Complaining About Your Loved Ones

Is there anything so common and needlessly corrosive to your personal mental health, and that of your loved ones, as complaining to your coworkers about them? I’m struggling to think of anything.

When we take a problem with a person we love—he leaves his socks all around the house, she never cleans up the kitchen after cooking in it—and express it not to that person, but to a third person, we’ve complicated what is likely to be an easy conversation. It’s pretty unlikely that your significant other is unwilling to try to improve the things about them that bother you. (If they’re really unwilling, I’d begin to wonder how much they did love you. But that’s a whole different conversation.)

When we make problems we have into complaints we share we make the core issues harder and messier to solve. Two changes typically come when a problem becomes a complaint:

  • The path to solve the issue is obscured. How quickly does “You’re sometimes careless about where you leave your socks when you take them off” turn into “And he always leaves his socks EVERYWHERE! I’d be surprised if there aren’t three behind the TV.”? Real fast. Suddenly transitory behavior is rendered as an unchangeable characteristic. This means that when you express your sentiment as a complaint, even when you do so as kindly as possible, the conversation probably doesn’t lead to problem-solving. It likely leads to the cliche-level escalation of “Well you always leave dirty dishes in the sink!”
  • You’ve brought more people into the problem.  This isn’t inherently obvious—some people really do keep confided complaints quiet and invisible—but we know that most of us don’t. By complaining to a third party about something that can be solved between the two of you, you’re making the whole behavior stickier. Suddenly the person the complaint is about isn’t only responsible to you who took issue with the behavior, but instead to all the people who you’ve complained about the behavior to. Suddenly when I go to take me shoes off not just you, but the children, your visiting mother, and your best friend are all going to be carefully watching what I do with my socks. This may seem like it’ll help—and it’s possible it does in the short-term—but the likelihood of resentment about this external vigilance is high, and that typically leads to retrenchment rather than the kind of change that would have resolved your problem with the places I leave my socks.

The conversations the mitigate complaints aren’t always obvious and easy to have. Especially if you’ve already made the problem into a complaint, it can be really hard to believe that there’s any solution to it. A few perennial pieces of advice come to mind when I think about how best to have a “compaint conversation”:

  • Think and speak in terms of changeable behaviors and not intractable traits. Don’t say “You’re a slob!” What you want to do is instead observe—ideally in a neutral way—the behavior that’s leading to the complaint. “Your socks are scattered throughout the house.”
  • Keep in mind that this is a solvable problem, and you can (maybe even should) be involved in figuring out a solution. Maybe what I need is for you to remind me to put my socks in the hamper when I go to take them off. Be ready to provide that support if it’s requested. (Though probably best not to assume it’ll be necessary or desired. People like to solve things on their own, and may resent the assumption that they’ll need your help.)

This has all felt a bit preachy, but it was on my mind. I’ll close with an anecdote from Alina Tegund’s essay about her experience of being exposed to A Complaint Free World a group I’d never heard about until I found the piece five minutes ago:

I was in a class where everyone was annoyed at the teacher for regularly failing to show up on time. It was an easily fixable problem, but all of us — about a dozen — complained in whispers to one another for weeks.

A few grumbled to other teachers and even spoke to the head of the entire program. But nothing changed. Finally, one brave soul broached the subject directly with our teacher.

He responded graciously and started showing up promptly.

This is precisely the point. Simple conversations make life better far more effectively than endless complaining to people not in a position to solve the problem.