Complaining is a normal part of every relationship. It’s not pleasant but it’s not going away so it’s better to figure out a useful way of coping with it rather than wishing our partner would just stop. We have a separate article on how to complain more effectively (for both partners). At the same time, it has been our experience that all the advice is on how to complain more effectively and there isn’t any advice on what to do when someone complains ineffectively or criticizes you as a person instead of just complaining.
This is an even bigger problem in neurodiverse relationships because complaining often takes the form of exaggerated or slightly inaccurate statements. Many neurodiverse couples then fall into a circular argument about the accuracy of the complaints–which doesn’t really help! If you want to hear that other people argue too (and maybe even in similar ways to you!) then keep reading!
In this post we’re going to discuss:
Because we both use the same English words, we assume we understand each other. But just as British English can use the same words and mean something different, Aspies and Neurotypicals can say the same phrases but miss each other’s meaning entirely. Tim got very frustrated with this, thinking that a word should always mean what it means, until he realized that if a British mother told her child to go and put on a jumper, the child would hopefully appear in a sweater and here it means a one piece outfit. In the same way, Robin’s way of using language isn’t wrong, just different. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we argue or complain.
People will often complain about something that sounds inaccurate and extreme. “I do all the work” or “Nobody cares about me” or “You never even try.” On the complaining side, it’s helpful to be very clear about the actual need you’re wanting met. So instead of the above statements, you could try the alternative in the chart below:
|I do all the work||I am stressed and overwhelmed with the housework and need help|
|Nobody cares about me||I need someone to listen to me talk about myself for a few minutes|
|You never even try||I want to hear you say that you’re trying really hard and it’s not working the way you hoped|
This is where we get really honest. Robin is usually a really cheerful, hardworking, and caring person. But it’s totally understandable why she was frustrated enough to forget to be kind! Misunderstandings just piled on in this argument:
Robin: I’m so stressed out. I’m doing 90% of the work and no one cares.
Tim: You’re not doing 90% of the work
Robin: Fine, whatever, it doesn’t matter the exact number. I’m just so overwhelmed by the responsibilities
Tim: Maybe I need to start grousing and complaining so you notice everything I’m doing and then you won’t think you’re doing 90% of the work.
Robin: NO!!! The last thing I need is all this work plus you complaining about your piddly amount.
Tim: Obviously you don’t realize all the things I do every day so I need to announce it.
Robin: You disgust me! You are so lazy and self-centered. Here I’m exhausted from doing all the work and you make it all about you.
Tim: You don’t do all the work. I just did the dishes.
Robin: Great. You did the dishes. What do you want, a certificate of completion or a medal of honor?
Tim: I’m just saying that you don’t do all the work. You aren’t giving me credit for what I do.
John Gottman, a relationship researcher who can predict divorce with 94% accuracy, found that the key to happiness in this area is whether or not the wife feels that the division is fair. Not whether or not it is actually fair. Just how she feels about it. In fact, he found that relationships in which men do their fair share of the housework have more fulfilling sex lives. In case you needed motivation…
It has been our (unscientific) experience that in neurodiverse relationships, it actually doesn’t matter the gender, it’s simply that the partner with the main responsibility for maintaining home and family feels that the housework and childcare is divided fairly regardless of gender.
There is an added layer of complexity on this though. Some neurodivergent adults are wired in a way that makes them extremely good at routine housework but the majority have comorbidities that make it more challenging to complete tasks than for their partner. If someone has attention difficulties, struggles with initiating or completing tasks, is burdened by anxiety or depression, or just takes significantly longer to complete a task, then that person is going to end up having to put in significantly more time and effort to complete the same amount of work. So doing the same amount of work isn’t really fair since it’s a lot harder for one partner. But having to do extra work isn’t really fair for the other partner.
So it helps to have both a simple “bandaid” you can put on the complaining and a bigger solution that you use over time to improve the balance.
This is not *easy* but it’s simple. Simply find something to agree with and say something to show that you agree. To go back to the above argument, this could have gone more like this:
Robin: I’m so stressed out. I’m doing 90% of the work and no one cares.
Tim: You are doing a lot of work.
Robin: Yeah, I’m just so overwhelmed by the responsibilities
Tim: You do have a lot of responsibilities
Robin: I’m so frustrated that I have more responsibilities than anyone else.
Tim: You are definitely frustrated!
Robin: I’m so exhausted!
Tim: You are exhausted. I just did the dishes. What else do you want me to do so you can get a break?
Robin: I don’t know. Can you get the kids ready for bed so I can just zone out for awhile?
This can be very difficult to actually carry out. Tim finds it hard to swallow his objections but over time he has learned that it’s worth it! Giving just a little often results in a huge pay off!
This sounds really negative but the truth is that a large number of neurodiverse couples are stuck in an inherently unfair situation so simply agreeing isn’t going to make things actually feel fair (or at least fair enough to improve your sex life!) But there is a way out of this seemingly impossible problem. Think about all the types of work and look for individual tasks that can be shifted.
There are three types of work that need to be done in a household. Physical work, mental work, and emotional work. If one partner will be doing more of the physical work, the other partner can find ways to take over more of the mental or emotional work than they were previously. Or perhaps the partner doing less work overall can focus on doing the work in each area that is particularly miserable for the partner doing more of the work.
To be honest, it may be that your partnership will be like ours and one partner will do more of all three types of work (in our case, it’s Robin who does more of the work, period). We’ve found that years and years of therapists have struggled with how to cope with this fact. They really want it to not be a problem. But it’s a problem. Tim’s executive functioning issues make it difficult for him to do as many chores or mental tasks as Robin. His autism makes it difficult to do as many emotional tasks as Robin. To make it even wouldn’t be fair. But it does leave Robin with a lot more work to do and asking her to simply not mind isn’t reasonable.
We’ve landed on solution that works reasonably well for us and other couples in a similar situation and that hopefully with help you too. Each of you should come up with how you think the current balance of physical, mental, and emotional work is. Be totally honest. We were surprised to find that we were fairly similar in our assessment of the situation–you may be surprised how different you and your partner rate your current balance.
One partner may not be aware of all the mental or emotional work that needs to be done. Next week we’ll have another post coming out on how to divide up the physical, mental, and emotional work of a household between adults–this can be partners, roommates, or adult children living at home–and that post will have a great printable with every single task in all three areas that needs to be done in a typical household and a method for negotiating division of labor that you’ve probably never heard before! So if you or your partner aren’t agreeing on everything that needs to be done, come back next week or subscribe now so you don’t miss it!
Once you’ve come up with how you think the balance is currently, each of you can list a few ideas for the “high cost” items that you think would even things out. If you are doing less in an area, brainstorm a few things that you could do that would take more weight off your partner than it adds to you. Or if you are the one doing more, think of a few specific tasks you could consistently hand over to your partner that would be a huge help to you. For example, Robin hates dealing with the minutiae of calling and sorting out medical bills. To be fair, so does Tim. But for Robin, it’s an hour or two of time in which she needed to do numerous other tasks whereas for Tim, it’s something he can do that is less overwhelming than if Robin handed over the list of things she’d be doing during the same time. So Robin is grateful that she doesn’t have to deal with it and Tim is happy to have credit for doing something the whole time, even if it is only one thing.
We’ve also found that Tim can “pay back” Robin fairly simply by acknowledging her work. Robin understands the large emotional cost to Tim of saying, “Wow, I was overwhelmed and couldn’t manage that and you came out and took care of it in just 30 minutes. Thank you! I’m so impressed by you.” It’s hard for Tim to come up with words and it’s hard for him to admit that he struggles with accomplishing tasks. So a text message like that amply rewards her for the effort. Discuss with your partner if there are simple ways to make things feel more even.
Ultimately there probably aren’t any surprises anymore when it comes to complaining. Unless you only just got together, you and your partner are probably never shocked at the complaints, just annoyed. Since you know it’s coming anyway, don’t let it eat away at you. Accept complaints as part of having a relationship and learn both complain and receive complaints in a way that makes it more palatable and even a way to grow closer and connect.
In case you were wondering how that argument actually ended, Tim didn’t actually use the simple technique we outlined here–we’re human and don’t always follow our own advice! So here’s the rest of it. This is not how our arguments went a decade ago! But since realizing that our brains are wired differently, we’re able to realize what’s happening and reset most of the time.
Robin: That’s ridiculous. You get credit for what you do all day. I thank you for freaking getting dressed. I acknowledge you for being patient with the kids. For cleaning up cat barf. For organizing your own freaking garage. For coming in on time. I give you credit for what you do all day long, the last thing I need is to have to put up with a man- child who needs credit for every little thing he does.
Tim: Well then what do you want me to do?
Robin: Notice me! Appreciate me!
Tim: I do. I noticed a lot of things you did today.
Robin: No you didn’t. You never once said anything nice about any of it except when I asked you if I did okay teaching the kids’ Sunday school on zoom.
Tim: [looking pissed and confused]
Robin: [realizing something] Wait. What does “notice” mean to you?
Tim: Observing something. Being aware of it.
Robin: So you internally observed a lot of things?
Robin: Okay. So why did you think you needed to point out all the stuff you do?
Tim: So you’d think it was even and that you aren’t doing 90%.
Robin: Okay. Let’s stop for a second. I’m having a completely different argument than you. I am only a little upset about how much I’m doing compared to how much you’re doing. I am mostly upset about how much I’m verbally thanking and appreciating you compared to how much you’re verbally thanking and appreciating me. For me, I feel like I earned a ton of praise for all my hard work and I’m not getting it. I would probably do 100% of the work if you gave me lots and lots of attention and appreciation for it.
Tim: That doesn’t make any sense.
Robin: Inside me it does. So if your goal is to make me think it’s even, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense to you, just if it makes sense to me.
Little by little over the years we’re understanding each other better. Tim is open to the fact that something illogical can also be true. Robin is willing to explain her perspective. And over time we’re finding that we can thrive in a neurodiverse relationship. We believe you can, too!