Listen Up: Stop Complaining about Your Spouse to Your Friends
by Isabella Markert
My husband, his siblings, and I were playing an intense board game. I was losing by just enough that I knew I could still win. Every few minutes, my husband (who is not competitive at all) gave me (who is only competitive when losing) strategy advice, for which I was grateful. I’m not above a little honest cheating.
“We were all getting into it, and soon enough, the atmosphere had switched from light and fun to tense and competitive. I found myself complaining out loud that my husband kept trying to tell me what to do, and his advice kept backfiring.
The game ended, and my sister-in-law and I started doing the dishes together. Only then did it hit me: I had crossed a line. My playful banter had gotten a little mean.
“Why is it that I’m so mean to Kaleb when we all get together?” I said, pausing as I dried off a dinner plate. “I’m pretty good at being kind when we’re at home. I don’t get it.”
My sister-in-law furrowed her eyebrows and said she felt the same way about her own behavior—she was a perfectly loving spouse at home, but as soon as she was around other people, she would start to say slightly unkind things about her husband that she didn’t really mean.
We thought for a little and decided that we said these things for comedic effect. With television shows so often using marriage quibbles as a running joke, being less-than-kind to our husbands was a practice we had unwittingly embraced. We decided together that we would be better about being intentionally kind to our husbands when the whole family was together.
I’ve thought a lot about this incident since then, and I’ve realized that the way we talk to and about our spouses in public makes a huge difference in how safe and close a marriage feels.
And research backs this up: a 2014 study found that complaining to others about your partner makes you less invested, committed, and satisfied in your relationship. If you find yourself complaining about your spouse to friends or family, here are some tips to keep in mind: don’t vent to friends who are just going to agree with you, dig deep to find out what you’re really complaining about, and learn to complain without criticizing.
Don’t Vent to Friends Who Are Just Going to Agree with You
If you must complain about your spouse to someone, be selective about who you complain to. The person you complain to should be impartial, but not passive.
Why? A study at Arizona University found that when workers complain about their supervisor to someone who simply agrees with them, they not only stay angry but also feel less hopeful about the situation. But when the listener responds by reframing the complaints in a more thoughtful way, people tended to feel less angry and more forgiving. These impartial, nonpassive listeners would say things like, “What was your part in this situation?” or “Want to brainstorm some solutions to this situation?”
Find a friend who will respond like these good listeners, and stay clear of friends who will just agree with you. It does feel nice to be validated, but the potential negative effects on your marriage may not be worth it.
Dig Deep: Ask Yourself, “What Am I Really Complaining About?”
Think you’re simply upset that your wife ate the leftover dessert you were really looking forward to eating after work? Think again.
“Most of the time, when we have a complaint, we are feeling some level of pain and disconnect,” said Jessica Higgins, Ph.D. “It is more important to look at your underlying need of connection than it is to complain and criticize your partner.”
Maybe you’re really upset because your late work hours mean you’re missing out on time (and cake) with your family. Maybe you feel abandoned because your wife seems to forget about you while you’re gone.
When I was complaining about my husband’s advice going awry, I wasn’t really upset about him being pushy or the fact that I was losing the game. I was upset at myself for lacking the confidence to trust my own judgment. It wasn’t about my husband at all.
Complain to Your Spouse (Without Criticizing)
If there’s something about your spouse or your marriage that’s driving you crazy, first dig deep and identify what you’re really complaining about. Then bring that complaint to your spouse without criticizing. Here’s how to go about that the right way:
1. Start by expressing your feelings. This could be an emotion like annoyance or stress or a physical state, like exhaustion or pain. Start by expressing your feelings. This could be an emotion like annoyance or stress or a physical state, like exhaustion or pain. Refrain from a hard, critical opening like “You always” or “You never.”
2. Then, describe the specific situation or behavior that led to that feeling. This isn’t an attack on character or criticism of behavior.
3. And finally, state a positive need. Ask your spouse to take action to resolve your complaint.
Instead of flinging sarcastic complaints at my husband while playing that board game, I could have waited until we were alone and then said, “I feel frustrated when you offer me strategy advice and then that advice doesn’t work out. Could you please just encourage me and let me lose in the future? I think that will be better for my self-confidence.”
All couples have things they could complain about. The trick is to be selective about who you complain to, find out what’s really bothering you, and bring your complaints to your spouse without criticizing. Despite the things that will inevitably bother you about each other, these tips will help your marriage be happier and healthier.
Isabella Markert is a freelance writer, editor, and language educator. Isabella graduated from Brigham Young University, where she majored in English language and minored in editing. She is experienced in social media and web content and enjoys writing practical and fun pieces that make her readers’ lives better. When she’s not writing or editing, Isabella likes to play games with her husband and family, follow watercolor tutorials from Pinterest, and eat the snobbiest chocolate she can find.