About twenty-one days into our quarantine, I had a very grumpy day. Everything little thing seemed to annoyed me. And I found myself complaining. A lot. Midway through the day, JB announced he was going for a walk. Alone. Not only did that make me grumpier, it also made me feel guilty. Because I realized that everything I complained about was pointed at him, even if he had nothing to do with it.
I know I’m not the only one feeling challenged right now. Dealing with the stress of the news, worrying about people’s health and the economy, and cabin fever is a given for many folks. And complaining, feeling annoyed by everything, or wanting to pick a fight is a side affect of fear. We’re dealing with so much that’s out of our control AND an invisible virus. So, when you consider that our response to fear is flight, fight, or freeze, complaining is a way to fight. Because we’re already “freezing” in place. And there is nowhere to run.
Complaining about things can make us feel we’re doing something about our stress and fears. We’re venting, expressing our opinion, taking a stand, and feeling all the feelings!
Yet, complaining about things just makes me feel crappier when I would rather choose more pleasant emotions.
Complaining invites us to focus on the problem. So, rather than put your precious attention on a solution, we wallow in the problem. Complaining gets you got in a cycle of focusing on the problem, verbalizing it, and then finding more things to complain about. So, it captures our attention and then causes us to feel even more negative about our lives.
And right now, more than ever, I need hope and positivity rather than negativity.
Look, I believe everyone has a right to their feelings. And I know from experience that if we tamp down our emotions, we’ll never create a life that feels nourishing. Because, in part, we are denying our own reality. So, I’m not suggesting that we ignore how we’re feeling. Rather, I’m reminding you (and me) that complaining mires me down in the negative. Without hope of reaching more positive outcomes.Complaining doesn’t fix anything or help anyone. What the point of inviting negative interactions with others?
And remember: just because you have feelings doesn’t mean you need to tell everyone about every single one of those feelings. Especially right now when we’re all getting tired of sheltering in place. Trust me, everyone you live with knows there’s a lot of challenges right now.
In addition to making me feel unhappy, I am also reminding myself that complaining can hurt relationships.
The Gottman Institute found that couples who share negative interactions are more likely to divorce early. Their research further showed that need four positive interactions with our partner for each negative interaction. So, when we complain, it’s not only a negative interaction. It feels like criticism. And I ask you: do you want to be criticized all the time? Because living with someone that’s complaining and criticizing feels pretty crappy.
I’m a realist and I know that perfect harmony is impossible every single moment of the day. Even healthy relationships will see some conflict. However, that doesn’t mean we have to escalate it. Rather than escalate a fleeting negative emotion, ask yourself how you’d rather feel.
That doesn’t mean you aren’t irritated or even angry with your partner. Instead, it’s the old adage of: would you rather be right or happy? Because often, when we choose being “right”, we open the door to more negative emotions to come pouring through.
In order to stop complaining and eventually harming your relationship, stop and think before you speak. This is really about self-awareness. Think carefully about how you desire to feel and what’s really bugging you. Instead of spouting off with a snarky remark from a moment of feeling cranky, be clear with yourself as to why you’re angry, irritable, or on edge. Are you angry because your partner left his socks on the floor or are you sad because you miss going to lunch with a girlfriend?
Now is a great time to also step back and create a relationship vision with your partner. A shared vision for your relationship gives you the clarity to manage your life together. And it’s a great way to choose how you desire your relationship to feel. And agree to let the little irritations go.
This isn’t to say that little things don’t matter. Little things matter, yet they don’t.
I am the first to tell you that little things matter when it comes to happiness. There’s a reason why fresh flowers in your home or a brand new lipstick lifts your spirits. Life is made so much sweeter and nourishing when we notice and indulge in simple pleasures or even little luxuries. Those little things add up to helping you choose happiness. And it can be the path to ensuring that you thrive in your daily life no matter what’s happening in the world.
However, I’m the first to tell you that focusing on the little things your partner does in a negative way can whittle away at love and trust. My ex-husband was constantly complaining that I didn’t load the dishwasher correctly. And while that seems like a small thing, it made me believe I could never do “anything” right in our marriage. And, frankly, that one constant complaint of his still comes to mind more than a decade after our divorce.
Would you rather focus on the little things that are right in your relationship? To focus on sharing a cup of coffee together in the morning, the fact your husband opens the car door for you, or that he never fails to take out the trash? Or would you prefer to nitpick every little thing that irritates you. And ensure that he’s well aware of how irritated you are by complaining?
The choice is yours, my dear. What we focus on, grows. And now, in this challenging season, I’d much rather focus on what’s right in my life rather than what’s wrong in the moment. Gratitude and love over negativity is how I’d rather live, that’s for sure.
So, how am I reacting when I would typically complain? I’m saying “So what?”
One day last week, I opened my spice cabinet and out came tumbling four jars of spices. One of which struck the corner of my small crock pot, knocking off a chunk of the ceramic. I wanted to bitch and complain. To immediately chastise JB for putting the spices in the “wrong place”. And then I stopped myself.
Did I want to vent my frustration and allow this little challenge to annoy me further? Was being self-righteous about how things “should” be put away more important than the health of my relationship? And what emotion did I want to focus on? The reasons JB had put the spices away was that he’d cleaned the kitchen after dinner the night before, leaving me to relax and read a book. Would I rather focus on feeling grateful or feeling irritated?
I took a deep breath and said “So what?” I put the spices in the spots I prefer. And then ordered a replacement crock-pot for $9.99 from Target. Trust me, spending five minutes tidying up the kitchen and adding a $10 item to my Target order was worth the time and the money. Because the health of my relationship is worth it. And my own sense of satisfaction with my life is worth pausing rather than complaining.
My choice to choose my relationship and my own happiness in a productive and compassionate allowed me to have a happier day. And meant that our combined time together felt nourishing and fun rather than both of us feeling rotten. Life and relationships can’t help but thrive when we fuel them with kindness, compassion, and grace.
Let’s be honest: no one’s perfect.
This awareness around how complaining was making me unhappy and making JB feel attached doesn’t mean I’ll never complain again. But it is helping me do it less often. And that, my darling, makes me a much more joyous person. And not once since then has my partner, in turn, felt like he needed to withdraw to protect himself.
So, what about you? Isn’t your own happiness more important than getting mired down into the way complaining makes you feel in the long run? Would you rather choose to be right or happy? Isn’t the health of your relationship more important than calling attention to every little thing that’s irritating you?
How can you look beyond the stress and strain of this time in our lives? And how could letting the little things go strengthen your relationship?