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Cross-Cultural Psychology

3 Ways to Stop a Partner's Constant Complaints

1. Point out how their behavior is affecting you.

Key points

  • Running into constant criticism from a partner can be both disheartening and bad for the relationship.
  • New research suggests 3 strategies for combatting complaints, such as discussing how they affect you and restoring a sense of justice.
  • When you're able to delve into the underlying issues around complaints, well-being and relationship harmony can be restored.

You think you’re doing your best to get everything done to your partner’s satisfaction, whether it’s managing the finances or preparing a 5-star dinner. Much to your dismay, though, your partner continues to find reasons to complain. Maybe you forgot to run the dryer and now have nothing but drenched towels when it’s time for your partner’s shower. Perhaps you forgot to get cat food during your weekly shopping run, leading to still more complaints. Your partner also has their share of household duties, but it doesn’t bother you all that much when something gets messed up or forgotten.

As you think about these situations, it might strike you that some complaints can be reasonable and others can be totally out of line. Everyone forgets things from time to time, and most people get over their annoyance at these minor missteps. Your partner, though, isn’t particularly accepting and, if anything, seems to find something to complain about even when everything is going fine.

Based on new research in the workplace on abusive supervision by Wilfred Laurier University’s Lindie Liang and colleagues (2022), it may be possible to view the constant litany of complaints that your partner engages in as comparable to an overly demanding boss. Although workplace dynamics aren’t exactly the same as those that take place in a romantic relationship, there are still lessons from this research that you can apply to your relationship.

What Effects Can Constant Complaints Have on You?

The Canadian research team’s focus on abusive supervision provides some guidance into understanding the reactions that people have to being the target of someone else’s constant criticism. Fundamental to their analysis is the idea of “interpersonal justice,” a term defined in the literature as your “need to believe that we live in a ‘just world’ where one gets what one deserves and, in turn, deserves what one gets.” Adding to your sense of justice is the idea of “equity,” meaning that you believe what you put into a relationship is equal to the other person’s contributions.

Viewed from this perspective, if you believe that you’re doing your level best to give as much to your relationship as does your partner, your partner’s complaints will feel not only hurtful, but unfair. Unstated, but also expected as part of equity, is the idea that you will be treated with “politeness, dignity, and respect.” Maybe early in your relationship, when both of you were on your best behavior, your partner showed these tendencies and then some. Unlike a workplace, where these behaviors are both expected and rewarded, in your home life your partner may have let familiarity degrade some of these standards.

Wherever it happens, unfair treatment can lead to a host of negative outcomes, from lower feelings of well-being to burnout, depression, and emotional exhaustion. Perhaps you can identify with these outcomes if you’ve been at the receiving end of that ever-critical partner.

Is Retaliation the Answer?

The Canadian researchers proposed that one way that people cope with violations of their sense of justice is to engage in simple retaliation. This might strike you as extremely counterproductive but, as Liang et al. suggest, the retaliation doesn’t have to occur in reality to be effective. In one study the authors cite, harming a “virtual voodoo doll” allowed participants to feel that at least part of their sense of justice was restored.

In the comprehensive model that Liang and her collaborators tested, the roles of retaliation and a sense of justice were examined as influences on the physical and psychological health of the participants. The measure of retaliation asked participants to indicate how often in the past year they were rude or impolite toward their supervisor.

Following a sample of nearly 200 employed adults over a 4-month period, the authors were able to demonstrate that retaliation actually helped mediate the effects of abusive supervision on physical and psychological health, at least for the period of the study. However, it wasn't just the release of pent-up anger that relieved their misery, but the feeling that they could reclaim their sense of justice.

3 Ways to Neutralize Your Partner’s Complaints

You might be wondering by now whether your best bet for dealing with a critical partner is to go ahead and start your very own retaliation campaign. However, in discussing their findings, a much better solution is to change the organizational culture so that abusive behavior becomes no longer tolerated.

How can use these findings to change the "organizational culture" of your own home? These three strategies provide some practical guides:

1. Notice and point out how the behavior is affecting you. Because employees whose supervisors treat them badly can experience significant long-term mental and physical effects, it’s possible for you to be affected as well by an overly demanding and harsh partner. Don’t ignore those effects but instead use them to move on to try to change things.

2. Look at what happens when you retaliate. It’s tempting to retaliate, be rude, or complain right back to your partner. However, what happens when you do? Does this raise or lower the temperature of your interactions? It may also seem hypocritical to engage in the very behavior you’re trying to correct in your partner especially if it's an "organizational culture" problem.

3. Try to restore your sense of justice. This strategy may be the most important and ultimately most effective. Initiate a conversation with your partner that focuses on equity and fairness. See if you and your partner can agree on a less hurtful way to talk about situations in which one of you disappoints the other person.

To sum up, you don’t need to invest in a voodoo doll to find a way to restore your sense of justice and equity with your partner. It may be challenging to have a partner who continuously finds fault with you, but these strategies can turn that challenge into fulfillment.

Facebook image: ShotPrime Studio/Shutterstock


Liang, L. H., Coulombe, C., Brown, D. J., Lian, H., Hanig, S., Ferris, D. L., & Keeping, L. M. (2022). Can two wrongs make a right? The buffering effect of retaliation on subordinate well-being following abusive supervision. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 27(1), 37–52. doi: 10.1037/ocp0000291L

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