In the heat of an argument, you text your friend: “Can you actually believe he called my cooking classes frivolous? What an absolute, beyond-repair asshole.” Hours later, you and your husband have made up, but your friend is still ruminating on the details. (“Kick him to the curb, Sister!”)
Or maybe your friend is the one who started it, complaining about her wife’s messy habits, and prompting you to pile on with your own litany about your less-than-tidy beloved.
All this begs the question: When is it healthy—and when is it harmful—to complain about your spouse? We asked two experts to sound off.
1. A Vent Session: Healthy or Harmful?
For the record, bitching about a significant other is 100 percent normal and healthy. “It helps us connect with others over shared frustrations in relationships and gives us a chance to blow off steam about annoyances and process difficulties,” says Erin Wiley, a marriage counselor and executive director of the Willow Center. “But, if the majority of things we share about our partner are negative, that is likely because the majority of things we think about them are negative…and that’s not good.”
It’s also a slippery slope, says Dr. Patrice N. Douglas, a marriage and family therapist and host of the podcast Pop Culture Therapy. “Venting about your relationship is tricky because it opens up the door for more harm than good to come in,” she explains. “Yes, sometimes we need to express how human beings being human get on our nerves, but there’s a difference between, ‘ugh, I’m so tired of my partner eating all my food’ and ‘omg, my partner is the worst in bed.’”
2. How to Check Yourself
Wiley suggests paying attention to the words that come out of your mouth for a week. “Really listen to yourself and the things you say, and consider whether or not you’d be your own friend given the circumstances,” she says. “If you find you are bad-mouthing your partner, make a concerted effort to hold your tongue and find other ways to express your frustration and work through upset feelings productively, like journaling, taking a walk or seeing a therapist.”
It’s also helpful to consider the motivations behind your complaint. “We complain when we want sympathy, understanding and connection, but we can achieve those things without having to speak poorly about someone else,” Wiley adds. In other words, try to uncover the source of what’s bothering you. “Working to fix the issue rather than complaining about the person is the key to positive change,” she says.
3. There Are Still Constructive Ways to Complain
PSA: The more you vent about your partner to a close friend, the more likely they are to dislike or disagree with him or her, says Douglas. “Remember, they are only seeing things from your perspective, so don’t be surprised if your friend starts to promote you leaving your partner” as a way to provide a solution.
That said, explaining a problem to a peer can be productive. “Vent about things that you are open to feedback on—or at least some sort of guidance toward a resolution,” Douglas says. “The point of talking it out with a friend is to get perspective. There’s value in that.”
Just think carefully about who you complain to and what you choose to complain about. It can be helpful to pick a friend who you trust unconditionally and knows both you and your spouse, so she can act as a sounding board, but one who has your best interest at heart.
4. And Remember: You Can’t Take it Back
Complaining about your spouse’s socks on the bathroom floor? Innocuous enough. Complaining about his $15,000 debt or strained relationship with his mother? Just remember that these are facts about your spouse you can’t retract once said.
“Sometimes when we vent, we tell all and we must be mindful of the trust and security agreement we’ve made with our partner,” Wiley says. A good rule of thumb: If you can’t say it with your spouse in the room or they’ve asked you to keep specific things within the relationship, don’t break that trust.
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