Complaint Department – Upstairs

Posted on June 9, 2020


I was listening to a sermon over the weekend about complaining to God.  Essentially, the pastor was comparing and contrasting David’s pouring out his complaint in Psalm 142 with the complaining of the Israelites during the exodus.  His point was that there is not a problem with complaining to God and, in fact, that can be a healthy thing in our spiritual lives.  The problem comes in when our complaint is impugning of God’s nature.

I am not a pastor.  I am a therapist.  I look at how this applies to human relationships; specifically, marriage.

If I translate this into a therapist’s view, this is about the difference between complaining and criticizing.  In a marriage, you have to be able to complain.  You can’t spend a lifetime with another person without voicing some complaints along the way.  Coping with each other’s complaints is a normal part of a healthy marriage.

Where it becomes problematic is when we get into criticism.  Criticism is about what is wrong with your partner.  If I start attaching unflattering adjectives (e.g. inconsiderate, irresponsible, rude) to my partner, I have moved into criticism.  If I say “you always” or “you never,” it is probably criticism.  If I get into sarcasm, name calling, or rolling my eyes when my partner’s talking, I have stepped it up to contempt, which is even more damaging.

The trick (if you don’t want to spend 40 years wandering around the desert) is to be able to voice a complaint without criticism or contempt.  You do this by describing your reality rather than what is wrong with your partner.  Your reality is 1) the facts – what happened; 2) what that meant to you – how you understood this; 3) your emotional experience.  From there you probably want to make a request of your partner to do something different.  When you make that request, your partner can say, “yes,” “no,” or negotiate.  This is a normal part of two people working out their relationship together.

Criticism is damaging to relationships, and it is not loving.  The answer isn’t to just suck it up when something is distressing to you.  The answer is being able to voice your complaints constructively.