What is a complaint?

Really, what is it? It is a communication conundrum.

What do people mean when they complain?

I used to unload all my troubles on my husband the minute he walked in the door. (I understand this is a common young mother symptom). I regularly felt bad for being SO NEGATIVE and I know it couldn’t have been my husband’s favorite greeting. What did I mean? What did I want?

After round after round of this very unsatisfying pattern, I had the presence of mind to ask myself, what in my dream world would be the response I’m looking for? It surprised me. I wanted appreciation. I wanted something like, “Wow honey, with all that difficulty you still made it out on top. I love you so much. You are so amazing.” Something like that.

When I realized I would likely NEVER GET appreciation by whining and who could appreciate a wife that was complaining all the time, I quit. Just like that. We were out of the cycle. Honestly, I didn’t even like myself acting like that.

Now, I catch myself with the same problem in reverse still trying to decode other people’s complaints.

What is wanted?

Is it simply a statement?: This is the way it is (and I take it as a complaint. But, if it is just a statement, I have to ask, why are you stating it to me? and, what is the point?)
Do you want sympathy? You poor thing, that is terrible, that is the way it is?
And what if I don’t agree? What if I wonder, why don’t you do something about it, then? It makes me want to complain about complaining!

Is it a request?: Fix this, it is bothering me, not good enough, etc. But, if so, it is a completely indirect, nearly invisible request. How to translate? It takes a lot of thinking (and maybe mind reading)to figure out everything–what is the problem, what are possible solutions, what can I offer, what should the person take care of themselves, etc. I think this is often frustrating to me as I try to decode the meaning. Do they want me to do something? If so, what? Should I do it, or is that not my responsibility to correct it? and on and on

Is it a command?: In unequal relationships like parent to child, or boss to employee, a complaint can often be seen and understood as a command with simple body language and voice tone especially when responsibilities are previously clear. For instance, if the child is responsible to start the dishes and the Dad says, “THE DISHES ARE NOT CLEAN.” That is a statement, a complaint, and a command. But, at least it is clear (because the child and the whole family already knows it was the child’s duty to prevent and/or fix it.)

In marriage relationships, or close, reciprocal, equal relationships, it gets a little more confusing.
Complaining could mean anything. Is it an indirect request? Is it just a statement? If it is a request, what is it a request for?

Do you want sympathy?
Do you want comfort?
Do you want understanding/validation?
Do you want company (not alone with problem)?
Do you want a sounding board (so you can talk and figure out the problem yourself)?
Do you want ideas, suggestions, or advice?

Do you want me to get involved or do something about it?

If so,
What do you want me to do?
What types of involvement would make it better or worse for you?

What is expected and is it reasonable to expect? Can I even do it?

Another confusing aspect is the timing.
Let’s say I finally figure out that something is wanted and I know what it is AND agree to do it,
there still come more problems when it isn’t on the other’s expected time line.

So we have to figure out WHEN as well?

Look at all the questions a little complaining can cause another caring person. Aside from understanding that something affect the complainer in a negative way, really, what is a person supposed to do with that kind of communication?

I’m not supposing that we should or could all just stop complaining. But, what I am hoping to point out is that the listener definitely needs help here in properly decoding the message. Let’s help them out a bit and if it isn’t asking too much, maybe the complainer could include what is meant, wanted or needed.

It won’t stop the whining, but it could really make complaining much easier to listen to. (and maybe even more rewarding for the person going to all the trouble to complain.)