It’s normal to be frustrated, sad, and angry after separation. Every day is filled with triggers and complaining in our heads and to other people is how we cope. It would be unreasonable to simply try to not complain about fears and frustrations. But, care should be taken to keep complaining from creating unsatisfying consequences. Complaining can be relieving. It can also be damaging to relationships including those with our children or others.
There are ten thousand things to complain about. Certainly, effective coping will include shifting negative thinking into more positive and constructive responses. Over time, your situation will stabilize and the emotional triggers will become less frequent and lower in magnitude. But, at this point you may have fairly regular occasions of feeling miserable and upset.
Work toward more positive and constructive thinking. And, allow yourself to complain some of the time.
You are working through past hurts and unresolved conflicts. New triggers are happening as you parent and coparent after separation. Careful and limited complaining can be part of effective coping. But, negative thinking is harmful when it causes you to spiral into less effective coping or damages relationships. Here is some advice to avoid the undesirable effects of complaining.
Don’t complain to your children.
In general, nagging and whining to make for effective parenting. In the situation of divorce, when parents complain to children about their own fears and frustrations, it places more stress on children and puts them into the middle of parental conflict. Children adjust better to parental separation when they are kept out of the middle of conflicts. Perhaps they can contemplate how frustrating your experience of your divorce is later when they are adults and looking back on the situation. But, there simply is no benefit to sharing with them how upset or fearful you are about things or how evil, stupid, and crazy you think their other parent is. They will hear such complaints as personal attacks (because you may be using them as a stand-in for their other parent who is the real target of your complaint) or become upset because you are sharing stressors that they have no control over. Your job is to reduce their stress and help them cope, not to pour more stress on them. In two decades of being a therapist, I have never heard an adult child of divorce say, My parents handled their divorce pretty well. But, I wish they would have complained about each other more.
Limit your complaining to your new partner.
Complaining is not sexy. Certainly, your mind can be filled with triggers related to your separation and your frustrations with your former partner. But, keep the percentage of your interactions with your new partner as free of complaints as possible. It’s normal to want to be very open with an intimate partner and share with them what’s alive for you. But, since what’s tending to be at the front of your mind is a lot of negative thoughts about your former partner, your new relationship will benefit by your carefully limiting how much you share your complaints. This is one reason people tend to discount so-called rebound relationships. Perhaps they aren’t expected to last because they are so often filled with a lot of negativity from the former relationship. I do think that negativity can put them at risk and diminish satisfying intimacy.
Another very important reason to limit how much you share your complaints with your new partner relates to their potential role in your child’s life. If your new partner ends up sticking around and eventually becomes a parental figure in your life, your home, and your child’s life, you want them to have a good relationship with your child and not be someone to attack them as a stand-in for their other parent. If you begin your relationship with your new partner by delivering a lot of complaints about how evil, stupid, and crazy your former partner is, they will more likely adopt that hateful stance toward your child’s other parent, too. It will get in the way of your new partner being supportive of your having a civil and collaborative relationship with your child’s other parent. It will create the risk of your new partner saying damaging things to your child or in front of your child about their other parent. This will be damaging to their opportunity to have a nurturing relationship with your child. It will be another factor to diminish the quality of your relationship with your child. I address this, and many other issues, in my online course for separated parents.
Complain to your friends when your children aren’t present.
Good supportive friendships can function to let you vent frustrations. This can be helpful when you have opportunities to complain when your children aren’t present. Hopefully your friends will allow you to let off some steam but also hold you accountable to being a good parent. Complaints to friends should have a limit, though. Just as your new partner would want the percentage of complaints to be relatively small, your friendships shouldn’t be characterized by all complaining all of the time. You will wear out your friends’ tolerance and enjoyment of their time and relationship with you. Some is okay. If you have a friend who enjoys unending complaints about how evil, stupid, and crazy your ex it, you should be worried that this friend is actually fanning your flames of anger and poor coping.
Don’t complain on social media.
It’s fine to send a widely broadcast message asking for someone to connect with in order to get support as in, Anyone want to hang out tonight? I could use some support. But, Facebook isn’t appropriate for rants about how evil, stupid, and crazy your ex is. However right it feels at the time you write such a post, it will make most of your friends cringe. It will make friends of friends cringe. And (more importantly) children get on Facebook. Your children and other people’s children don’t need to be exposed to divorce rants. Please spare them. The exception to this is joining a closed Facebook group that is a forum for such complaining and support. These are good since they spare your direct friends and children from your posts.
Don’t let complaining be your only coping strategy.
Engage in positive activities. Do things daily to take care of your stress. Exercise. Try to get better sleep (because you replace neurotransmitters in your brain that contribute to positive thinking while you sleep). Do things that are distracting. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Continue your hobbies. If you are religious or spiritual, engage in practice or prayer. You can get some free instruction about coping with stress and negative thinking through my PODCAST or my free ONLINE COURSE for separated parents. One of the video lessons from my FULL COURSE explains one strategy for shifting negative thinking into more constructive and positive responses. Click HERE to watch it.
Get support from a counselor or coach.
If you feel like your thoughts and actions are too much of the time getting in the way of emotionally or instrumentally coping with your situation, get formal support. Therapists can help you steer your thinking and behaviors in more positive and constructive ways and help you avoid spiraling into ineffective coping. Sometimes formal support is very crucial to help you stay on top of your own issues while putting you in a better position to help your child cope with their own adjustments and stress.
It's normal to have negative thoughts. And, remember that effective coping means being careful about when and how you communicate.
Episode 15: It's Okay to Complain. But,...
Jon talks about being careful about when, where, and to whom you complain.
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