the case of Julie and Steve, the complaining revealed a desire for greater connection. However, like a brick that can be used to either break a window or build a school, complaining can be used for good or bad. Understand that when the temptation to complain is present, this must mean that connection or safety is missing. Then instead of making it worse with the type of complaining that judges and condemns, speak to your partner in a kind and accepting way that encourages both connection and protection.

about the author

Kevin is known as “the couples guy” and helps many couples work towards an emotionally safe and connected relationship. He is situated on the west side of Toronto, but serves couples all over Ontario.