Marriage & Relationship Coach

Dating in Marriage: How to Lovingly Change a Complaining Spouse

romance and dating in marriageDo you work hard to make your dates nice, only to get frustrated when your spouse complains?  You can effectively deal with this kind of complaining in a loving, but secure way.  The objective is to end the behavior of complaining to improve your dating (and your relationship) for the both of you.

Why Do People Complain About Dating in Marriage?

Complaining almost always does more harm than good.  If people simply said what they do want instead of complaining about what they don’t, many relationships would be improved.  If that is so, then why do people complain in a relationship?  Complaining is generally done by people who are not happy.  You’ve heard it said that “Misery likes company.”  Well, in a relationship, misery creates company. In a relationship, complaining is either a way to bring someone down to our  level of unhappiness, or it is a misguided attempt at improving a bad situation.  In either case, a complaining partner indicates an unhappy partner.

Complaining as an Attempt at Improvement

Complaining can also be an attempt to improve another person by pointing out all of their errors and hoping that will make them do better next time—much like a school teacher might point out all the mistakes on a spelling test.  Unfortunately, pointing out peoples mistakes and making them feel bad about them tends to be discourage them rather than encourage them to do better.  It makes people tend to give up rather than try harder.

Dating a Complaining Spouse

In other posts, I’ve talked about how dating is fundamental to the health of your marriage or relationship.  But, what if the dating process is just adding to the problems in your relationship?  Typically, couples stop dating and their relationship gets even worse.  Instead of that, either the dating process should be improved or the problems in the relationship need to be addressed. relationship does.

An Example of Dating in Marriage with a Complaining Spouse

In the following conversation, can you imagine that Partner 2 is a happy person, who is glad to be going out with his or her mate?  Or is it easier to imagine Partner 2 as an unhappy person who would not be satisfied no matter what Partner 1 did?

Partner 1:  “Would you like to go to the new chicken place that opened up last week?”

Partner 2:  “No, it will be too crowded because everyone wants to try it now.”

Partner 1:  “Well, how about our usual Italian restaurant?”

Partner 2:  “No, I’m tired of eating the same old thing.”

Partner 1:  “Well, where would you like to go?”

Partner 2:  “I don’t care.  Just not the new chicken place or the Italian place.”

Partner 1:  “Ok, I know, let’s get some seafood at the family seafood restaurant.”

Partner 2:  “Oh, good, another noisy dinner in a brightly lit restaurant.”

Partner 1:  “If you don’t like that, then where do you want to go?  I’m not going to make any more suggestions!”

Partner 2:   “Ok, ok.  The Italian restaurant, I guess.”

Partner 1:  “I thought you didn’t want to eat the same old thing?”

Partner 2:  “That’s true, but it’s better than eating in a bright room full of screaming kids.”


Complaining is Different from Arguing

On the surface this example conversation looks like an argument, but it’s not actually an argument at all.  In an argument, each partner would provide his or her own ideas and defend them as well as attack the other’s ideas.  This example is pure complaining because it points out the reasons why Partner 1’s ideas are bad, but offers no ideas of his or her own.  If your partner criticizes your ideas, but has none of his or her own, one thing you know for sure—it’s not your ideas that are the problem.

Complainers Don’t Lose

In an argument, it is possible to lose.  But the complainer never loses. This is because he or she doesn’t provide his or her own choices.  A win is guaranteed if the complainer later finds fault with whatever was chosen (“I knew this place wouldn’t be any good”).  This pattern will lead to an end to dating much faster than being indecisive will.  It creates a negative atmosphere right from the beginning of the date, which has to be overcome if you are going to be able to have a good time.

Stopping Your Partner from Complaining

You can’t immediately stop your partner from complaining, but you can make it so that your partner no longer wins anything by complaining.  That should take care of the problem over the course of a few weeks.  Considering that this problem can go on indefinitely, a few weeks is really a short time to make a major improvement for the both of you.

Use a Communication Boundary

A boundary is not something your partner does or something that you threaten your partner with.  It is something that you inform your partner about, and you do without discussion.  Boundaries must be completely under your control or they are not boundaries.  In this case, your boundary will be your refusal to suggest more than one place.  That’s it.

You tell your partner about your boundary like this:

You:  “I’m going to suggest a place where we can go on our date.  If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but you will need to offer a different suggestion.  If you don’t, then we won’t go out.”

Spouse:  “Fine.  I’m not going out.”

You:  “Ok, that is your choice, and I respect it.” 

This is a predictable reaction because people who complain don’t like to lose.  Don’t let it bother you.  You will gain respect by being calm and not being hurt or angry.  Remember, you are changing a pattern and that doesn’t happen in one night.  The idea is to make your spouse’s complaining no longer work to bring you down.  So it is important that you remain loving.  Try again in a week, and then in another.   If you continue to get dating refusal, then your spouse has a lot of anger and there are serious problems in your relationship.  Those need to be dealt with, rather than focusing on the dating.

A Normal Change

If your spouse’s complaining is mainly a communication style (a habit), then your spouse will change in one or two weeks to a different response, and you might have an exchange such as:

Partner:  “What if I don’t like where you choose?”

You:  “Then you choose a place—any place you like.”

Partner:  “What if you don’t like it?”

You:  “Then it will be my fault for giving you the choice.  Don’t worry about it.”

Wherever your spouse chooses, go and have the best time you can, even if it’s a place you hate.  Your spouse may intentionally choose a place you hate.  Don’t fall into that trap by refusing to go or by complaining.   Go through with it and stick with this style of date choosing with a boundary for a while.  You will both develop a new and better pattern for deciding where to go.  You may end up going a couple places that you don’t want to go, but that is a small price to pay for a big improvement in the relationship.

The Reason This Works

The reason this works is that people continue to do what they are used to doing because it works, at least a little.  To help them change, you need to make it no longer work at all, while also providing a way that will work.  Once they have success with the new way (which may take a few weeks), it will start to get easier and go better.

Questions and Answers:

 Q:  I am the one who usually complains because my spouse really does choose terrible places.  What can I do?

A:  Two simple solutions are to either work with your spouse to come up with an acceptable list of places to go, or to take turns picking a place to go.  Many of my clients like to take turns.  When they do that, they don’t need to worry whether their spouse will like it.  If they go on a date they don’t particularly like, they don’t mind it as much because they know that next time will be their turn.  After awhile, spouses can even develop new interests this way.  It also helps people to break out of a dating routine.

Q:  It feels very controlling when I set a boundary and also my spouse gets upset.

A:  People never like other’s boundaries.  Keep in mind that the purpose of boundaries is to make the relationship better.  Although it may feel controlling, allowing a bad situation to continue is damaging.  Boundaries aren’t.  Also, when you use a boundary, your partner has a choice of what to do.  In the above example, your spouse can choose to accept your choice,  offer another suggestion, or not go out at all.  The only thing you are controlling is yourself.  Your spouse has full control of himself or herself.

Q:  I tried this, but my spouse continues to refuse to date and blames me.  What do I do now?  Do I go back to the old way?

A:  Do you want to go back to the old way?  It seems that was just a symptom of more serious problems in your relationship.  Instead, try to have an open talk with your spouse about how to make your relationship better.  If he or she refuses to participate in that positive discussion, it is time for you to seek help. Something is going on in your spouse’s mind that you don’t know about.  He or she may be planning to leave you, for example.

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