What Would Aristotle Do?

The power of reason.

Living with Someone who Constantly Complains

How to cope more rationally and less stressfully.

Does your significant other seem to be relentlessly complaining, invading your personal space with a steady stream of personal problems and negativity, leaving little or no room for you to share your own emotional life; refusing to stop?

Dysfunctional Interpersonal relationships such as this are quite prevalent within the general population and they can take their toll on your happiness. The emotions most often experienced are ones of resentment and anger. You may feel like you are caught in a trap and the more you struggle to get out, the tighter become the clamps and the less freedom you have. These feelings are understandable but they tend to be driven by irrational thoughts that get in the way of rationally addressing the situation.

If this sounds like you, then it is important to get clear on the thought process that is leading to these strong negative emotions. Typically, it is driven by a syndrome of faulty thinking errors that can lead you to self-defeatingly retaliate with anything from name calling to physical aggression. So what does this self-disturbing thought process look like? Here is the general “emotional reasoning” template: 

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1. I must not be forced against my will to hear your constant complaining

2. Therefore, it is awful that you just won’t stop.

3. Therefore, I can't stand it any longer

4. Therefore I must do something to get you to stop.

Often, there may also be damning thoughts about the person doing the complaining:

1'. I must not be forced against my will to hear your constant complaining.

2'. Therefore, it is awful that you just won't stop.

3'. Therefore, you are an awful person.

4'. Therefore, I can't stand you.

5'. Therefore I must not put up with you anymore.

Do either of these thought processes resemble your own? Because the second template involves damning your significant other, it is more likely to promote more aggressive responses, for example, threatening or even assaulting the other. So you should consider how you are handling the complaining. If you find yourself very angry, that is irate, not just at the complaining but at your significant other as a person, then the second damnatory emotional reasoning may match your own.

In any event, indentifying your emotional reasoning can help you to refute it before it leads to regrettable consequences. Here refutation means showing that its premises are irrational. Toward this end, let’s look at the damnatory reasoning, which also contains the irrational premises involved in the non-damnatory version. 

Notice that, in premise 1’, you are saying that you must not be forced against your will to hear the complaining. This “must” is important because it sets the stage for the rest of the inferences you are making in your thinking process. It indicates a demand, not just a preference, that the person complaining ceases his or her complaining. Demanding something is very different from preferring it, however. In demanding that your significant other stop complaining you are catapulting your preference into a law-like expectation like when you expect an object thrown up to come back down; and you are assuming that such a lawfulness cannot and should not be otherwise. But this is clearly irrational, for there is no law of the universe that says that your significant other must cease his or her complaining. Of course, you want it to be so; and surely it would be better for you if he or she did stop; but that is not the same as thinking that he or she must stop.

Accordingly, you should back your must down to a preference, for it is irrational to think that a person complaining must stop the complaining as though this were some type of law-like cosmic necessity. Realizing this can help put the complaining into a more rational perspective. For now you can see that conclusion 2’ is irrational, that the complaining, while not what you would prefer, really isn’t the awful thing that you thought it was. Yes, there is “noise” in the universe; but there is also a considerable amount of order. Thus, you are not trapped in a chaotic universe that is flying out of control.

So you needn’t damn your significant other for doing such irreparable damage to you or the world. Indeed, you can condemn the deed (the persistent complaining), but it is irrational to damn the person complaining. Perhaps he or she has also done some very considerate things; perhaps he or she is there for you in time of need; perhaps you have had some nice times together too; perhaps your sex life is quite good. In any event, what is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole, so even if you think that your significant other’s complaining is no good, that doesn’t mean that he or she is also no good. Thus you can, in this manner, refute premise 3’ that the complaining person is an awful person.

Accordingly, you can now also see that conclusion 4’ that you can’t stand this person is also irrational. For he or she is not really this awful person who in any literal sense cannot be stood or tolerated. Indeed, while you cannot stand to be choked to death, you can indeed stand to hear complaints. Of course, you do not like the complaining and wish it would stop, but it is still something you can stand, if you choose to.

Now, once your emotional reasoning is so refuted, you can construct a new, more rational thought process in place of the prior irrational one:

1''. I accept that your complaining is part of this imperfect world; even if it is one that I prefer not exist.

2''. Therefore, I will confront with courage the challenge of dealing with your complaining.

3''. Therefore, I will continue to respect you as a person even though I do not like the fact that you complain so much.

4''. Therefore, I can and will tolerate you by remaining respectful toward you.

5''. Therefore I will try to rationally address my issue with your complaining in a respectful way. 

You may now feel somewhat torn between the prior irrational thinking and the present rational thinking; for you still may feel the force of the irrational thinking against the tide of the rational thinking. It may feel like you are swimming upstream in order to heed the rational thinking. This is a natural part of making constructive change, however. Your goal should be to withstand this so-called “cognitive dissonance” by exercising your willpower muscle in favor of the rational thinking. You can begin to do this by constructing a rational plan of action aimed at attaining conclusion 5’’. So what would such a plan look like? 

Such a plan of action would need to be tailored to your specific circumstances, but let me provide the general outline here and you can adapt it. Arrange a time to sit down with your significant other. It is usually a good idea to begin by mentioning things your significant other does that you like. Candidly disclose your feelings. Provide specific examples and the occasions that you feel most uncomfortable. Be prepared and open to making constructive changes of your own that your significant other wants you to make. It is unlikely that you are squeaky clean, and it is usually a good idea to acknowledge that both of you have things you could change for the better.

It is often through such constructive rapport building that you can begin to overcome your cognitive dissonance. You should accordingly push yourself to make good on your concessions and encourage your significant other to do the same. If this does not seem to be working, another rational approach would be to try couples counseling. Here, you would still need to work hard to overcome your irrational thinking in favor of the rational thinking as described in this blog.

Not uncommonly, people who complain a lot are struggling with obsessive thoughts leading them to ruminate and worry using those close to them as sounding boards. If this is the case, your significant other will have difficulty giving up repetitively focusing on perceived problems. Still, you are best served by continuing to work on your own thinking and cognitive dissonance. This means identifying and refuting your irrational thinking, when it occurs; and pushing yourself to think and act according to the rational thinking outlined here. This includes realizing that your significant other has a problem; and compassionately encouraging him or her to work on this problem. To this effect, there is a body of well-developed self-help literature (see, for example, my book, The Dutiful Worrier); and, of course, there is always the rational option of seeking professional help.

Keep in mind that even small improvements also represent progress. But, at the end of the day, you will invariably live more functionally, with less stress, by accepting that interpersonal relations such as yours are part of an inherently imperfect and flawed universe. Here is your opportunity to build your own character by courageously confronting these imperfections, while treating your significant other with respect, and rationally addressing the things you would prefer to change. 

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is President of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.

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