Last April, at the annual Couples Conference in Manhattan Beach, therapist Michelle Weiner Davis said, “When women tell you that they’ve tried everything, what they really mean is that they’ve said everything.”
Precisely, I thought. Every day clients announce “I’ve tried everything” when the truth is they’ve barely begun to consider their options, let alone act on them.
Like the woman who came in last week for her first appointment.
Hers is a difficult situation with a husband who works fifteen hour days and when at home, he expects to be given a hall pass on any household or childcare responsibilities.
“I’ve done everything humanly possible,” she said, complete with the sigh and forlorn look that often accompanies that statement.
“Well, talking didn’t work, so I progressed to yelling. But that didn’t work, either. So now I just calmly tell him that what he’s doing sucks.”
That’s it? I asked. Apparently so.
Many of us look into our relationship toolbox and find we’re seriously under-supplied. We may have a bunch of broken down, rusted out stuff that we inherited from our parents. We may even have a few things that might someday be helpful, if we were to learn how to use them. But no matter what else have, every one of us has a full set of complaints that we’re happy to drag out when all else fails.
Many people complain regularly, despite its ineffectiveness. Still, since nobody does anything unless it brings them some sort of benefit, those of us who complain must be getting something from it or else we wouldn’t be doing it. Though my complaining has never once inspired my husband to change, I’ll admit that it does blow off some of my tension, but that’s about it. Compared to the down side, I’d say that’s not much of a plus.
The biggest problem with complaining is that it gives complainers a false belief that they are actually doing something about their problem when they’re doing nothing at all. Never mind that complaining is like playing the same piece of really unpleasant music over and over and over again. In the end, both complainer and complained-to are worn down to a nub. And in spite of all that, nothing has changed.
Even so, complaining is one of the normal and typical responses we have to life’s difficulties. I once listened to a radio show where the host invited people to call in and complain about whatever they wanted, and dozens responded. My favorite was a guy who said, “My shoes are too darned tight.” Then he hung up.
Complaining about the things in our relationship that we don’t like isn’t all that different from the guy with the shoes. Complaining points out problems instead of seeking action to remedy them. Fueled by both helplessness and victimization, complaining says “I don’t like what’s happening and someone else needs to fix it.”
Many of us who have a tendency to complain will admit that our grousing is by no means a problem solving tool. But few realize that it’s a behavior that will stifle their growth.
When we complain, we aren’t asking ourselves to be creative or firm or to take responsibility for the conditions of our own life. We are instead sidestepping the necessary hard work of taking a stand. Complaining is passive, even if we stamp our feet or shout while doing it.
Say we give up complaining. Then what recourse do we have? Are we relinquishing our right to express our likes and dislikes? Are we to just live under conditions that we find intolerable?
Once we acknowledge that complaining doesn’t effect change, we’ll see that if we stop doing it we are, in fact, relinquishing nothing.
As for addressing the things in our life we don’t like, speaking up is essential.
I would never suggest that people silence themselves about important issues. What I am suggesting is that rather than hand the issue off to our partner, we must consider what action we will take, what change we alone will make.
My client with the husband who stonewalls about family responsibilities replaced her complaining with this carefully thought-out statement:
“Both of us work and we also have two children and a home. While you work longer hours, I never agreed to be the sole person running the household. If you believe you cannot participate more fully, I would like you to hire someone to take your share of the responsibilities. If you don’t want to do that, I will.”
If you think you’ve tried everything, ask yourself this:
“Is there an action that I have considered but have not taken because I fear rocking the boat? If that action may actually make a difference, can I, for my own good and the good of my marriage, find the courage to risk doing it anyway?”