Listen for the longing behind complaints
Vail CO, Colorado
Dear Neil: I am in a relationship with a guy who is driving me crazy with his complaints. First it’s his back that hurts, and then his shoulders, and then how unfair his ex-wife was with him when she “took him” for a large settlement, then with how he’s being made to work too hard at his job and that they don’t pay him enough money for what he does. I know he has a physically demanding job, which is taxing on him, but I’m not sure I can continue to listen to all of this. What am I supposed to do with all of these complaints?
” Help Me in St. Louis
Dear St. Louis: Often people complain because they long for something to change ” or they want something different to happen. Try this exercise. I think it will answer your question and assist you in figuring out what to do with your chronically complaining boyfriend. This exercise comes courtesy of John and Julie Schwartz Gottman in the book “10 Lessons To Transform Your Marriage.” They offer examples of complaints, followed by the desire the complaint represents:
Complaint: Why do you always let the garbage pile up like this?
Longing: I wish we could feel more like teammates taking care of our house.
Complaint: You never call me during the day.
Longing: I wish we could feel close to each other even when we are apart.
Complaint: I’m tired of making dinner every night.
Longing: I’d like to go out to dinner with you as we did when we were dating.
See if you can imagine the positive desire behind the following complaints:
Complaint: It feels like so long since we’ve had any fun.
Complaint: We haven’t had sex in weeks. What’s wrong with you?
Complaint: I never seem to get personal presents for my birthday.
Complaint: I’m just too tired to go grocery shopping.
Complaint: If you keep spending like this, we’ll go bankrupt.
Complaint: I hate it when your mother drops by without calling first.
Now go to your boyfriend’s complaints:
Complaint: “I work too hard for what they pay me.”
What is he longing for and/or asking? For sympathy? Understanding? For you to contribute more money to the relationship? To be told how heroic he is for getting up every morning and still going to work even though it’s unrewarding and hard?
Complaint: My back and shoulders are hurting.
What would you guess he is longing for? What’s his unstated desire, and why would you guess he’s telling you?
Complaint: “My ex-wife is really living well while I slave away every day. Does that seem fair to you?”
Again, guess what his longing is about, and what he wants from you.
Often times, what’s asked of us is to have deep compassion and empathy for the “raw deals” that our partners have had to put up with through the years. Sometimes just a warm shoulder to cry on is all that’s necessary. Sometimes, it may be for a goal (“Would you please massage my shoulders and back?” “Could you pay for some of our shared expenses so I don’t have to work such long hours?” “Do you think I should go to a lawyer and re-open my divorce settlement?”) Sometimes, a complaint is really a back door way of trying to exert control over a situation, or to ask for something. (“You can’t fix my back, but I’d feel better if we made love. What do you say?”)
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Denver and Boulder, specializing in how people strengthen their intimate relationships. He can be reached at (303) 758-8777, or e-mail him from his website, heartrelationships.com.
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