Dear Neil: I live with a man who is driving me crazy. Seemingly, he’s unhappy about almost everything—his job, the amount of money he makes, how much he has saved for retirement, how other people treat him, how his kids are ungrateful for all he has done for them, about his hurt knee, his wounded pride because his last employer let him go, how unfair things are that he hasn’t acquired as much as he has wanted or traveled as much as he’s desired. He’s unhappy with his lot in life, and feels cheated by his life, and it causes me endless frustration because I can’t fix what’s ailing him, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be around him. Any help you could offer would be greatly appreciated.
Needing Help in British Columbia
Dear Needing Help: Chronic complaining eats away at the fabric of a relationship. It puts one person in the position of repeatedly attempting to fix the problems or emotions of another. In a relationship, all of us occasionally ask that our partners help us fix a problem and repair our emotions. That’s one of the benefits of being in a relationship. But over time, this dynamic leads one partner to become more a giver—and the other partner to become more a taker—and that will lead to resentment and distance in a relationship.
But even if the partner of a chronic complainer is extraordinary compassionate and empathetic, over time that person is likely to develop compassion fatigue. That is, you’ll grow weary of repeatedly listening to the misery, the suffering, the “woe is me” attitude—and you’ll wind up tuning your partner’s complaints out, becoming more and more deaf to that which you can’t fix and what just drags you down.
It’s a downer to listen to someone you care about chronically unhappy or miserable. It’s disempowering for both of you, and over any period time, both of you will likely to grow hopeless and despondent. Worst of all, it deadens the intimacy in your relationship. How intimate do you think you’re going to feel when your intimate partner communicates that s/he is unhappy the vast majority of the time?
If you’re a chronic complainer, the only lasting solution is to get very proactive and aggressively fix the issues causing your unhappiness. As best you can, one by one, tackle and defeat every injustice, disappointment, disillusionment or hurt you feel. By consistently being constructive in trying to get your life back on track, you’ll increase your self-esteem and your urge to complain will dramatically lessen.
If you are person, listening to a chronic complainer, understand that your partner is hoping for a compassionate and caring companion who will rescue him from his misery and help him to be happier, which is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve for someone else—and it can be never-ending.
You’re going to have to set boundaries and put limits on how much you are willing to listen to. Instead of listening to incessant complaining, ask your partner what he can do to constructively address or resolve his problems or worries, and then encourage him to take action. Communicate to him that you believe in him—and that you know he’s capable of solving this issue. Perhaps you might offer you help so the two of you work as a team to help resolve what’s bothering him.
Nothing will change if he is unwilling to take constructive action on his own behalf.