Dear Carolyn • My husband is a chronic complainer. It’s his thing, and I’ve learned to ignore it over the years. About 90% of the time, his complaints eventually resolve themselves; i.e., the person quits, the weather changes, a flight gets rebooked, etc. Maybe not when he wants, but eventually.
Right now, he’s in a tizzy about our kid’s summer camp. I’m not pleased either, but I see no harm in letting things go until summer is over. But he wants us to “explore other options.” OK fine.
But he also lobbed a well-worn criticism: that I don’t listen to him or take his concerns seriously.
Well, no, I don’t, because most of the time what he’s upset over is so minor, can’t be changed, or resolves itself. Give me something I can do about it, and I’ll be a happy participant. He complains so often that I can’t register complaints of my own because if I did, that’s all our marriage would be.
Do I need to start being faux-concerned over his complaints? What I really want is to tell him to grow up! — Faux-Concerned
Answer • Well now I’m complaining, because in your last line you took my advice away.
And I don’t mean that I planned to say your husband needs to grow up. Though it’s possible he does.
What I mean is that I had advice for you, but it depended on your being generally OK with your husband’s complainey coping technique — and your parting shot says you’re not.
So now we need to address a bigger problem, that your husband is under chronic stress — possibly anxious? — and his way of dealing with it is not working for you. I also doubt it’s working for him.
That’s beyond a faux-geddaboudit approach. Talk to him, at a time you choose carefully, with no current stress flareups and when you don’t have anywhere you need to be. Explain to him you’ve just gone along assuming he was the pessimist and you were the optimist and you balanced each other out — but maybe you were wrong not to see if he was OK with this, too? Is he OK with having this role delegated to him, or does he want help with feeling less anxious?
And say you were wrong to let him think you just weren’t listening or taking him seriously, when the truth is you’ve been insulating yourself, because you’re not comfortable contesting everything that goes wrong.
Then you listen, listen, listen. With a mind open to his perspective on this and on you.
If you come to a warm acceptance of each other’s roles, and your own, then you can skip to the advice I was planning to give, that you just be overt about your arrangement. Warmly, not facetiously: “Have you got this, or do you need me to worry, too?” Or: “I am listening. Is there something you need from me?” Then you weigh what he suggests, case by case.
If you remain at odds about each other’s roles or perceptions of them, or if the weight of his negativity is more than you can carry, then professional counseling would make sense.
Either way, I hope you can persuade your husband to ask his doctor about anxiety. Maybe stress doesn’t have to be “his thing.”