Being happy in spite of negative personalities...
April 1, 2008 5:54 PM   Subscribe

How do you ignore someone's attitude instead of letting it bring you down? How do you handle living with someone who can be really negative a lot of the time?

I love my SO dearly, but he is an extremely negative person - often complaining about things, getting angry about things, and often just walking around grumbling. Just grumbling, sighing, huffing, yelling, etc. Most often to himself, not me.

I find that I take this very personally, even though he has often explained that he is just in a bad mood and it has nothing to do with me. I have tried to work with him to see how I could help -- he blames a lot of his bad mood on lack of exercise and sleep, so I've offered to do things like have him workout with me or go for walks with me, or to remind him when it's getting late so he can wrap things up and get ready for bed. But instead of even trying, he just complains about how useless it is to even try because he won't do it and he doesn't have enough time or energy. (And I've tried to explain how it's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy that he won't have energy if he doesn't try to get sleep or exercise, but it's been useless.)

I also realize that he might be so negative and tired/cranky due to depression or something else he needs to talk to someone about, and I have gently suggested this a few times - but he won't. Neither by himself or as a couple.

So, I feel badly that he feels so grumpy all the time, and I can definitely sympathize as I have fought my own battles with depression (and still do), but he won't accept help, from me or from others. When he complains, yells, grumbles, etc, I take it to heart. Since childhood, I have taken other people's bad moods as something that is somehow my fault and something that I need to fix. I either become very doting and apologetic, or very defensive, even when the target of his annoyance/anger has nothing to do with me, and he isn't even talking to me or expecting me to react.

I have things I want to accomplish that I haven't accomplished because I can't focus when I hear someone stomping or grumbling or yelling at themselves/a game/the tv. I can't get done the things I want to get done when I realize I have once again let it get very late at work because I don't even want to go home, because listening to him bitch about stupid things is more stressful than just being in the office. And I have blamed him for it and resented him for it. Like it's his fault that I am not doing what I want to do.

I am at the point where I have realized that this is not about me, and that there is nothing I can do to help him solve his problems anymore - not unless he wants help and asks for it. I can be there when he wants me to be, but I can no longer let the complaining, grumbling, and sometimes yelling upset me. I am not going to be driven out of my home or away from my passions in life because he is angry about something that happened at work and is stomping around and grumbling.

I want to ignore him, or at least to not let his moods get under my skin. I want to be happy and do the things I love, instead of always feeling like I need to be apologizing or defensive. But how do I do that? How do I stop letting it bother me? Is it even possible??

I really, sincerely hope someone out there has some suggestions for me on how to do this. (Or any other advice on dealing with living with a negative person but remaining happy).

If you want to contact me, I have set up an email account at
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
I just called into the next room to make sure my girlfriend didn't write this about me.

I don't mean to be grumpy, but sometimes, I just am. And she's always asking me what she did wrong, as if it was something that she'd done to put me in a foul mood. Nine times out of ten, though, it wasn't even her that set me off.

What can you do? Point it out. Tell him exactly what you told us. Make sure he knows how much it affects you - that's what my girlfriend did. Ever since then, I've been completely conscious of it, and trying to fix things. It wasn't so much the guilt, as realizing that the one person in my life that DID make me happy was at risk of leaving me, making me completely miserable.

You have to let him know exactly what this is doing to you - make him face facts. And if that doesn't work, then you have to make a decision for yourself, unfortunately.

I hope I don't sound like I'm leaning too heavily on his side - I don't mean to. I've been in his position before, and the wake up call that I may actually screw up the best thing in my life caused me to stop that crap.

Good luck.
posted by SNWidget at 6:13 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

My husband is not grumpy but I have lived with grumpy people (boy have I lived with grumpy people, yikes). I'm very sensitive to that stuff, and what I do is slap on the headphones, and do my writing or walking, etc., to my "feel-good" playlist. Whenever I find myself getting annoyed by people, I do this.

You're right about not being able to fix him. One thing I also did was go see a therapist on my own, at different times in my life. Not forever, but enough visits to figure out objectively what was going on with me for putting up with stuff around me. Basically, mean people suck and they will walk all over nice people if nice people let them. The trick is to be nice to numero uno before anyone else. If your best friend were asking this question, what would you tell her?

One thing I insist on (now) is my time to myself, my privacy, and the right to not be annoyed by anyone in my home - one thing we do is have separate morning coffee time, which works for us because he likes to read and I like to be alone with my coffee and computer and write. If he hangs here too long in the morning, I point to the door and say "out!". Before, I felt obligated to go with him for coffee but I didn't really enjoy it. If your husband is acting like a child, ignore it, because he may not be doing it on purpose to annoy you, but he is getting some benefit by receiving your attention. Perhaps if he gets ZERO benefit (you go for a walk or to the gym with a cheery, "bye-bye! See ya in a while!") from his behavior, he'll tone it down a little.

Of course, do talk to him as SNWidget says, but don't let yourself get drawn into his drama either. Some people just like to yell at the TV (I've been known to do it myself), but he should respect your need for peace and quiet at the very least. A simple, "can you please stop yelling so I can think?" would also be called for once in a while.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:33 PM on April 1, 2008

Are you married to this person? Do you have children together? Have you made vows "for better or for worse?"

If the answer is "no," you might want to think about what you DO get out of this relationship. Is it basically good except for his bad moods, stomping and grumbling? Because I wonder if it's really worth it to continue in a relationship with someone who is dragging you down and will not do anything to change.

Can you have a frank heart-to-heart with him and say to him what you posted here? That his moods make you want to not go home and face them? Does he have any inkling about what these moods of his are doing to YOU? If he's troubled, and refuses to seek help, and doesn't care about the impact it has on you - then he's treating you like furniture. Are you getting your needs met at all?

Please talk to him and let him know that this is draining the life out of you and your relationship, and insist that he seek help.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:36 PM on April 1, 2008 [8 favorites]

There's a big difference between hearing "Why are you so grumpy all the time?" and "I love you, I want to be with you, but you constantly walk around in a cloud of what appears to be anger or depression, and you need to get help from me or from a professional or both, or I'm not going to hang around much longer."

Of course, this goes for anything that gets between two people and their happiness; if something's bothering you and the other person is doing it, you need to call it out, and if they're not responding, you need to make sure they understand how serious it is and that there will be consequences if they don't show an interest in solving the problem.

Good luck.
posted by davejay at 6:43 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am your SO in girl form. I have lashed out at my overly tolerant fiance more times than I can count in the 4+ years we've been together. Recently he snapped and called me on the bullshit and I for once actually took it to heart and am trying to change, deal with my anger more honestly, and overcome it. I try to use my walk home to comb through things that upset me at work and talk myself through them so I can be more calm with him when he gets home.

Even if your SO doesn't want to talk to anyone (which I totally understand - it's time that doesn't feel well spent when you think the problems you have are inherent in the world, and I've had uninspiring results from shrinks in the past) there are some nice CBT style exercises on the web. I just googled some up and went though them by myself, and they gave me some useful tools to get a little more analytical about my feelings.

Please note that you really might have to lose it before you get through to him. I had to get pretty scared before I decided to put in mental work.
posted by crinklebat at 6:57 PM on April 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

My father was a very grumpy person while I was growing up. We later learned that he had uncontrolled diabetes, so now that he's got his blood sugar on a more even keel, he's a lot nicer to be around. I know that I've picked up some of the same unpleasant tendencies, so whenever I'm feeling like a big crank, I make a point to apologize to my husband and eat some protein and complex carbs. Not an answer to your question, but something to think about.
posted by libraryhead at 7:12 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've been in your shoes, not with an S.O., but with the nagging need to make sure that everyone is happy - and finding myself very unhappy when I couldn't make a difference. What I finally had to realize is that those other folks have a right to be cranky/sad/irresponsible/etc. He's told you that it isn't aimed at you - now you have to believe it! I learned to respect people's differences in outlook and stopped trying to help (control) them.

If he's grumping too loudly, you can ask him to crank quietly, but you really don't have a right to tell him to cheer up. If you stop taking him on as a project, and appreciate him as a (cranky) human being, you might find you have a lot more tolerance for his moods.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:13 PM on April 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

I generally try to avoid being in the same room as someone who's acting like that. Is that at all possible for you? Politely say that if he's going to be in a cranky-ass mood, you're going to go read in the other room for awhile?

There's also the hippie-dippie psychic thing of "try to project some mental shield around yourself so that you're rubber and he's glue." I can't say I'm terribly good at it, but it's an option.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:20 PM on April 1, 2008

I work in an open office plan (big room, low cubes), and when people are running back and forth past my desk or talking loudly over the walls because of some stressful thing, it totally stresses me out. I hear them getting mad about things various business partners have done, I hear them complaining about this or that, sometimes I even hear the shrillness in someone's tone of voice when I can't hear the words, and I feel myself tensing up. I, too, have a propensity to want to fix things when others are upset. But even in this circumstance, when there's nothing I can do to fix the problem, I still unconsciously take on the stress around me. My solution? Headphones. Drown 'em out.

Of course, at work I don't have the option of asking my boss or coworkers to be upset quietly, so loud music is pretty much my only option. Compromise is key in any relationship, which means that you can do as much as you want to "get over" his grumpy moods, but he also has a responsibility to not make you miserable, too. Tell him exactly what effect he's having on you.
posted by vytae at 7:53 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't know, I kind of disagree with Light Fantastic, I think you do have a right to ask someone to cheer up. Or, at least, "cheer up or take it somewhere else." I mean, nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around, right? Sometimes my husband and I will get into those bad mood ruts. We both do it to each other and it can often be very helpful to have the other person say, "enough already, let's be in a better mood."

I also think libraryhead has a good idea. Make sure there's not a health issue. He should watch for patterns of his grumpiness and triggers. My husband gets totally nuts when his blood sugar is low (diabetes in the family) and once he started paying attention to that, things have been so much better.

I could not live with someone who was always grumping around. You may want to consider a very serious sit-down with specific goals that need to be met: see a doctor and get a physical, join some group that gets him out exercising, get to bed by a specific time three nights a week. Or whatever. You're not happy here.
posted by amanda at 7:58 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm in a situation very similar to yours - except instead of a constant bad mood my SO has rage/anger issues and explodes easily. (I must give him due credit. He's been in therapy for several years now and the situation has improved markedly.) What really worked for me, though, was something I call the emotional shield. I had to finally realize that his outbursts had nothing to do with me, they were about something bigger and deeper and older than I could possibly have to do with. Knowing his family history and mental health diagnosis helped. Once I realized it all had nothing to do with me (even if on the surface it might have seemed like it had something to do with me, i.e. I didn't do X correctly), it was so much easier to emotionally disengage. I didn't get wrapped up in the drama of it; I stopped feeling responsible for his outbursts. I could tell him he needed to cool down, walk away, and not carry it with me. It's his issue he explodes, not mine and I had to set a boundary letting him know it was not okay to treat me that way. And, as I stated, the situation has improved. (Today is our seven year anniversary!)

You say you've made the realization that you're not responsible for his mood. Based on my experience, I would say this is a huge accomplishment and will carry you far. Now I would recommend that you work on the emotional shield. Literally remind yourself when he's in a foul mood that it has nothing to do with you. He would be this way no matter who he was with. In other words, it's not specific to you. You couldn't have done anything to prevent it and you're not responsible for fixing it. Let him be. Reengage when he's acting in a manner that makes you want to be around him. I also recommend therapy on your own since he won't go. It will help you develop these tools and give you a great place to vent, which you rightfully deserve to do! I, too, have been in therapy for most of our relationship at this point and I wouldn't have been able to come this far without it.

Good luck!
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 8:53 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

My grandfather, who raised me for many years, is an exceedingly negative person much of the time. He has a problem with everything.

-Why are you going to the movies? That's a waste of money.
-Why are you driving downtown? There's plenty to do here.
-Why did you throw away that plastic fork? Your generation is wasteful.
-Why is your hair cut like that? It's inappropriately long.
-Why are your jeans baggy? They should be form-fitting.
-Why do you need contacts? Spectacles are fine.
-When are you going to wash your car?
-Why do you sleep in past 7?
-So-and-so just bought a car. Their old car was fine.
-Liberals are ruining the country.
-Professors are brainwashing our young people.

I was able to put up with it for years, but I finally got a point when I had to get away from him. His negativity started rubbing off on me and it manifested itself in most of my relationships. People couldn't stand being around me because I incessantly complained about having to live with someone who incessantly complained. Now I walk out of the room as soon as he says something negative because he gets defensive when I call him out on his negativity. I go to another room, turn on music I like, open the shades and let bring light in, and sometimes I'll just dance or read or clean or do anything else that's consuming.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:59 PM on April 1, 2008 [5 favorites]

Complaining and huffing and grumbling are ways to relieve stress. As you point out, it's not your fault, it's not to do with you. He's pissed off with the world and the problems in it that can't be fixed, and the grumbling is his way of dealing with the stress so he doesn't go completely mad.

That said, the yelling, stomping and unwillingness to try and tone it down or try to mitigate the negativity are too much.

As a mr grumpy myself far too often, you have a simple choice. Sit him down, and say "I love you. But this is getting to me. You're always so frustrated and angry with the world, and it's afffecting me and stopping me doing other things because I'm worried about you, and then you blow me off, and I find that very frustrating." Tell him what you've told us. If he loves you, he'll realise what he's putting at risk, and do something about it to avoid hurting you. You will have to be blunt, and direct. Subtle hints will most likely be missed entirely. If he doesn't do anything after that, well, you need to decide whether putting up with his moods is worth the good things in the relationship.

He'll likely always have grumpy moods at times, but something as simple as 'you're being grumpy dear' may break him out of it, once you've made him aware of how much it's affecting your happiness.

To put it even more bluntly; his grumpiness is as much a part of him, as your inability to not let it bother you is part of you. Both of you can work on it, and he really should, but you will also have to work with him to try and let it go when he is pissed. Even, as suggested, get out of the house and go do something fun when he drives you nuts.

I'd also suggest finding ways to relieve his underlying stress in the first place. Lack of sleep is a symptom, not a cause. Unwillingness to do exercise is a symptom and a cause. By the sounds of it, he's got something else in his life that's causing him a vast amount of strees, which is probably his job - and he's so stuck in the rut, he can't see his way out of it, or even accept that there is an out to get to. Some subtle probing on the subject may be worthwhile - maybe he needs a change of job, maybe he even needs a change of career to be happy. Whether that's possible or practical is another matter.
posted by ArkhanJG at 2:15 AM on April 2, 2008

My fiance is sometimes grumpy. It's not a habit, but when it happens I feel badly and tend to take it personally. Just like you, when he's in a bad mood I find it hard to focus on anything else, and he doesn't even huff and grumble or anything. I just feel like I'm supposed to do something to make him happy, and the negativity makes me feel somewhat ill just because that's how I tend to react to negative situations.

This has gotten easier to manage lately, so I will tell you the stuff I've realized. First, don't ask if you've done something wrong, no matter how strong the urge is. Even when I know better -- it's work, or he lost at a video game -- I worry that I'm causing or contributing to his bad mood. I think that I feel like my love should be enough to keep him happy in the face of anything, so if something has made him unhappy it's somehow my fault for not making him feel loved enough. That, of course, is ridiculous, because everyone gets angry at things, and he makes me feel very loved but that doesn't keep me from being momentarily pissed off. The truth of the matter is things will be stressful no matter what, and I have done nothing wrong.

Asking if you've done something wrong will likely make the problem worse. Sometimes if I ask if he's mad at me, he will calm down a bit and say, "No, it's just ____, I love you." If he's really annoyed at something though, when I ask it just upsets him more. Usually less than an hour later he says he's sorry, he was just angry at ____ and he shouldn't have been terse with me.

To understand why asking him makes things worse, though, I put myself in his shoes: I would already be mad at something, and then have the irritating intrusion of someone asking a question when I'm too angry to feel like talking, and then I'd also feel upset at myself for making him think I'm angry at him, and then I'd also feel annoyed that he could think such a ridiculous thing anyway, because isn't it obvious that I'm angry at ____ and not him? And the few times I'm angry at something, this is exactly how I feel. I don't want to talk, I don't want to deal with ludicrous assertions that I might actually be mad at something else, etc.

So don't ask if it was you, and don't act as if you've taken it personally. That just adds more negativity to the situation, makes him feel defensive, ashamed, and annoyed, and makes the problem worse.

The best thing you can do is not let it effect your mood. If he's angry and I stay in a good mood, this diffuses him more quickly. If he's only somewhat grumpy, I will rub his shoulders, tell him I'm sorry that ____ is stressing him out, and that I love him. This works pretty well. If he's really angry at something, though, he wants to just be left alone to deal with it; he doesn't want to talk or be touched, and massaging him makes him feel as if he's being babied. When he's done being angry, he will usually come find me and say he's sorry he was so terse, and then he'll rant a bit about what it was that was making him angry while I listen sympathetically. By the time he's done he usually feels better, and if he doesn't he just tells me he's sorry and he'll be okay in a few minutes.

Again, all this is understandable to me when I thought about it; sometimes I'm only somewhat angry and physical contact is soothing, but if I'm really angry I just want everything to go away for a bit.

As you can see, there's a lot of communication going on. I'm lucky that he's coherent and self-aware enough to tell me about his anger, even if he still comes across as a dick sometimes when he's extra-angry. I don't fare any better when I'm angry, so I just have to keep that in mind so I don't take things personally. If your husband is not so open about his anger, you can try to read his moods like I do my fiance's. It's not that hard after a while, and even misreading it isn't a huge deal. Sometimes I will go to massage him, for example, and he doesn't want me to; getting rebuffed can make me feel sad for a moment, but then I remember I might do the same thing, I don't take it personally, and I leave the room.

Sometimes he will yell at a video game or a football game from the other room, and I wish I didn't have to hear it because it makes me feel bad. That's when the headphone advice everyone has given is helpful.

You should also have an honest talk about how his negativity makes you feel. Since he does not seem to purposely take it out on you, and he seems quick to assure you that it's not your fault, it might make him more cautious about being so loud when he's angry. I'm guessing he will be apologetic. If talking to him makes him angry, though, or he thinks he should be able to be as loud as he wants and you're being unreasonable, I think you have a more serious problem and you might want to re-evaluate what you're getting from the relationship.

I hope this helps!
posted by Nattie at 4:51 AM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

The thing about "you are not responsible for his mood" is not entirely the best way forward.

Similarly with the "you can choose your response to a situation" approach favoured by Viktor Frankl, and (I think) the first chapter in "7 habits of highly effective people".

Yes, you CAN choose a response, but your response is STILL in a negative environment. Whatever your reponses are, they are still tempered or constrained by the negativity.

Others have said that they remove themselves from a negative environment via leaving the room, listening to music, etc.

So lift your choice up one level: are you going to put up with the negative environment itself? In other words, will you just remove yourself from the environment, and have your SO continue on his (un) merry way, or will you do something that fixes the environment itself?

Your SO needs to see the effects he is having on you, regardless of your reactions to his moods. And he needs to do this if he still wants to be your SO.

I was in a marriage that was quite unhappy, and was bullied a lot. After a while, I tired of tip-toeing around my wife, and left her. I refused to put up with the hostile environment - I just didn't have the energy to endure it. It ended up being the best thing for the both of us.
posted by flutable at 5:01 AM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think you have to leave. Do you feel better when he's not around? Even though you know objectively that it's not about you, that's just the way he is, ultimately of course it will bring you down, too.
posted by Penelope at 7:21 AM on April 2, 2008

Comment from a user who would prefer to remain anonymous.
Dear anonymous,

I could very likely be your husband (I’m assuming you’re married because ‘marriage’ is one of the tags you’ve used in this question). I have stomped, grumbled, sighed, huffed, yelled, etc., etc., etc. I have yelled at my dear wife for things that were never in her purview. I have yelled at myself for things I could never control.

I want you to know two things: first, I’ve started therapy and medications, and for me, it seems to have worked a bit. Please let your husband know that you got a note from someone who has (for much of his own life) acted much as you’ve described in your post, and that he’s found therapy and medication somewhat helpful.

Secondly? Without my wife’s unconditional love and without her gentle but unwavering support, I never would have found the strength to accomplish the little I’ve accomplished above.

One aspect of my own anger as its manifested itself in my relationship is shame: my anger has made me ashamed, which in turn, has made me angrier. When my wife has attempted to console me in such situations, well, I’m sure you’ve experienced the inexplicable rage that can often come out of that. We men are pretty curious, and pretty effed-up beasts sometimes, and often attempts at consolation end up making us feel worse than a rational person might think.

My wife suffered through this, and we fought a lot about this. It took a pretty severe breakdown on my own part to get me to swallow the pride necessary to enter therapy (and to take meds), but again, my wife’s support was the essential key.

My wife is also pretty savvy on the intricacies of human relationships. A while back, there was an article getting a fair amount of press on “training the spouse,” or applying animal-training techniques to the marriage: What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage. My wife has used these techniques, again, quite gently, but to good end.

Lastly, at least for me (but I suspect for most as well), I’ve found that sex and anger are rather intertwined. One of the benefits of my rise in mood is that our sex life has gotten better. And my wife was pretty good at applying aspects of our sex life to the training concepts used in the article above. And, to be sure, my own sex drive has come up to some degree as my mood has risen.

To be clear: I’m not saying that you should try to have sex with him every time he’s angry. That’s clearly a bad idea. But do try to know what turns him on. And when he’s not angry, and when you’re next in the mood (which I understand, can be a long, long ways off!), make sure that he knows you know this.

My bottom line? Without knowing that my wife loved me, warts and all, through all of this, I never would have taken the first step. I know it took more out on her than I had a right to ask, but isn’t that the agony and ecstasy of unconditional love?

Here’s wishing you two all the joy you can handle . . .
posted by jessamyn at 8:58 AM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

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