According to John Gottman, a marriage and relationship researcher, complaining is the number one killer of relationships. Yet we all do it. Most people who smoke know that they are slowly killing themselves. However, I wonder if those who chronically complain realize that they’re killing their relationships with all of their loved ones.
The good news is you can teach yourself to stop complaining. Research has taught us that we can teach our brains to turn off the tendency to complain as our default reaction to life’s difficulties. What I hope to demonstrate in this article is that the power of understanding how our brains work can help us make important life changes that have previously proven to be stubborn and difficult to modify.
Neuroscience has shown us that our thinking actually changes our brains structure. In other words, the way we react to various situations eventually becomes our default reaction, not how we really want to react. For example, if we tend to complain when problems arise, then our brain learns to do this whenever a problem arises in the future. In the same way, if we force ourselves to respond positively to negative things that happen to us, even though we may want to respond negatively and complain, we are making it easier for us to respond the same way the next time something negative happens.
I’m going to borrow an analogy from this article by Stephen Parton. Every time we have a thought, our brain creates a pathway for that thought to travel on. This pathway is kind of like two people throwing a ball to each other. Imagine the two people are standing 100 feet apart. When you have a certain thought, the ball is thrown. If you have the same thought again, the two people tossing the ball take a few steps closer so now they are only 90 feet apart. The more you have the same thought the closer these two people stand to each other. If you keep having the same thought, then pretty soon the two people are standing just a few feet apart and tossing the ball becomes very easy.
Let’s take this a little further. Let’s imagine you meet a difficult situation. You have two choices: you can either respond negatively or positively. If you tend to complain when you meet life’s challenges, then those two people tossing the ball are just a few feet from each other. While on the other hand, reacting positively is a less common occurrence, so it’s like these people are standing 100 feet from each other. So now whenever you meet a negative situation. It’s much easier to respond negatively because the neural network is more complete for the negative response. They are so close together like the two people tossing the ball. It doesn’t mean that you could not respond positively if you wanted to. However, you would just have to put in a lot more effort to do so.
Now let’s take our happiness into our own hands. You could tell yourself today, that no matter how hard it is, for the next month you are going to respond positively regardless of what happens to you. It won’t be easy and you may want to bitch and complain, but you are going to put in a good effort. What’s going to happen is the two people (neural networks in your brain) tossing the ball that represent the negative response are going to start moving further away from each other, and the two people that represent the positive response are going to move closer to each other. The end result will be that the positive response will slowly become your defa
ult response, and it will therefore become more effortless to be positive and require a lot more effort to be negative.
Do you understand what this means? It means that if you are a chronic complainer, doing this exercise for one month would result in you having to work less to not complain. And if you did it for two, three or four months, then you might even cure yourself of being a chronic complainer as you slowly find yourself automatically responding positively t
o whatever life throws at you.
If either you or your partner is quick to complain and respond negatively to life challenges, then your relationship could be headed for disaster. This is supported by decades of careful scientific research conducted by John Gottman. Try sitting down and talking about this with those close to you in your life. Set up a 30 day challenge to not complain about what life throws at you or about what your partner may do that annoys you.
Even if your partner does something that totally infuriates you, you can choose to respond positively. You may be steaming inside, but you can still make a Herculean effort to find the silver lining. Every situation has something to teach us and that is a good thing. Focus on that and be thankful for whatever happens. In 30 days, you and your partner will likely find that it’s much easier to respond positively now than it was just a month before. Give it a try! It could save your relationship.