Nagging and Complaining

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Nagging and Complaining

Your room is filthy! I want you to clean it now.

I am tired of saying this–clean your room.

How many times do I have to tell you? Pick up your room!

You are driving me crazy! What do I have to do to get you to do what I ask?

Nagging and complaining are common features of family life. A complaint is a statement of grievance, discomfort, discontent, or dissatisfaction (Doelger 1984). Nagging refers to repeated or persistent complaints. Though complaint behavior is common, how couples and families manage their complaints is connected to their overall adjustment and satisfaction. To understand the role nagging and complaining play in family relationships, it is helpful to explore the purposes and types of complaints as well as how complaining functions as an element of conflict.

Purposes and Types of Complaints

People complain because their dissatisfaction reaches a critical threshold (Kowalski 1996). When they feel that they can no longer endure their dissatisfaction, people attempt to determine what they can do to reduce the discrepancy between their ideal for a situation and the reality of the situation. Verbalization of one's dissatisfaction in the form of nagging or complaining occurs when this behavior is perceived as a possible means to reduce the discrepancy. In addition, complaining can alleviate feelings of distress. For instance, it can serve a cathartic role in cleansing people of their dissatisfaction, it can help them to present themselves in a way that influences other's impressions of them, it can help people to gauge themselves in comparison to others, and it can compel others to give accounts for their behavior.

Several factors influence the likelihood that individuals will choose to nag or complain as a means of reducing their dissatisfaction. Individuals' level of social anxiety, their degree of introversion versus extroversion, and their perception of control (whether it is internal to them or external to them) all affect whether they will complain. Those who are anxious about how others view them, who are introverts, or who perceive that they have no control over a situation are less likely to feel that complaining will resolve their dissatisfaction (Kowalski 1996). Power also plays a critical role in whether or not complaining and nagging are chosen as forms of redress. Complaining is typically viewed as a low power strategy. If one has the ability to change a situation, one simply makes the change. However, if one cannot effect change, then one must attempt to persuade others to enact the change. Thus, complaining and nagging often function as attempts to persuade or cajole others into changing.

Gender also may affect the likelihood one will nag or complain. Women appear to be slightly more likely to nag, complain, and whine than men (Conway and Vartanian 2000), and this verbal behavior has been found to be more stable for women over the course of a relationship than it is for men (Gottman and Levenson 1999). However, Jess K. Alberts (1988) found that while wives complained more often than husbands, this difference was not statistically significant. If women do complain and nag more often, it may be that they feel less able to effect change themselves, or they may have more cause for dissatisfaction (Macklin 1978).

What causes dissatisfaction within families? One study of romantic couples' interactions (Alberts 1989) discovered five broad categories of complaint topics: behavior (about another's actions or lack thereof), personal characteristics (about another's personality or beliefs), performance (about how others performed an action), complaining (about another's complaint behavior), and personal appearance (about how the other looked). Although this study focused specifically on husbands and wives, these categories likely encompass most complaints within the family.

Recognizing what causes individuals to nag and complain, as well as what they nag and complain about, is important to understanding the function of nagging and complaining. However, to better understand the affect of these behaviors on relationships, it is important to examine how individuals respond to the complaint behaviors of family members.

Complaints and Complaint Responses as Elements of Conflict

Conflict typically occurs when interdependent people perceive they have incompatible goals (Frost and Wilmot 1978). Complaints are a pervasive and natural aspect of conflict. Individuals do not need to express discontent, grievance, or dissatisfaction if their goals are not being interrupted by another individual. Complaining or nagging is often the first indication that a conflict exists; complaints make the other party aware that he or she is interfering with the speaker's goals. Even when complaints do not evolve into a full-scale conflict, the slow build-up and repetitive pattern of daily complaints and nagging can have a corrosive effect on a relationship. However, whether complaining and nagging serve a relationship well or poorly depends upon how the individuals involved manage the complaint interaction.

Family members can manage their complaints six different ways (Alberts and Driscoll 1992). First, complaint recipients may choose to pass or ignore the complaint. Although conflict avoidance can negatively impact relationships in some instances, ignoring complaints that are relatively unimportant and will pass on their own may actually increase relational harmony. Second, the complainer and complaint recipient together may choose to refocus the complaint, placing responsibility for the cause of the complaint on a third party rather than upon the individuals themselves. This response allows the disagreement to be aired, but it also restores relational harmony by uniting the individuals against a common "enemy." Similarly, individuals can respond by mitigating the complaint. Again, in this instance individuals are able to voice their dissatisfaction, but ultimately are able to agree that the issue is not a weighty one that warrants sustained conflict. Fourth, participants can manage the complaint episode by validating one another's complaints and working through them to manage unsatisfactory elements of their relationship.

These four responses to complaints have the potential to downplay the complaint and to foster positive relational feelings. However, the two remaining responses to complaints are less effective at decreasing the level of conflict and may actually increase the occurrence of persistent complaining (such as nagging) and intense arguments. For example, some individuals respond to conflicts by escalating the situation; that is, they respond in a hostile fashion and expand the complaint episode by broadening the focus of the complaint. Thus, a complaint about forgetting to pick up the milk becomes a broader complaint about thoughtlessness in the entire relationship. Others are unresponsive to the complaint or the relational needs of the complainer. Although an ignoring response similarly does not address the complaint, it is done in the overall interest of the relationship. Unresponsiveness, however, shuts out both the complaint and the other person; it is a response that devalues the relationship and can easily lead to further conflict or relational distress. How a complaint is managed once it is voiced is pivotal in whether more complaints, nagging, and conflict are likely to follow or understanding and relational harmony will result.

Effects of Complaining on Familial Relationships

Unfortunately, virtually all of the research on complaining and nagging has focused on married or romantic couples. Thus, most of what we know about the connection between nagging and relationship adjustment or satisfaction concerns dyadic, not family, functioning. However, other research indicates that parental satisfaction and adjustment are key to overall family health and functioning (Noller and Fitzpatrick 1993). Thus, when parents manage their complaints effectively, family adjustment is likely increased.

The various studies that have examined relationship satisfaction and complaining have produced several consistent findings. It is known that satisfied and dissatisfied couples manage their complaints differently. One of the most consistent findings (Gottman 1979; Alberts 1988) is that dissatisfied couples are more likely to cross-complain; that is, they are more likely to respond to a complaint with a complaint. In addition, satisfied couples are more likely to complain about specific behaviors rather than general personality characteristics, they are more positive in their affect when they do complain, and they are more likely to respond to their partners' complaints with agreement or apologies. Overall, happy couples manage their complaints more effectively and are less likely to escalate complaint episodes.

Does this mean happy couples complain less? Not necessarily. Alberts (1988) did not find a statistically significant relationship between number of complaints and couples' satisfaction. In fact, she found that both the happiest and unhappiest couples had the fewest complaints. However, the very unhappy couples' lack of complaining was attributed to the chilling effect (Roloff and Cloven 1990). The chilling effect describes the tendency for individuals to withhold complaints due to their perception that they will not be received well or will have little effect.

Although the research on nagging/complaining and relationship satisfaction has not been extended to family relationships, it is likely that similar findings would hold. One may expect that in families where individuals use specific complaints delivered in a positive fashion and respond with agreement or apologies, family members will be happier and more satisfied.

See also:Communication: Couple Relationships; Communication: Family Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Decision Making; Dialectical Theory; Problem Solving; Relationship Maintenance


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