Help a Martian deal with a Venusian complainer.
September 27, 2011 6:36 PM   Subscribe

I rarely vent (except about philosophical or political matters) and don't see the point in complaining about my day. My wife behaves differently. Often she gets mad that I "have no response" to her complaints. How should I deal with these situations?

I've read about and heard a lot of the common Men Are From Mars advice. The general theory seems to be (apologies to any Venusians [or Martians] I offend with this stereotype) that women want empathy, while men try to provide solutions. I find this extremely difficult to avoid, since I would rarely want empathy if I was going to complain about something. In fact, empathy of the form "Oh that sucks. Don't worry, things will get better" tends to anger me, because I know that the other party is basically just acting. They know nothing about the situation, so how could they know it will get better?

Still, I try to avoid the problem-solving mentality. There are only so many times I can say "Wow that sounds terrible, I'm really sorry" before it sounds like a broken record. What other position am I supposed to take? Here's a typical phone exchange:

V: "I'm on the way home."
M: "Great! How was your day?"
V: "It was awful. TerribleThing happened, and I hate my job."
M: "Oh man, that really sucks. I'm so sorry!"
V: "Yeah, I am really getting fed up with it. JerkFace is acting all Jerky and I want them to stop."
M: "Yeah that's pretty Jerky. At least we can have a nice dinner when you get here!"
V: "Yeah, great. I'm just so tired of this. Why won't AssHat stop causing RedTape?"
M: "I dunno, that sucks."
V: "And JerkHead is annoying me too. He did AnnoyingThing all day."
M: "Yeah, that sucks." ???
V: "It was really annoying, because then I had to catch up on BusyWork after AnnoyingOtherThing."
M: "Yeah, that sounds...lame"

You get the idea. Other times, she will give a long rant about something, and I hesitate for a couple seconds while I try to suppress my problem-solving instinct. I'm trying to think of something better than "that sucks" and I just freeze up. That elicits a "so you have no response?" To which I wittily reply "I dunno what to say, that really sucks."

I can't wrap my head around complaining about stuff that you don't want any input or solutions to. I'm at least not trying to offer solutions at this point, but I don't have anything else to fill in the gaps with. Everything seems like I'm just faking it, like an actor reciting a script. How do I genuinely engage in these conversations?

TLDR: How do I engage in a conversation in which my wife complains about her day and I don't have anything to offer other than "that sucks"?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (57 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I'm curious to know what happens when you don't freeze up and instead keep responding with "that sucks" without missing a beat. Is she usually satisfied with that? Because often when people vent they mostly just want somebody to listen and they're not expecting anything more substantial than "that sucks" in response.
posted by timsneezed at 6:43 PM on September 27, 2011 [12 favorites]

Have you ever talked about this with her at a time when she's not complaining about anything? If I were you, I'd pick a time when you're both in good moods and have a conversation about this dynamic between you. Tell her that when she is frustrated and upset, you feel helpless and don't know how to respond. Ask her what kind of input she would like from you. Find out what she's trying to get from the conversations. Maybe she wants you say "that sucks" over and over again. Maybe she wants you to go into problem solving mode, gender stereotypes aside, and give her advice. Maybe she wants a hug. We can't know, and the only way for you to find out is to ask her.
posted by decathecting at 6:44 PM on September 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

If you're interested in understanding why this difference happens, check out (I'm sure everyone else in the room is groaning because I bring up this woman in every family conversation question) Deborah Tannen's book, You just don't understand: Men and Women in Conversation

In short this kind of talk is about connecting, rather than problem solving. So, she wants you to hear her.

To really, you know, hear her.
posted by bilabial at 6:45 PM on September 27, 2011 [10 favorites]

Just ask questions about it? What did Jerky do this time? Are they a reoccurring character? Does anyone else realize how annoying Jerky is? Does he do it on purpose? etc...
posted by raccoon409 at 6:47 PM on September 27, 2011 [14 favorites]

But, if you do just respond with lame variations on "that sucks," and she responds by going on in great detail about the annoyances of her day, and you're like "wow, that really sucks," and then she feels better having said everything she wanted to say, is there still a problem for anyone?

Seriously sometimes I like to complain and complaining solves the problem regardless of whether I get much of a reply. Because at work often times I just can't tell people what I really think. Because AssHat causing Red Tape is a Senior Manager. And then it bothers me so the first thing I like to do when talking to friends is to finally say what I really think.

So is there any problem if you don't take any other position and just agree that her day was kind of crappy?
posted by citron at 6:47 PM on September 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have actually had the discussion decathecting is talking about with both my husband and my friends. I really like to fix things, and it's very difficult for me to not offer a solution when someone vents to me. However, I really hate it when someone offers me solutions when I want to vent.

The solution to my insanity is that I ask people. My husband vents about his day and I ask, "Sweetie, that sounds crappy, is there something I can do?" My friend bitches about her writer's block, and I say "Dude, I hate it when that happens. Is this something I can help with?"

The key is to let them know you are listening and *hearing* them and you care. Venting is more about articulating what is frustrating you than finding solutions.

Remember, you are more than a fixer, you can be a supporter. It's way easier to fix than it is to support.
posted by teleri025 at 6:50 PM on September 27, 2011 [16 favorites]

I think you are already doing the right thing. It might seem pointless to you but by listening and responding sympathetically you are helping her. I agree with the poster above who said just to ask a bunch of questions about the situation and continue expressing sympathy. Basically she wants to vent to get the feelings out of her system and she just wants you to listen to her.
posted by bearette at 6:51 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

This used to happen to me. After a while I realized the reason I had no response was I just didn't care. Her going on and on about things this way was actually my version of JerkFace, I had to then go and vent to someone else. I didn't want to spend hours ever night saying "that sucks"

I tried asking questions, that was worse because that just proved I didn't get it. Ditto offering suggestions, don't try that.

This was an intractable problem for me, hope you can work it out.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:53 PM on September 27, 2011

Please stop thinking about Venus and Mars. Men and women are from Earth, and much more alike than any of those ridiculous self help theories suggest. I don't think it's terrible if you would suggest to her that you feel like you can't be helpful, or you don't have a great response, and you can have a conversation about it. As in all relationship things, don't do this in the heat of the moment.

If you're really wondering why people ( not just women) do like to vent, the reasons vary. Some like the validation of people saying " that sucks". For me, personally, sometimes I'll talk through something that's been going around and around in my head, and I'll realize it's not that bad, and I relax. Or I'll come to my own conclusion. Sometimes it doesn't help at all, and just creates a negative feedback loop of complaining.

As far as offering solutions and fixing things, I only provide advice like that if asked, and then only tentatively and with qualifications. Part of the reason for this is that when I worked on a crisis hotline, when we were in training the instructor asked us to think of a problem we'd been having that didn't seem to have a solution. He then said, if you can't think of a solution to your own problem, what makes you think you can fix someone else's? Yea, I know, people don't always see the solutions to their own problems. But the lesson remains.
posted by sweetkid at 7:03 PM on September 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

One thing you can do is remember what she says about her work problems. If you really listen when she complains, then you can have a conversation with her instead of being vented at. When she says 'Jerk Face is being all jerky" you can say "wow, CLASSIC JERKFACE. at least he isn't [worse thing jerk face did before]!" And when she asks "why won't AssHat stop causing red tape?" You can say, "because AssHat is a self-important AssHat who needs to think the whole office couldn't function without her!" I think you're seeing a false dichotomy between "make suggestions" and "say nothing at all".
posted by moxiedoll at 7:04 PM on September 27, 2011 [63 favorites]

Honestly, you need to talk to her and figure out some middle ground. Once you establish boundaries and proper responses, then both of you will be happy. Does she keep going on and on about these issues, or does she vent for 15 minutes and then you get on with your night? Or does she rant and is not able to get over stuff. If it is the latter, then she needs to go see someone and work out how to effectively release stress. If it is the former, then together figure out a good plan of attack for both of you so that she knows how to vent and you know how to respond in a way that helps her.
posted by TheBones at 7:08 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Put on Frank Sinatra and lip sync. If you make her laugh then you should kiss her and say "the day is over darling, we must dance, leave all your cares behind!" and fake ballroom dance until you fall down laughing.

The best way to defuse a rant/ ranting behavior is being as silly as possible why linger in the feelings of tension and worry?


posted by JimmyJames at 7:09 PM on September 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Another way to empathize in these situations beyond agreeing about JerkFace was a total Jerkface is to talk about the JerkFace from YOUR life and how he recently did a similar annoying thing.

The only danger with this strategy is that you can't derail the conversation too much into your own problem-- you have to close it out by returning to your wife's JerkFace. Here's how you do it:

Wife: JerkFace has reached new limits today!
You: ugh, that's terrible. I remember when JerkFace I knew did a similar thing! It drove me up the wall! He did this other inane thing I couldn't even believe! How did you handle your Jerkface today?
Wife: Well, I could only stop and stare, but I talked about it with WorkFriend and she gave me some good ideas for what to say next time.
You: That's great! What do you want for dinner?
posted by paddingtonb at 7:18 PM on September 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Sometimes I'm a venter, sometimes I'm the listening fixer. To my friend who sometimes vents, I sometimes say, "Are you venting or do you want me to give you ideas to fix this?" She often says, "I want to vent." And then I try really hard just to nod, listen, and say, "That sucks!"

Negativity can feed upon itself, though, so, my suggestion is that sometime when your wife is not complaining, you say, "Hey, how much do you need to vent before I try to distract you with something fun or awesome?" I suspect that at times she won't want to be cheered up--sometimes we just have sucky days--but other times she'll be game for the distraction. It'd be great if you can figure out which is which and also help her be more self-aware of how she's feeling in the midst of all of this.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:26 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

My husband and I deal with this by being genuinely empathetic but subtly acknowledging that things could be worse by exaggerating our responses. So if he's complaining about someone at work, I will say, "Did you punch him in the face?" or I will say really loudly, "THEY ARE THE WORST." My husband will often say things in a genuinely empathetic tone like, "Your life sounds horrible, I'm sorry," if I'm complaining about something banal, or if I'm seriously feeling pretty down he'll rub the small of my back and say, "Poor Nattie," in an over-the-top soothing voice. None of this is at all done in a snarky, sarcastic, uncaring, or passive aggressive tone, because that would make the other person feel bad. The tone is genuinely sympathetic and not faked, so it underscores the fact that the consoler can't do anything except be supportive with some gentle humor to make the other person feel better. This also reminds the complainer they are getting the absolute most from the interaction they can reasonably expect and calms them down faster; a lot of people say they only want to vent, but sometimes the frustration is a little overwhelming to the consoler and if the complainer won't be pacified it's really hard to believe *either* of them doesn't expect that the complainer actually wants a solution. People who complain like that need to be aware that they still need to be considerate and hang on to *some* shard of reasonableness even if they're getting a partial social pass on being upset for the time being, and being empathetic but subtly reminding the other person you are regrettably powerless is a good way to keep things from getting stressful.

None of this will work for couples who are genuinely bored or contemptuous of one another's complaining, though, because it will come across completely wrong, like you're mocking or invalidating. When done sincerely, it comes across as having humility and doing whatever meager things you can to cheer them up.
posted by Nattie at 7:32 PM on September 27, 2011 [27 favorites]

In fact, empathy of the form "Oh that sucks. Don't worry, things will get better" tends to anger me, because I know that the other party is basically just acting. They know nothing about the situation, so how could they know it will get better?

Lots of great suggestions here already, so I'll just address this little part—do not include a "things will get better" if you do not know that things are going to get better (unless this is specifically something your wife wants).
posted by grouse at 7:36 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm going to go the other way, and say your wife is behaving thoughtlessly. Seriously, who likes to talk to someone who is going to repeatedly launch into a diatribe of 'My work is sucky suck mcsuck suck, with a side of suckerific, sucktastic sucky balls...and my boss is an asshole, too." Who wants to deflect that baggage, when really at the end of the day, you want to focus on the joy of the rest of the day?

Even if you had the 'appropriate' response, with thoughtful phrases and thought provoking questions, with just enough sympathetic cooing, no one should be expected to have regular conversations with someone else who seems to just want to dump their frustration on you. Particularly if they are just dumping, not processing or reflecting, not problem solving, but just dumping because they lack the resiliency to manage their craptastic feelings themselves, or seem to lack the awareness that they are making a choice both in going to said job, and how they are choosing to view and respond to the things that happen to them.

You are her husband, not a dumping ground for her daily frustrations. "Don't you have a response" is not an informative response. If she wants something other than what you are doing, she needs to clarify what that is - preferably with sample language, role play, and some pictures. And then there needs to be a time limit, of whatever you can handle. Her venting on the regular, well that's what her friends, who might also be venty-external processors, are for. Or coworkers. Or a therapist. Boundaries, my friend. Boundaries. Get her to tell you what she wants, decide what you want/can manage, and require her to manage the rest herself.
posted by anitanita at 7:37 PM on September 27, 2011 [18 favorites]

You know what you're doing? You're prematurely redirecting the conversation. That's why you feel friction. I don't think you mean to do it--you're trying to get her to quickly think of something positive to focus on.

BUt that's not what she needs. Things like repeated "Oh, that sucks," or "Tell me what I can do to make it better" are conversation-enders. But she needs you to understand this sucky thing that's bothering her.

So instead of redirecting, sympathetically solicit more information. (Bonus: usually once you have a lot of information on the table, then women are more receptive to suggestions about how to fix it. Women tend to discount advice given to solve a problem they've only given you a glimpse of. Tease it all out first, and then ask her what SHE thinks she'll do about it, and then support and offer guidance for HER plan. Or if she says she doesn't know, then say, "Well, you might try...."

Try a conversation that goes like this:

You: How was your day?
She: It blew. Jerky McJerkface just ruined my whole afternoon.
You: [Instead of saying "Oh, that sucks, at least the day's over now."] Oh, that sucks. What did he do?
She: He did this, and then that, and then omg, in our staff meeting, he called me that!
You: [instead of "Ugh. Let's just spend the rest of the night watching "The Wire" and not think about him anymore."] Ugh. What did the other people say?
She: Nothing! They all just let it sit there like a turd on a buffet. Cowards.
You: What do you think you'll do about it?
She: Oh, I'll probably have to talk to his supervisor in the morning, but I hate conversations like that.
You: I know. They're never fun. But better in the long run. You'll do fine.
She: I know it's supposed to be confidential, but they never are. I hate that.
You: I think everyone else in your office will regard you as a hero for being the one to stand up to him. You're probably saving a lot of people a lot of aggravation. You'll be a rock star.
She: You think?
You: Absolutely. You're my girl. Now you go run a bath while I make dinner and not let Jerkface ruin our whole evening, OK?
She: Awesome. Yes. Great plan.

Lots of good stuff going on here--you're actively listening, acknowledging not only her feelings but the context in which the situation occurred, who the players were, what the stakes were of the situation. And only the barest whisper of advice at the end, concluding, finally, with the happy redirect.

Good luck. IT ain't easy. You'll get there.

posted by thinkingwoman at 7:57 PM on September 27, 2011 [59 favorites]

I agree with anitanita. It's okay to "be nice" and let a person vent, but there is a limit to the inanity of "that sucks!" going on forever as a kindness. I say "No Dumping!" (like the street sign).
There should be a limit to the pounding. At least for me.
posted by bebrave! at 8:04 PM on September 27, 2011

nthing actually listening and remembering what she's saying. Honestly, a lot of what you're doing sounds totally fine and normal, but (depending on her preferences of course) a little "oh wow, JerkFace seems like they need to x!" or "What does Boss think about this?" or "I hate when people x!" or "Do you know what you're going to do about it?" can mix things up.

I think there's a way of making constructive comments that guide the conversation towards solutions without you getting all problem-solver on her. Asking her what she's going to do about it, if she's talked to someone else about it, stuff like that. The important thing is asking her for her thoughts, not offering up your own unsolicited. And of course, pay attention to her cues. Some people vent just to be heard and get it off their chests, some people use it as a way to work through problems and you might be able to learn how to help her do that without going into problem solving mode.
posted by MadamM at 8:05 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Usually when people are having one of those fits, what they want is reassurance that they're not crazy/weird. Like, the problem here is that she feels bad/upset, and the solution is to help her understand that you, too, would feel bad/upset in her place, that her reaction is typical and that you understand why she feels that way. So possible helpful solutions would be more along the lines of "JerkFace is throwing up Red Tape? Again? Really? He's always doing that, hunh. Man, he sucks. Whatever happened with Project X that he was RedTaping like a one-armed paperhanger?"

Possible useful responses are:

1.) As for more specific contextual detail about the problem (Oh my god, he said he was delaying project x? When was this?)
2.) Ask her how she responded to and/or felt about those specific details (Really? Then he asked you to run the report again? What did you say?)
3.) Validating specific concerns/responses. (No, totally, I would have been so pissed if he said that to me. And that's exactly how I would have laid it out for him, I think you were right to tell him that.)
4.) Demonstrating detailed memory of prior concerns/conversations. (Well, it sounds like exactly that same shit he pulled during the Q crisis, when Geena was so miffed with him. Down to the messing up of the reservations again. Unbelievable.)

Now that I think of it, there's an analogy to reading the paper here, a bit --- if you see a headline and think, "Well, that sounds like it sucks, moving on" that's a story you don't give a fuck about. If you see the headline and you're like, "holy shit, really? tell me more," then that's a story that you do care about. So if you want to make your wife feel like you care about her and her stories, when she gives you the headline, have her tick off the six Qs --- who, what, when, where, why and how.
posted by Diablevert at 8:08 PM on September 27, 2011 [15 favorites]

Why not just ask her?

"Babe, do you need to vent, or do you actually want help with what you're about to tell me?"

And then be prepared to say, "Ok, if you need to vent, I think I can be a good listener for X number of minutes. Otherwise I need to relax tonight, and I'd love for us to do that together."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:09 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

"I can't wrap my head around complaining about stuff that you don't want any input or solutions to."

Venting is how you get rid of poisonous gasses and things that smell bad and too much pressure. Listening and letting her vent all that nastiness and sympathizing with her IS a solution. (Best of all, it's kind-of easy.) It lets her get all those poisonous and ugly thoughts out of her system and releases the pressure so she can relax.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:11 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm marking this as a favorite because I regularly find myself in this sort of situation with my wife, and I often end up in trouble for trying to solve her problem. Believe it or not, 'that sucks' and 'that's terrible' and 'what a jerk' will probably get you all the way. I don't particularly care to vent, either, but some people do, and all they really want is to know that they're being heard, and perhaps a little reassurance.
posted by Gilbert at 8:11 PM on September 27, 2011

I can't wrap my head around complaining about stuff that you don't want any input or solutions to.

Speaking as a venter, all I often want is someone to agree with me that the situation I'm venting about REALLY IS bad, rather than it being something that I'm just a big baby about. Because usually by the time I'm venting I've been trying all day to tell myself that I should suck it up and get over it, but sometimes "suck it up and get over it" is not the proper response to a situation. And one of the side effects of telling yourself "suck it up and get over it" is that you start to wonder whether maybe you did something to deserve this kind of abuse.

So complaining about stuff that you don't need solutions to is my way of affirming that at least ONE person other than me agrees that the situation sucks and that I deserve better. That's usually all I need to reassure me that I can go out and GET that better situation on my own.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:17 PM on September 27, 2011 [12 favorites]

There's an episode of Everybody Hates Chris which had an interesting take on this. The solution basically involves simple parroting, something that probably has to be done with a certain amount of finesse lest the object of it notices and then feels like they're being made fun of.

(The episode is mainly about Chris and his brother and sister but just skip all that and watch the parts about his mother and father.)
posted by fuse theorem at 8:19 PM on September 27, 2011

I've been in this situation (and I'm an, um, Venusian, though to associate myself with that stereotype goes against every instinct), with my ex-boyfriend, the um, real Venusian (though he likes to problem-solve, this is only when he's not whining about things he puts off solving). Anyway, everyone's really like that-- few people really solve their deepest/personality-based issues. The thing with men is that they often sublimate these issues rather than realizing fully how/when other people drive them insane (there's often more judgment and dismissal). But anyway.

Yeah, the people saying 'ask questions and commiserate more actively' don't get that you've probably heard this story many times before, and after a while it gets so predictable that there's no easy way to really question sincerely unless the other person volunteers the info (which they often do, in my experience with my girlfriends). In fact, the problem is often over-volunteering, and then the issue becomes sheer endurance. It helps if at least the person is entertaining. This is the difference between my girlfriends' hatred/stress at their jobs & my ex's. They really think it through themselves, see patterns, are engaged with their own psychological reactions and think of how to grow or better their situation, engaging me in that therapeutic process as part of the venting, so it always feels positive even though they're just whining also, basically. This is what's different between them and my ex, who basically was stuck and so overwhelmed and non-empowered that he thought his situation was not in his power to really affect. It was severely draining for me-- and then he resented me for getting tired and avoiding conversations about his job 'cause this meant I didn't care about him. Anyway, so the great advice is not-so-great when the person isn't partly in problem-solving mode at least emotionally-- the difference between men & women isn't so much the solution vs state-of-being, as what kind of solutions we like best. At least, this is so with the women I find a common language with, rather than just talking past each other.

Anyway, 'play therapy' isn't a blunt instrument-- it's not about offering solutions but discussing issues, which is different. I think this way-- if you can achieve this-- you'd both be more satisfied; making you bend over backwards even more will just lead to chronic resentment eventually (I know it did with my ex-- I resented him, and he eventually resented me for dealing with my resentment imperfectly). To tolerate this sort of venting as part of your life, I think you ought to encourage the Venusian in question to be more open to seeing her job as a process-- not a place she's stuck at, but somewhere she can change, improve, or grow at as a worker or individual. If it's a process, it has low points and high points. If it's a static state, it's too likely to succumb to entropy and long-term negative emotion. That's been my experience. Cutting off Mars & Venus cripples both; only if you combine the two thinking styles can you have a useful dialogue about your life.
posted by reenka at 8:19 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not about male vs. female, because I've known plenty of dudes who could spend hours bitching about their boss, their company, their coworkers. Talk radio is full of men, bitching about liberals and Obama and sluts.

So, you know, it's not a woman thing.

Think of it this way; she's been walking around all day, thinking, "I'm surrounded by fools and assholes!" but having to smile and be polite so she doesn't kill someone and lose her job.

Now maybe you are fortunate enough to never have worked anywhere where someone really got up your nose; maybe you work in an isolated profession, or everyone where you work is an introvert. But clearly your wife doesn't, and it might help if you saw this as not about her, or women in general, but about her situation, which is not like yours.

I would wager good money that if you were put under enough stress or irritation, you would feel the same urge to vent. Or perhaps punch things. But women generally aren't socialized to punch things. So they vent.
posted by emjaybee at 8:21 PM on September 27, 2011 [11 favorites]

Come up with potential solutions to [sucky]. Doesn't even have to be realistic or feasible. Turn it into humour.

Yeah, it'll take some more effort than, "yeah, that sucks honey" but that's mostly why she's bitching about stuff at you. Consciously spend more attention on her.
posted by porpoise at 8:22 PM on September 27, 2011

And just want to throw out that "that really sucks. It'll get better!" isn't empathy at all-since empathy requires a feeling of actual-well, empathy. You know-you understand the feeling she has. You might have felt it yourself. You feel her pain. Not just "can I say something to make you stop talking?". So, you've worked with an asshole before, right? So you can say "Man, that sucks. It reminds me of when I worked with dildo. It felt so undermining. What do you think you're going to do?". Feel her pain, push her a bit towards solution rather than complaining, and I bet she'll feel heard.
posted by purenitrous at 8:31 PM on September 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Do these conversations all occur over the phone? When she says she's on the way home, can you just say, "Okay, see you soon!" or perhaps, "I've got some delicious beef jerky waiting for you!" or "Let us watch our favorite television programs this evening!" instead of asking her how her day was and then getting perplexed when she complains about it?

What happens if you don't ask her how her day was? I personally don't mind if my boyfriend doesn't ask me how my day was, because I'll talk about it if I feel like it. Otherwise we talk about things other than work. Usually I am pleased to not talk about work when I am not there.

But when she does feel like venting, listen, and if she's vague about things ask for more details until she's explained the situation. She probably does just want to vent, and she probably does not want ideas for solutions, but it should sound like you care what she's going through, and not like you're just letting her spout words so you can say "that sucks" and then start talking about something else.
posted by wondermouse at 8:49 PM on September 27, 2011

The problem is not so much that you're acting, it's that you're acting *badly*.

Empathy is a lot like acting -- it involves accessing your own emotions to understand what someone else is feeling, why they're feeling like that. In this case, your wife, rather than a character in a script.

If you feel like you're just repeating platitudes, that might get you by for awhile, because people who are venting are usually fairly distracted. But try assessing what she's feeling -- angry? embarrassed? frustrated? afraid? anxious? -- and responding to those emotions rather than her anecdotes as anecdotes or her problems as being in search of a solution. You've felt all of those things in your life and can remember what they were like.

You don't want to get overly involved with relating your own anecdotes of those feelings because that feels like one-upmanship, and at that precise moment, your remembered frustrations are not as huge as her current frustrations, even if they were more substantial at the time.

The end result of this might not actually be words that are much different than "Oh my god, that sucks." But there's a difference between "Oh my god, that sucks" and "Oh my god, darling, that *sucks*."
posted by jacquilynne at 8:52 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I totally get what you're talking about, but:

I rarely vent (except about philosophical or political matters) and don't see the point in complaining about my day. My wife behaves differently. Often she gets mad that I "have no response" to her complaints.

Is a little bit funny to me, and also, in addition to the heaps of good advice you've gotten above, your answer.

When you say "Ugh, have you seen this article about how the Republicans are actively trying to dismantled all that is good and holy????", you don't want your wife to say "Gosh, that's terrible. Let's not talk about it anymore and instead I am going to say some things that are intended to cheer you up and fix your immediate emotional state, but which instead will feel like I am totally dismissing something unpleasant as completely unimportant, okay?"


So - however you like your wife to respond when you bitch about something, that's probably pretty close to what she's looking for: a conversation where you state your case, and the other person whole-heartedly agrees with you.

In my house, I sometimes actually tell my husband what I'm looking for, and he's a cool dude so that works. "Please don't try to jolly me out of this - I'm really upset, this event really shook my confidence. I need you to ask me a series of questions about what exactly happened and then agree that I am totally right and these people are all huge jerks."

And then I can get past it pretty quickly, usually.

I totally recommend this approach. If you have the kind of relationship with your wife where you can discuss these things, I suggest asking her (when you're both calm) if this is something that would work for you guys!
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:09 PM on September 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

When I've done this, in my life, it's mainly been for the following reasons.

-Primarily, it's been that I wanted to know the listener was on my side and not on the other person's side, and I wanted the listener to express that.

Example: "Bob insisted on X and screwed you over when you said 100 times that it needed to be Y? That was really awful and incompetent of him."

-Sometimes, when I've felt really emotional about something, I've wanted the listener to be emotionally invested too and have my back about it. For example, being angry on my behalf if I've been treated really badly.

When I was in college, I worked as a legal assistant to this really demented and warped old lawyer. I think he deliberately hired young completely inexperienced girls as legal assistants, and deliberately gave 0 training, so that he would have "legitimate" reasons to frequently direct rage and vitriol at them whenever they made mistakes, and so that they would endure this when an older person or a man wouldn't have.

What I really wanted, in that situation, was to know that it wasn't me, that I didn't deserve the treatment I was getting. There was no solution to the situation except for quitting -- dozens of girls before me had tried. I already knew the solution, make the amount of money I needed for school and then quit. So I didn't need solutions. I just needed emotional support and validation so that my self esteem, confidence and mental health wouldn't be totally shot by the time I was out of there.

That said, even when I wanted the two things I mentioned above (to know the listener was on my side, and for the listener to be emotionally invested), unless I asked for advice, advice was not what I wanted. When I was in that situation, a lot of people told me to just quit. I couldn't quit because then I wouldn't have the money I needed for school. They told me then I should take time off from school. No! I needed to finish school. It was SOOOO aggravating -- having unwanted advice that would have really screwed up my life pushed on me when all I needed to get through the situation was some emotional support.

Now, I TOTALLY see the flip side, where it would be aggravating to listen to someone's complaining, and have it seem like all they want to do is just complain and not actually want to DO anything about the situation. If you feel like this, I think that's legit, and a lot of people feel the same way. Your wife probably has other friends she can get emotional support from. But, fair or not, she might resent you for it though.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:42 PM on September 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

As someone who really appreciates a good ventee, I'd say that thinkingwoman and moxiedoll have nailed it. My mom is the best person ever to vent to. She gets upset on my behalf. She remembers who the people I'm ranting about are, what they did last time, heck, she'll even ask follow-up questions about the incident the next time I talk to her. (The nice thing is that my mom is also someone who likes to vent, and I put extra effort into remembering the people she's ranting about, what they did last time, etc. so that I can be the same excellent ventee that she is for me.)

The trick is, you absolutely have to care. It has to bother you that someone made her day miserable for some reason. I mean, this is your wife we're talking about, right? You need to be righteously indignant on her behalf, and you need to let her know it. The shared indignation becomes a bonding experience -- the two of you uniting emotionally, however futilely, against the various sucky things the world has to offer.

"Oh that sucks, sorry" is the kind of polite fake-empathy you offer friendly acquaintances in the case of moderately bad news. If you want to truly empathize here, it should go something more like "Whoa, now I'm upset that Jerkface keeps being such a jerk to you, my darling wife! No one should treat you like that. WTF!!"
posted by ootandaboot at 10:01 PM on September 27, 2011 [22 favorites]

I usually say something along the lines of what you do, "That sucks, whyvdoes he always do that?" But once in a while I say, "Do you want me to come down there and kick his ass?" That usually lightens the mood. Sometimes.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:18 PM on September 27, 2011

moxiedoll is EXACTLY right. Keep up with the storyline so you CAN make relevant comments instead of sitting there frozen, no clue what to say. But still throw lots of "damn, that sucks" in there, altered appropriately for varying degrees of problem-seriousness-level.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 10:33 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes again to moxiedoll and ootandaboot. This is a scene that is unfolding in her life, stay current and keep up. If you're giving generic, "ooooh, that sucks," answers, I'd assume that you hadn't been listening at all. Pay attention to the players in this drama and their interactions. Personally, I don't need your false "it's going to be OK," I just want proof that you're hearing what I say.
posted by bendy at 10:53 PM on September 27, 2011

Great answers above. I was going to say what jacquilynne said, since that's something that I think takes someone's listening skills up a notch. Try to understand how she is feeling, perhaps by thinking about how you would feel in her shoes, then express it with real feeling. This leads to responses like "I would've been SO PISSED!" "Oh noooo :( :( You must've been so disappointed." "OMG, what a disaster! What did you do???"

Part of being able to understand what she's feeling is to pay attention so that you can see where new facts fit into the narrative ("CLASSIC jerkface" or "right on! you stood up for yourself [like you've been saying you wanted to]").
posted by salvia at 12:49 AM on September 28, 2011

Any burden placed upon a significant other that is outside of the bounds of reciprocity (plus fudge factor) may be thoughtless and unreasonable, or even a pattern of manipulation. Or simply domination.

Manipulation or domination may be borderline unconscious.

Is the request reasonably clear and explicit? Is the requester at least minimally grateful? Do they cooperate on getting what they request? Do they respect that the partner doing their best ... is giving one of the most significant gifts in life?

This goes both ways.
posted by krilli at 4:26 AM on September 28, 2011

"That sucks" isn't a conversation, she could get "that sucks" from a parrot. You're going to have to listen, remember and engage. This is what being a friend is about. Being there for each other.

My partner occasionally comes home with work stories of varying GRAR, and I like to hear them because I get to hear more about a part of her life that I never see. Also the various co-starring players all have personalities and interactions that are sometimes brilliantly stupid. Or sometimes just like another episode of Gilligan's Island.

Here's the key thing: by listening and remembering and engaging, you can also provide occasional insights about people and situations that actually do more than just defuse a shitty mood at the end of a day.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:32 AM on September 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

Many people above have spelled out clearly that what your wife wants is evidence that you care about her life, her feelings, what happens during her day.

Your wife is getting mad at you because she can tell that you don't care.

If you don't care about what is important to your wife, fair warning, your marriage is in big trouble. Caring about one's spouse's happiness and well-being is a fundamental part of a healthy relationship.

It's a very good sign that you are trying to figure out a solution to this, even if it's hard for you, because if you blow it off, your marriage is pretty much doomed.

I suggest you go to individual and perhaps marriage counseling to figure out why you don't care, to develop the important human trait of empathy, and to build your marriage.

Sign me,
Been there, done that, kicked his sorry ass out.
posted by Sublimity at 5:22 AM on September 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

I can't wrap my head around complaining about stuff that you don't want any input or solutions to.

Three things:

First, you have agency in this, too. If her complaining is getting you down, cowboy up and talk with her about it, and find a different pattern of communication. Your question reads weirdly passive, like this is just the way it is, and you can't ask her about how things are, and you are the only person who can or should adapt. Relationships have to work for both people; maybe she should do more venting to her mom or best friend, and less to you.

Second, one thing that has worked in my life is to start asking, at the beginning of what sounds like it will be a venting conversation, "do you need me to just listen and be sympathetic, or are you looking for solutions?" Offering solutions to someone who just wants to talk it out and move on sucks, but so does the reverse. Asking in such open language allows her to think about what she is actually looking for in that moment, and allows me to give the most helpful response.

Third, even when solutions are called for, often the most helpful time is later, after the person has fully vented and has returned to happy normalcy. Then they are ready to listen and reconsider the whole situation, rather than being caught in the angry moment. So after the venting conversation she's home, you guys have had a nice dinner, you are relaxing on the couch, finally you can say "Hey, you know how you keep mentioning your boss doing that irritating thing? I was thinking about that, and had a couple of ideas, blah blah blah." That's a lot more likely to be productive than interrupting her venting to offer half-baked solutions.
posted by Forktine at 5:23 AM on September 28, 2011

You aren't a Martian and she's not from Venus. You're just terrible at active listening and she wishes you weren't. To be honest, most people are bad at active listening (my bet would be she is too) but it is a skill that isn't hard to use (but it is hard to rewire your brain to use it).

In the conversation you shared above, you don't seem like you're listening to her. You're saying "that sucks" but you never show that you're actually listening to her. Instead, it sounds like you're trying to move past the conversation and she can hear that. The easiest way out of this is to do a few things.

1) say "that sucks" but throw in a "tell me more" or a similar phrase at the end of it. Open an invitation for her to keep talking and sharing what's on her mind.
2) instead of always saying "that sucks" start saying, start reflecting the emotions you hear in her voice. "oh wow, I can hear the frustration in your voice." "that would really bother me too." Make facial expressions that seem to imply you're listening and hearing the anguish in her voice.
3) be inquisitive and curious. ask questions. ask her to explain things. ask her to dig deeper. get details.
4) reflect back the emotions, and content, of what she's saying. "It sounds like your boss did something boneheaded and it made you really mad." If you ever get it wrong, she'll be free to correct you but that's okay - people don't mind correcting because it means you're trying to listen and that's what matters.
5) and, if you feel daring, start bringing your own emotions in the conversation. "when you say that, I feel this"

all of this sounds stilted, cheap, and easy but it works. You'll develop your own style, you'll connect intimately with your wife, she'll sound like she's listened to, and you'll be able to explore with her rather than try to solve her problems.
posted by Stynxno at 5:49 AM on September 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

When I vent, I just want someone to listen to me because I've spent all day with "X" crappy problem. Talking about it lets me get my attention off of it. If you go in with the point of view that active listening will help your wife stop worrying about it, this is equivalent to the "problem solving" mode you naturally get into. The things that happen at work are not the problems -- it's having nobody to communicate to about them. Effectively, by listening, you are solving the problem. She can deal with the actual at work on her own (unless is some real sucky, out of the ballpark weirdness).
posted by DoubleLune at 6:42 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't wrap my head around complaining about stuff that you don't want any input or solutions to.

Because, to put it bluntly, you are right and she is wrong. Venting about the same thing repeatedly to a "fixer" is abusive and insensitive. As much as you have an obligation to empathize and care, she has an obligation to understand how you psychologically accumulate the burden of her distress. When your natural inclination is to solve problems and someone repeatedly heaps problems with no desire for resolution on you it is no wonder that you begin to resent having the discussion.

Venting should be infrequent concerning the same things and if it happens too often it should be oriented toward a resolution. Otherwise it is a collective drain on everyone's emotional capacity.
posted by dgran at 6:49 AM on September 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe it would be helpful to the "fixers" in the conversation to realize that what really needs to get "fixed" in this situation is the wife's distress, not the specific incidents that give rise to the distress.
posted by Sublimity at 7:38 AM on September 28, 2011 [8 favorites]

Or, maybe as a more succinct follow up to dgran's breathtaking assertion: You can be right, or you can be married; take your pick.

As I so frequently do here on the green, I will once again recommend Terry Real's New Rules of Marriage. Very good at explaining the relationship skills that build intimacy and bridging exactly the kinds of gaps that are being discussed here.
posted by Sublimity at 7:40 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify, my point isn't that the OP shouldn't have empathy and care about his wife's need to vent, but it is a two way street. If there is an effective way to educate serial venters about their insensitive behavior then by all means do so.
posted by dgran at 8:24 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stynxno's advice is great. Yes, engage her and acknowledge her feelings. That will help with her wanting a response. But if it's still too much venting for you, you could put a limit on it. At a time when she's not venting, talk to her about your end-of-the-day routine and how you're happy to listen to anything she wants to tell you, but you also want to make sure both of you have time to relax together and not think about work. Depending on what your relationship is like, you could even set a timer or joke, "Okay, venting time, go!" and when she's done say, "Venting time is over! Let's have dinner. No more work talk."
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:20 AM on September 28, 2011

So, you know, it's not a woman thing.

seconding that. My wife and I have this dynamic, but in reverse of the gender stereotype.

Speaking as the one who does the venting, what's going on is that talking my way through a problem helps me figure it out, and helps me settle down my feelings about it. If something tough or upsetting happens, it sort of goes around in my head in loops until I understand it and have figured out what to do with it.

The process of explaining the whole tangled mess helps me straighten it out. Once I understand what's actually going on, figuring out a solution is generally easy. The part I need help with is in getting perspective.

So perhaps think of it this way: it's not that you need to "suppress your problem-solving instinct", it's that you need to direct it toward a different problem. She doesn't want your help dealing with the events of her day: she wants your help sorting out her thoughts and feelings about those events.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:08 AM on September 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

FWIW: my wife has learned to ask, "Are you looking for my help solving this, or do you just need to talk about it?" There are bad ways to ask this question - don't imply that "just talking about it" is a waste of time! - but asking what someone needs is almost always good.

Conversely I have learned that when she tells me about a problem, and then sort of just stops and waits, the appropriate response is not to sympathetically express confidence in her ability to solve the problem, but to suggest something concrete that she might do about it. This still feels sort of pushy and obnoxious to me, like I am implying that she lacks the chops to manage her life, but it is in fact what she wants when she talks about a problem.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:13 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Effectively, by listening, you are solving the problem. She can deal with the actual at work on her own (unless is some real sucky, out of the ballpark weirdness).

Yes, yes, yes, this exactly.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:15 AM on September 28, 2011

Just as a note, I've had this problem in the reverse (I'm a heterosexual woman), so it's not a man/woman thing. I can see how due to socialization people sometimes see it that way, though. The problem I usually see with staging it as a Mars/Venus conflict is that the pursuit of "empathy" takes some weird, misunderstood turn, where it becomes about eschewing any constructive behavior at all. I find it hard to believe that somebody would just want the purest empathy without any advice or suggestions whatsoever, so don't worry, you're not "hopelessly male" or anything like that. It's just a matter of learning how to engage with your wife's emotions (and there is plenty of great advice in this thread). And yeah, if she vents all the time about the same things and seems negative about your attempts to help, you might need to tell her how you feel about that.

The advice to tell her your impression of the situation ("wow, it seems like the same issue you brought up last week," or "you sound like this/that is making you angry") without judgment sounds really helpful to me. Like the above poster said, she will either agree or will correct you, and correcting your impression will help her clarify her feelings, which is what she is probably looking for.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:24 PM on September 28, 2011

And I love love love ootandaboot's advice, and that is how my sisters and I vent to one another. That way it becomes a bonding session instead of just a bash-fest. It's great to develop little inside jokes about a situation with someone else, too, so that you know that they'll want to hear about the issue when something happens because you both get a kick out of it. Being protective is totally legit and great and what makes me feel the most loved and listened to when I have a problem. I just want someone on my side when things feel crazy (unless I'm being a terrible brat and then deep down I'd like to know so I can cut it out).
posted by stoneandstar at 12:28 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a bit of a Martian on my own planet so sometimes a little bit of venting helps me get my head around a situation so that I can get some perspective as Mars Saxman and others relate above. I have a partner who occasionally does a similar thing, but for different reasons (often he'd just like someone to say "aww honey, I'm sorry people were jerks to you" which I can do) and he just sort of wants me to make therethere noises and not really say "Well next time you need to do this!" I am a fixer and extended venting is totally not-okay with me. So, we meet somewhere in the middle, with both of us and our desires.

1. My venting - I usually want to explain a weird-to-me situation and say that it made me feel bad and have someone sort of validate my feelings ["Aww that sucks, do you want me to leave some poop on your boss's doorstep?"] and maybe help me snap out of it after we've talked about what happens. Occasionally, rarely, I do not want to snap out of it and I really need to untangle something in which case it's an exception to the usual rule where venting is a short-term interaction and then we move on to something else. I'm especially like this when I first get back from work because the shift from work to home time is sort of tough for me for whatever reason. So this is sort of the transition period. That said, my failure mode with this difficult time is sort of like yours. I feel ootchy AND my partner is clearly not paying attention (rarely) so then I take my ootchy feelings and put them in the wrong place "And you don't even care DAWWWWWWW" but we're pretty good at recognizing this as a broken pattern and not getitng stuck in it.

2. Partner's venting - Often he just literally needs to get rid of a bad feeling and replace it with a good one and he can do that by talking about whatever it is and me being like "aww honey that SUCKS" and not actually giving him tons of (I am certain super duper helpful!) advice because he's trying to move on. So this is where the active listening comes in, a little bit of "Okay and then what did you say when he said that? Do you think this is getting better than last time?" open-ended stuff that isn't judging his choices or implying that the problem is somehow his [we can talk about that later if it's really an issue "Gee you keep having that same bad run-in with your boss and I think it really might help if you ..."]. Sometimes he would spring these sorts of rants into the middle of emails we were sending back and forth, just light chatty emails that would suddenly go all dark and I'd have to say "You know, if you need to unload about this, let's just have a quick phone call, don't just drop your agita in the middle of some nice back and forth emails" because to me if that sort of RARARARARA gets dumped in my lap in asynchronous ways I just flail. I can't make him feel better and I think replying with solutions in non-real time is unlikely to help. This has made things go a lot more smoothly for us.

In either case, there's a time-limit on venting because neither of us like it very much and it's pretty easy to get bogged down in a shitty mood. Sometimes it's hard to talk about anything ELSE so we'll sit quietly or just go for a walk where we can look at trees together or something. Sometimes you just need to let the mood pass. It is okay for you to put some sort of limit on how much time you spend doing the feelings-validation boogie. Everyone's got their tolerances and this should work for you as well as your wife.
posted by jessamyn at 12:57 PM on September 28, 2011

This is a great discussion, thank you. It seems like 90% of my (infrequent) fights with my wife arise from my resistance (and I try!) to expressing empathy as opposed to problem solving. I've read the Tannen book, which I understood but which I've had difficultly putting into practice on a consistent basis.
posted by seventyfour at 6:27 PM on September 28, 2011

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