Complaining is the cheapest form of connection there is, and it’s one of the most surefire ways to relate to someone.
All I have to do is step outside my apartment door to get pulled into a negative conversation about the neighbors, the building, the management. At the grocery store, the person in front of me is complaining that someone’s going into the 10 items or less lane with 20 items.
Complaining is everywhere, and underneath it all is really just a need for human connection.
Joy and gratitude are vulnerable emotions to express. There’s no quicker way to get people to think you’re crazy than showing up to a meeting bright-eyed and excited or by opening with something chipper and cheery.
We’ve been trained to connect with each other around misery and problems and to act without thinking. We’re trained to turn to complaining for connection.
What do you do when complaints show up in your romantic relationships? It may feel tempting to ignore them, to check out and pretend to listen as your partner “goes off,” and just hope the problem goes away. Maybe they’ll handle it on their own…
The issue is that the problem isn’t just theirs, especially if the complaint is about something that’s coming up in the relationship. If you’re in a relationship that you’re committed to – one in which you want to create deeper connection and continue to show up for – ignoring the complaint is not the solution.
Checking out and being passive about complaints will not lead to increased connection, intimacy, or trust. Your partner will likely not feel taken care of and not feel they’re being heard and seen by you. A passive approach could end up unraveling the connection altogether.
No one is a mind reader, and it can be difficult to understand what’s really going on with your partner. Communication is key, and unless words are expressed that explain what’s going on, it’s impossible to really know what’s underneath the complaint and what action is needed to really move forward.
Here are some places to start.
Find The Desire
Underneath every complaint is a desire.
I hear a lot of pretty common complaints from my clients in my relationship coaching practice. “He plays too many video games,” “He forgot to include me in xyz,” and most recently, “He’s not making his vaccine appointment a priority and I had to schedule it for him.”
I instruct my clients that when these pesky complaints come up, to sit with themselves for a minute and slow down. They so often want to go straight to pointing the finger and make it about the other person’s behavior.
I ask them, “What’s your desire underneath this complaint?” Usually, it’s “Well, I want him to ask about my day before turning on his video games,” or “I want to feel like a priority in his life,” or “I want to make sure he’s vaccinated so he can spend time with my family.”
What all of those complaints have in common is that they share the common desire for connection. At the end of the day, these partners simply want to feel more connected in their relationships, to feel included, and to know they’re going to be able to have their people remain consistent in their lives.
Look For The Truth
When we search for desire and hit the truth lying beneath, the complaint often seems less scary. It feels more honest and like the situation is less charged. Finding the desire is finding the truth of the situation, and from that place, you can engage in a dialogue where the other person can actually feel connected to you instead of having to navigate a blame game.
Behind every complaint, there is someone’s desire and truth. Remember that complaining is information about how they really feel, and it can be a way for you to pick up some clues.
Complaints are ways of expressing that we feel victimized by life and shunning our responsibilities, and when someone commiserates with us about these things, they are validating that powerlessness. Women come to me and want to complain about their partners’ behavior and have me co-sign on the blaming, to jump right in and commiserate with them. They don’t always love when I turn the responsibility toward them instead and invite them to speak up and express their desire for connection and better communication with their partners directly.
When we’re complaining, a lot of the time, it’s the best way we know to ask for help. We’re looking for support in something we feel powerless over. “This thing is out of control and is having a negative impact on my life.”
Can you learn to listen more carefully to your own complaints and to those of your partner and others? What is it that you are hearing or what it is that they are really saying?
For example, if your partner is constantly nagging, saying, “You’re never home during the week,” what they’re really saying is that they feel victimized by your behavior and you’re not showing up the way they want you to.
This doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong or that it’s your fault – it’s simply a place to get curious about how they feel. It’s information. It’s what’s going on inside them.
Ask yourself what they’re saying they feel victimized by. If your partner is nagging you about watching too much television, playing video games, or spending too much time with friends, it’s a good indication they may be craving more attention and support than they are getting from you.
These situations have very easy solutions: You can invite your partner to have a conversation to renegotiate each other’s needs, or you can reflect on your own behavior and take a different action.
The truth is, you always have power, even if it doesn’t feel like it. When you hear yourself complaining, ask yourself, “What am I really saying I feel victimized by?” Or when you hear your partner complaining, check in and examine, “What might be underneath this complaint?”
Get curious; is there anything you can do to change this?
Let Your Partner Actually Feel You
A lot of times, we turn to complaining simply because it feels easier; it’s a way to get someone’s attention. Most people want to help and offer solutions and will potentially come in to help “save you.”
Complaining masks vulnerability, desire, and joy.
Joy is our most natural essence, yet so often, we avoid letting ourselves tap into it. Desire is where the power and electricity come from in our relationships, but it feels intense and vulnerable to lead with. When we’re vulnerable, we’re setting ourselves up to either be dropped, misunderstood, or rejected completely.
Connection and intimacy are felt experiences, and if we’re disconnected from our joy and desire, or we’re unwilling to be vulnerable, we’re not going to have the level of depth and fulfillment we’re seeking with each other.
I had a partner who was very sensitive to this. Anytime I got too far from my desire or joy or was withholding expression from him, he felt it. He’d say, “Molly, you feel very far right now, what’s going on?” I appreciated him taking a stand for this felt sense of connection he wanted to always have flowing in our relationship. It was a great lesson for me to stay close to my essence, to express myself no matter what, no matter how messy or awkward, and to trust that my partner would want to work through these spots with me.
Complaints are better expressed than not – I always say “better out than in” – but I also challenge you, like I do with clients, to see if you can remove a layer and tap into what’s really underneath. There’s likely a desire or spot of vulnerability that feels easier to express in the form of a complaint, but finding your truth first will lead to more intimacy faster.
Remember, at the end of the day, we’re all looking for connection. We’re wired for connection, we want to belong, we want to feel a part of something, we want to know we’re not alone. Complaining is one of the easiest ways to relate to each other but you can choose instead to be a source of permission for someone else to tap into their joy, desire, or gratitude. Let’s change the paradigm and lead with emotional intelligence and honesty and let others feel our real essence from the start.