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Stop complaining: It's ruining your relationships

Chicago Tribune

Kelley Pulkrabek loves to vent.

She'll complain about everything from the political climate to the broccoli selection at the supermarket.

The problem: Pulkrabek's husband can't stand it.

"I would say it's the biggest source of our arguing, which is frustrating because, when I do it, I'm already frustrated — but then he gets angry, so I get more frustrated," said the Illinois woman. "He gets upset, and he wants to be able to fix it."

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But sometimes, she just wants to have a good vent. The problem has escalated so much that they've gone to couples counseling to try to work out their communication styles, Pulkrabek said.

A 2016 study by Stanford researchers found that complaining shrinks your hippocampus, which is the part of your brain critical to problem solving. It's also one of the central areas in your brain that Alzheimer's destroys. Complaining also releases cortisol, the stress hormone, which raises your blood pressure and blood sugar. Frequent complaining can lead to heart disease and diabetes.

But the more immediate effect is complaining's ability to erode an otherwise healthy relationship, said Gwendolyn Seidman, associate professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Penn.

"Complaining can be annoying to the person who is listening to the complaints, especially when the complainer seems unwilling to do anything to resolve the issues about which they're complaining, and rejects help and advice about how to solve the problem," Seidman said.

And even when people think they're generally positive, complaining can make them appear to be otherwise.

Research has shown that negative events psychologically outweigh positive events, Seidman said.

"For example, losing $20 affects us more than gaining $20, even though the two events are equivalent in weight," she said. "Research on how couples discuss conflicts shows that for every one expression of negativity — contempt, criticism — you need five positive expressions to outweigh it."

That's because negativity of any sort reduces your energy level and is depleting, said Susan Heitler, a Denver-based psychologist and the author of "The Power of Two."

Try saying, "'I don't like candy,'" followed by "'I love bread,'" Heitler suggested.

"Some people can feel the difference right away," she said. "Any sentence with the words 'no,' 'not' or 'but' conveys negative energy and is depleting."

Complaining is also contagious. If one partner tends to complain more than the other, there is a significant risk that he will bring the other person down with him, Heitler said.

"It's just like how enthusiasm is contagious," she said. "Emotions are contagious."

But if your partner is constantly complaining while you're responding by giving her the positive outlook on the situation, then you're also going to have a conflict. She simply won't feel supported, and neither of you will feel heard.

Heitler said the better response to a complainer would be: "Yes, and at the same time ..."

For example, if your partner is complaining that your son is lazy and plays video games all day, you could respond by saying, "Yes, and at the same time, when it's cold, it's pretty hard for him to go outside."

Still, there's no need to refrain from complaining altogether.

Adam Smithey, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Greenwood, Ind., said complaining to your partner can be a constructive, healing and reparative act that can foster a deeper connection within the relationship.

When you get home from work and need to vent about your boss, it's healthy to know that you can turn to your partner. Or when you both can vent about politics, it's refreshing.

"In terms of trust within a relationship, little is more important than knowing that your partner is there for you," Smithey said. "However, if the pattern of complaining becomes exhausting, and the listening partner is unable to stay tuned, the complaining partner often cites 'not feeling supported, listened to,' or the dreaded 'You don't care about me.'"

When the conversation tips in this direction, complaining becomes more harmful than helpful, he said.

It's not just romantic partners who are feeling the heat of the grumbles.

Naomi Levine, owner of City Epicurean Events in Illinois, used to complain about everything from business to parenting to cleaning.

But two years ago, her 8-year-old son had a complaint of his own: He desperately wanted his mother to stop her constant venting.

So she stopped.

"It helped my relationship," Levine said. "I focus on being more cheery and happy and positive without being fake — and he sees me as an inspiration."

Finding a solution to your real issues is key, said Will Bowen, author of "A Complaint Free World."

So if your problem is that your boss is late for every meeting — but demands that you show up on time — you should try to solve the problem rather than complain about it. You can take some work to do while you wait, for example, Bowen said.

"We need to speak directly and only to the person who can resolve the issue, and to do so with sweetness and tact," he said.

People, on average, complain 15 to 30 times a day but don't even notice that they're doing this, Bowen said, and don't reach a resolution because they're venting to a partner or a friend most of the time. So in 2006, he started handing out bracelets as part of a complaint mindfulness exercise. Every time someone complains, the person is supposed to move the bracelet from one wrist to the other to build awareness.

To date, he's distributed more than 11 million bracelets in more than 180 countries.

Bowen is tackling one complainer at a time, and you won't hear any complaints about it from him.

Danielle Braff is a freelancer.

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