Help! All I Do Is Whine and Complain. How Do I Stop?

Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 13 2014 3:04 PM

Complainers Never Prosper

In a live chat, Prudie counsels a man worried that he and his wife are too pessimistic.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Complaining Couple: My wife and I are both complainers by nature. We dump most of it on each other, for the sanity of our friends and family, and it's been a comforting aspect of our relationship. She's several years younger than me and has been at the same job since finishing university. She hates it and has been talking about changing fields for years without actually doing anything about it. The things she complains about, though, are sort of part-and-parcel of any job. Recently, I was in a bad mood and I interrupted her complaining tirade by snapping, "I think you'd hate any job. It's not your job, it's you." I felt bad right away, but her reaction surprised me: She agreed. She said, very seriously, "You're right. I'm a negative, hateful person. What should I do about it?" It made me realize that I'm a negative, hateful whiner too. Do you have any ideas how we could improve this aspect of ourselves? She's seen a psychiatrist in the past and she found it very helpful, but she stopped because even with our insurance covering part of it, it was far too much for our budget.

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A: Oh, sure, dump your problems on me. Did you ever think I have my own issues to deal with? You think you've got headaches—well, pull up a chair and let me unload. OK, maybe the three of us should start the Whiners Anonymous support group. Just imagine what our fellow haters would have to say about the temperature of the room, the snacks, and our lousy leadership. Good for both of you for wanting to address deficiencies in yourselves. It's rather sweet you two Debbie Downers want to do some joint reforming of your personalities. Start with a book club, reading together on cognitive-behavioral based therapy. The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns is one place to start. Both of you should have the good humor and acceptance to acknowledge you are never going to turn into Dr. Pangloss, nor would you want to. I agree one of the pleasures of marriage is that it's the place where you can blow off steam about all the annoyances (and more) of life. But not feeding each other's negative spirals will likely allow you both to get more pleasure out of life. If you feel you could use the help of an outsider, social workers charge much less than psychiatrists, so look into using the services of one. Consider that a good investment in a happier life together.

Dear Prudence: Office Going Down the Tubes

Q. No Ring on It: I'm in my late 20s and got engaged to my wonderful, live-in boyfriend (now fiancé) last weekend. There is, per my request, no ring—I never wanted an engagement ring because it always felt a little too much like a transaction, which I know is unromantic of me. As I'm telling my friends and co-workers, many people have asked about why there's no ring, even grabbing my hand to look for the ring or asking if I should be getting married if my fiancé "can't afford a diamond" (he can, we're both fortunate to be employed). Prudie, what can I say to these people about what I know is an unusual decision? I don't want to come off as judgmental, but I also don't want to be manhandled!

A: I suppose you could get a henna tattoo along the length of your finger that reads, "My fiancé is a deadbeat." It is astounding that the De Beers monopoly has the country convinced that in the absence of a rock, two people cannot be betrothed. To most you can say, "I'm not much of a jewelry person." To those with the chutzpah to be interested in your fiancé's bank account you can say, "Our love is priceless."

Q. Re: Complaining is a habit: I was a negative, whiny, frequently-complaining kind of person too, and when I finally had that moment of clarity I decided to change. Like any other skill, you must practice optimism! Force yourself to focus on the positive and be committed to building this skill. "Fake it till you make it" if you must, search high and low for the silver lining in things, and eventually this frame of mind can become the New You. Worked for me and it's a happier place to be!

A: Thanks for this. Speaking of silver linings, the grouchy couple should also have a movie club and rent Silver Linings Playbook. Maybe they can take up ballroom dancing!

Q. Binge-Drinking Father-to-Be: My husband is entering his mid-30s, and had enjoyed binge drinking at most one weekend a month. Over the past couple of years, paramedics have been called three times for alcohol intoxication. After the latest occurrence a month ago, he said he would continue to drink, but would no longer binge drink. He also apologized for putting me under the stress of these situations. Now he's planning two annual vacations with friends to party destinations. The thought of his going is stressing me out, and I know I'll be worried the entire time that he is away. He says that I need to trust that he will not drink past the state of a buzz. Should I continue to protest these trips? Also, after struggling with infertility, I am now pregnant.

A: The issue is not whether you protest, it's whether your husband continues to put you in jeopardy of being a young widow. You don't say whether he abstains during his non-binges (I'm guessing not). But having to call the paramedics repeatedly because of one's hobby is extremely alarming. I'm not convinced that your husband is capable of controlling his drinking. Once he starts binging, he can drink to the point where medical intervention is required. That's highly dangerous. You two need to get to a counselor with a specialty in alcohol and face this problem. It would also be a good idea for your husband to get a check up to assess the state of his liver. Imagine that you are away some weekend and your husband is caring for your child, and after the baby goes to bed he thinks, "Now that the kid is asleep, I'm going to have a few beers."

Q. Death at Holidays: My mom passed away on Christmas Eve of this year at the young age of 60. Yes, I cried when my dad called me, I cried at her funeral and a day or two after, but it's been three weeks and I'm completely fine. A friend of mine keeps telling me that my time is still yet to come but I'm not so sure. Aside from not being able to sleep and constantly wanting unhealthy food it's almost like nothing happened. Is it possible that I've gone through all the stages of the loss so quickly? We are a close family so I was used to talking to my parents several times a week.

A: Being unable to sleep and radically changing your diet are pretty big asides to push aside. Everyone processes their grief in their own way, and no, people do not have to be utterly disabled by the death of a loved one. But given the circumstances you describe and your closeness to your parents, it sounds as if you might still be in a state of numb shock over your mother's death. Numbness could be what you need right now. But I agree with your friend that I'm not buying you can short-circuit your mourning and go on as if nothing happened. Be prepared that one day, when you don't have enough quarters for the parking meter, you find yourself breaking down into sobs. Given the symptoms you describe, I think you're suffering now more than you acknowledge. Too much sleeplessness and too much out-of-control eating is going to catch up with you. I hope you have close family members you can talk out your feelings with. If not, and the sleeplessness and compulsive eating don't abate, look into a grief counselor who can assess what's going on and help you deal with your loss.

Q. Re: Whiners: I have friends who've had great success with A Complaint-Free World, which includes some behavioral exercises. It doesn't mean one becomes Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, it's more of a way to adjust attitude/behavior.

A: In my world, that would be a conversation-free world. What do these noncomplainers talk about? But thanks for the suggestion.

Q. Divorce: I am a pastor, so confidentiality is important to me. Currently a couple in the church are divorcing. There have been issues for some time and I have spent time with each of them—keeping each conversation private. I feel like I've been walking a very thin tightrope. My question is that one member is now posting and spreading some rather nasty rumors suggesting a mental illness of the other. I know we can never know what is going on behind the closed doors of a marriage but these rumors seem completely unfounded and I fear that they could hurt that person’s reputation even more than the divorce already has. I realize I have different standards due to my profession but I am really stumped with this one.

A: You are in the perfect place to counsel the blabber about how spreading damaging rumors will hurt him or herself as well as the estranged spouse. You can say you understand how under extreme stress it may feel good to strike out. But the person spreading rumors about a loved one (even one no longer loved) demeans him or herself. If there are children involved, this will do terrible damage to them. Surely, you can find the right Bible passages to back you up. You can say you are there to provide a safe space to unload, but that you urge that even when a marriage breaks down, that each party is entitled to their privacy and dignity.

Q. Re: Complaining: I too am a very critical person. So I got a job that involves pointing out the flaws in others' work. That way I can get my nitpicking out of my system at the office and be much more pleasant to my friends and family.

A: For obvious reasons I love this solution. But in my case, my family would tell you it's not been wholly effective.

Q. Bad Boss: My boss is a volatile man. One moment he can be charming, asking about my personal life, and make thoughtful small talk. The next he can be petty, abrasive, and foul. When he gets mad he will remind me how much he has done for me and that I owe him the same thoughtfulness back. Lately, his yelling even includes profanity. After he calms down, he will be extra nice to me for days or weeks. No apology or acknowledgement is ever given. One particular rant was about how he suspected I was applying to other jobs. Obviously, I am because the man behaves like this, but his yelling forced me to lie and say that I wasn't looking. Is this behavior acceptable? I feel like if this were my BF, we would all agree that he was abusive and manipulative and you would be coaching me to get out. I should mention, this is a six-figure, white-collar job.

A: You can't be the only person who wants to flee this abuse. It is amazing how many unbalanced people rise to where they essentially have carte blanche to work out their psychological troubles on others. You have brought up a really great point about how if your boss were your boyfriend, you would have been long gone, but that it can be harder to extract yourself from an abusive employer. Keep in mind that this punitive guy might try to harm you when it comes to reference time. So I hope there are other superiors in the company you can use to vouch for you.

Q. Running Away: I have a grown daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter whom I love all with all my heart. They have been living with my husband and me for the past 20 months. My husband and I both work and we take our granddaughter to and from day care, then watch her until her mother gets home, and care for her all day on Saturdays. The past few Sundays, I have been spending time in my room just to have a break. My husband has told me I am ignoring him, daughter, and granddaughter. I told my husband I was taking a trip over the upcoming weekend because I need a change. I did ask if he would like to come, and he got upset that I would even suggest going away without him. Am I wrong to want to take a break from my daughter and granddaughter? I have spent every day with all of them for more than a year.

A: You deserve the "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, Martyr's Version" award. You rescued your daughter and granddaughter. But that does not mean your freedom comes to an end or that your daughter is now freed from her own obligations of motherhood. You should not have to barricade yourself in your room just to get a breather from what are absurd and intolerable demands. All of you need a reset on your living situation. First of all, there has to be a serious discussion of what the long-term plan is. If this is going to be permanent, that should be a decision all of you make, not just fall into. Next, there has to be some clear delineation of duties. If your daughter works all day Saturday, then she needs to actually hire a babysitter so you and your husband have the weekend off. If she's just enjoying a break from motherhood at your expense, you've got to tell her that's over. Having your daughter take more responsibility for her daughter will allow you to be a better grandmother.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column.