The weary wife looked hopeless as she described her husband’s grumbling pattern. She was excited about the upcoming holidays—Thanksgiving and Christmas. Unfortunately she was married to “Mr. Grinch.” It seemed to her that every expression of joy was countered by her husband with either a complaint or a criticism. Throughout their relationship his negative attitude about life in general and holidays in particular had stolen much of her excitement and enjoyment. Emotionally drained by her spouse’s frequent barrages of negativity, she was searching for solutions—not for him but for herself. Somehow she had to find a way to survive The Grumbler (“Mr. Grinch”) to whom she was married. She had long since abandoned the hope of any positive change. He was not likely to allow his heart to grow three times bigger, as was the case with Dr. Seuss’ Grinch. The Grumbling Highway on which their marriage traveled was covered with the ominous clouds of emotional exhaustion. Their relationship journey was headed toward a major collision with tragic consequences.
This couple is not unique. Many relationships are adversely affected by a grumbling pattern on the part of one or both spouses. An occasional grumble usually does little harm, but a full-grown pattern will threaten all travel along the marital highway. Because the grumbling pattern has significant implications for human relationships we would do well to explore three key areas: the cost, the cause, and the cure.
Counting the Cost . . .
A common definition of “grumble” is “to mutter with discontent.” Similar words include complain, gripe, whine, and “belly-ache.” With this definition in mind let’s consider the cost of grumbling on both individual and relationship health.
The Impact on Personal Health . . .
Grumbling and the discontentment that feeds it are powerful enough to cause personal misery on the part of the individual. Mentally, he is often obsessed with negative thoughts and pessimistic perspectives about people and circumstances. His assumptions and conclusions create and maintain a mood of depression, anxiety, and anger. Sleep problems and appetite issues often add to the strain of the mental worry. Physical health problems often emerge to worsen his misery. The temptation to self-medicate through alcohol, drugs, or sex may increase and, if not resisted, will lead to additional problems that will threaten his health and well-being. The underlying discontent becomes a thief that steals the person’s happiness, leaving behind a sense of emptiness and despair. Indeed, complaining is draining! One husband complained to his wife about how “dog-tired” he was. With quick wit she responded, “Maybe you’re so dog-tired because you growled all day!”
Grumbling about our problems is likely to increase them—either in magnitude or in quantity. An unknown poet described this likelihood quite well.
If you talk about your troubles
And tell them o’er and o’er
The world will think you like them
And give you plenty more.
Individuals who choose to travel through life on the Grumbling Highway will likely experience continuing problems, breakdowns, and collisions. The ultimate destination is often forgotten in the midst of the current misery. The negative impact of the grumbling pattern on individual health far exceeds what the grumbler anticipated. Travels on the Grumbling Highway carry an extremely high price tag!
The Impact on Relationship Health . . .
As a general rule, whatever affects an individual adversely will impact his relationships in negative ways. Accordingly, a person’s grumbling pattern will affect relationship health in adverse ways. Most people have not contemplated the gravity of grumbling and the serious threat posed to any human relationship. Just as natural gravity pulls objects downward toward the earth’s surface so grumbling pulls down people who are exposed to the negative pattern. It’s hard to stay “up” in terms of mood and outlook when the “gravity of grumbling” is pulling us “down” into the black pit of negativity. To say it again, complaining is draining! The pattern not only robs the grumbler of inner peace but it also steals the peace from the relationship. With rare exception relationships cannot sustain peace and joy when they are consistently bombarded by barrages of grumbles and complaints. A full-grown grumbling pattern cannot be satisfied; nothing done by the relationship partner is sufficient or good enough. Roses are given but the grumbler complains about the thorns. Songs are sung but the grumbler complains about a missed note. Now we can understand why the grumbler might say, “You don’t send me flowers; you don’t sing me love songs.”
Years ago I heard a speaker tell about an experience he had during his college days. He was selling books from door-to-door and encountered a grumbling woman with a nasty disposition. She threatened to call her husband to the door if the salesman did not leave immediately. The student replied, “Ma’am, your husband is not home.” The woman got louder as she inquired, “And just how would you know that my husband is not home?” Without missing a beat the student responded, “Ma’am, nobody would stay home with you unless they were sick!” And with that comment the young man made a hasty exit from the woman’s property!
That college student was smart enough to recognize the challenge of “grumbling relationships.” Who in his right mind would volunteer to live with someone who grumbled and complained most of the time? One woman apparently discovered at least a temporary solution. A friend asked her one day, “Do you ever wake up grouchy in the mornings?” Her response revealed her solution: “No, I do my best to let him sleep as long as possible.”
Traveling through life with a grumbler reminds me of “highway honkers.” There are times when a driver needs to honk his horn to warn or alert a pedestrian or another driver to some danger or situation. However, some drivers use their horns inappropriately simply to vent frustration. This honking habit is another way for the grumbler to inform other people that he is unhappy. Driving along a highway with one or more “honkers” can become a very stressful ordeal. According to a story I once heard, a woman’s car stalled when she paused at a stop sign. As she struggled to crank the engine, a man in a car behind her started honking his horn loudly and angrily. Finally the woman got out of her car, walked back to the man’s vehicle, and said to the grumbler, “Mister, if you will go up there and start my car for me, I’ll stay back here and honk your horn for you!” Ouch! What an interesting way to respond to a grumbler!
Indeed, our hearts do go out to any person who has wound up in a “grumbling relationship.” The present is painful and the future is bleak. As I pondered the lifestyle to be endured by a grumbler’s spouse, I imagined a town filled with grumblers. Out of my ponderings I composed the following poem that reflects the ultimate impact of grumbling upon relationships.
Within a town named Provident
No matter where the people went
They grumbled and complained so much
About their wants and woes and such
The name was changed to Discontent.
The people there will not relent
Instead they only fuss and vent.
From dawn to dark they gripe and growl,
In toxic tones they hurt and howl
Until the day is fully spent.
Dissatisfied they all are bent
On arguments and quick dissent.
In Discontent where grumblers thrive
Relationships do not survive
But slowly die with deep lament.
-- Dr. Bill Baker (2011)
Please permit me some additional pondering. I’ve wondered about this town of Discontent—and its leaders. I’m curious about its ex-military mayor, Major Grumbler. The list of City Council members made my head swirl in disbelief. Somehow, Major Grumbler had recruited seven residents who were clearly “Yes-Men” for their leader. Their names were Jim Grumpy, Joe Grouchy, John Growly, Joel Grudgy, James Groany, Jay Greedy, and Jack Gripey. If names reflect personality, what do you think took place in their council meetings? A very short visit would probably satisfy our curiosity and prompt a hasty exit from the council chambers!
An attempt to grow a healthy relationship with one of the “seven dwarfs” might work in a fairy tale but not in real life. A grumbling relationship might endure for decades but the word “healthy” would not fit. As long as either spouse continues to grumble, the cost kicks in at a high rate. Hopefully, the grumbler will count the cost of his negative pattern on both individual and relationship health and, as a result, will determine to exit from the Grumbling Highway and to travel on a Relationship Highway that will promote a safe and successful journey toward the chosen destination. To achieve this transition toward a “better road” the individual needs to understand the underlying cause of grumbling and to construct a cure that will bring healing and growth.
Considering the Cause . . .
What causes grumbling? To understand the behavior more fully I consulted the Baker Dictionary of Current Relationship Terminology (the BDCRT)*, p. 219, and I found the following description of this health problem.
“Grumbling” is clinically known as “Grinchitis,” a prevalent behavioral inflammation named after “Mr. Grinch,” the mean-spirited character who stole Christmas from the residents in Whoville, according to the Dr. Seuss books. Etiology is uncertain although the syndrome is usually considered to be a learned pattern of behavior. The roots usually date back to childhood tendencies to imitate parental negativity and grumbling behaviors of significant adults in the child’s life. Through reinforcement the behaviors develop into a pattern that in adulthood will adversely affect both individual and relationship health. The individual suffering with this inflammation sustains a core belief that “If I’m not happy, no one else can be happy.” Recent studies suggest that “Grinchitis” is related to an undersized heart and the resulting insufficient blood flow to the Gratitude Center of the posterior cranial arena. Without proper treatment the syndrome will persist with escalation of negative symptoms and with deterioration of personal and relationship health. Treatment is best obtained through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in which new beliefs and new behaviors are constructed and integrated into daily life.
The BDCRT description helped me to enlarge my understanding of the grumbling pattern. Basically, a person’s grumbling behavior reflects an underlying pattern of discontentment. The individual is dissatisfied and frustrated about his circumstances. He predicts a continuing cycle of negative events that will add more suffering and misery to his life. His words and actions that constitute the grumbling pattern originate in his mental processes—how he thinks about himself, his circumstances, and other people. I read somewhere that there are two classes of people who choose to complain: those who don’t get what they deserve and those who do.
The grumbler’s negative lifestyle reflects an inner negative mindset. He lives by the “Murphy Law” concept, that is, that if something bad could happen to him, it will. Furthermore, the bad things that occur will turn into disasters and catastrophes that threaten to overwhelm and destroy him. Specific beliefs fuel the negative mindset. With very limited flexibility the grumbler believes that people and circumstances should cooperate with him. He rigidly expects everything to go his way. His entitlement to getting his way results in frequent interpretations that he is being treated unfairly. Mishaps and mistakes made by other people are taken very personally by the grumbler. He sees the world through the dark glasses of negativity and everything becomes black and gloomy. This description may raise several questions. How did this individual get this way? How did he develop such a negative, unhealthy approach to life? When did he start driving on the Grumbling Highway? These questions are relevant and important, and the answers could aid the grumbler as he grows into a better lifestyle.
Basically, the grumbler developed his negative mindset over a period of time during which he came to accept certain beliefs that were inherently untrue and unhealthy. These beliefs were not imparted to him by biological genetics but were rather instilled within him by his own imitation and initiation. Perhaps he grew up in a family system that was plagued by a similar mindset. He heard his Dad or Mom (or perhaps grandparents or other relatives) grumble and complain excessively about their own circumstances and problems. A child is prone to conclude that “what’s good and okay for them must be good and okay for me.” So, imitation followed and the child began to sound more and more like his family of origin. Through imitation a new generation of grumblers will extend the family pattern. As the child moves toward adulthood imitation is compounded by initiation. In other words, the individual begins to initiate his own thoughts and beliefs that reinforce and extend the already existing grumbling behavior.
Through our personal belief system we can become our own worst enemy. Certain beliefs are extremely powerful in that they are too global and excessive, while at the same time they are inherently unhealthy and untrue. For example, consider the results of the belief “I have to have everyone’s approval and acceptance before I can be happy.” Now, let’s add the belief “Everything and everyone should always cooperate with me so I can be happy.” Further, we also choose to believe “I have to stay happy in life or else I’ll be a total failure and loser.” Let’s mix in one more belief: “I absolutely must be successful in my career and have the education, money, house, cars, clothes, and other possessions and social status to prove my success.” Now, what will likely happen when we try to live by these four beliefs as we confront people and circumstances? It doesn’t take a genius to see clearly that this belief system is doomed to disappointment and dissatisfaction. When that “brick wall” is hit, we will have to choose our response to our failure and loss. We will either choose a different highway on which to travel through life, or we will choose to become resentful and bitter. This second choice obviously sets us up for a lot of personal suffering. We could suffer in that we decide to stuff all of our negative hurt inside where it festers and escalates into major health problems. Or we could suffer in that we vent our negative stuff through constant grumbling and complaining. Either way we pay a high price tag for a belief system we adopted that was inherently flawed.
Constructing the Cure. . .
How would like to give your spouse—and your friends—a wonderful gift? That gift is a “no more grumbling” lifestyle! Such a gift would be welcomed by people around you and would certainly improve the quality of your life as well. So, how can we cure our grumbling pattern?
The construction of a cure for grumbling (or “grinchitis”) is a challenging process. Unfortunately, we cannot simply consult a “behavioral surgeon” and request a “grinchectomy.” Such an operation would certainly simplify our work, but the real treatment is not surgery but rather a long-term process of changing our belief system and our behavioral patterns. Basically, our challenge is to change our negative mindset into a belief system that is realistic, healthy, and true. We need to cultivate a mindset that is not so dependent upon people and circumstances outside of our personal control. Such a mindset would allow us to maintain our positive perspective even in the midst of negative people and uncooperative circumstances.
The transformation begins with an identification of specific beliefs that cause our grumbling pattern. Once identified, the beliefs are assessed carefully to detect words that are unrealistic, unhealthy, and false. Then we construct a new belief that expresses the original idea but in a more productive and workable format. To illustrate this re-writing process, let’s recall the beliefs we discussed earlier and see how we could revise them in a positive way.
“I have to have everyone’s approval and acceptance before I can be happy.” The phrases “have to have” and “before I can be happy” constitute the problem here. Let’s revise the belief to read “I would prefer to have other people’s approval and acceptance, but what other people think of me is not essential to my personal happiness. Getting their approval and acceptance is merely a want and certainly not a need. I will be okay whether people like me or not.”
“Everything and everyone should always cooperate with me so I can be happy.” As it is given, the belief is too global and unrealistic and is therefore a setup for failure. A revision might be “I will not expect people and circumstances to cooperate with me all of the time. I will try to be content and happy even when things don’t go my way.”
“I have to stay happy in life or else I’ll be a total failure and loser.” The phrases “have to stay” and “total failure and loser” represent unhealthy approaches. Let’s revise the belief to read something like “I would prefer to be happy in life but some failings and losses will not mean that I have to be unhappy or that I am a total failure or a loser. I can be a success in life even when hardships occur and when I feel frustrated and unhappy. “
“I absolutely must be successful in my career and have the education, money, house, cars, clothes, and other possessions and social status to prove my success.” We need to revise this belief into something more workable, such as “I would prefer to be successful in my career and things like money and possessions might be nice to have. However, I choose to believe that my real success is not measured by financial gain or social status but rather by a heart of love and a lifestyle of integrity.”
Perhaps you noticed that we purposely changed key phrases—for example, “have to have” into “prefer,” “need” into “want,” and “total” into “not total.” The constructed beliefs are more realistic, healthy, and true than the original ones we endorsed. One word of caution is warranted in regard to belief revision. In this discussion I’m not referring to specific beliefs that God wants us to maintain but instead to those unhealthy beliefs we developed earlier in life that are certainly open to revision and change. A person’s spirituality needs to be considered carefully and incorporated appropriately into this belief-revision process.
After we’ve identified our unhealthy beliefs and constructed better beliefs, what’s the next step? Clearly, a written list of “new beliefs” is of little benefit if the list is stuck in a desk drawer and forgotten. We need to get the new beliefs into our minds, hearts, and lives. I think of this transformation as a three-step process.
First, we need to install the new beliefs in our minds. Unfortunately, this process is not as simple as the quick installation of a new computer software program with the use of current technology. To install the new beliefs we need to read them and commit to them on a daily basis, perhaps several times a day, for a long period of time. Usually we’re well on our way within ninety days if we repeat this installation process consistently on a daily basis. Secondly, through this daily commitment and practice we begin to internalize the new belief system into our hearts. Thirdly, we integrate the beliefs into our lives, meaning that we strive to apply the new beliefs throughout our relationships and activities. Through this process the new belief system is installed in our minds, internalized in our hearts, and integrated in our lives. The ultimate result of the new “software” (belief system) is a healthier, productive approach to life in general and to relationships in particular.
As I further reflected upon the cure for grumbling, I thought about three anti-grumbling “software programs” that could be installed, internalized, and integrated within us. These programs could be helpful additions to the specific belief revision process already discussed.
Anti-grumbling Software . . .
(1) “The Grounds for Gratitude”
The first software program teaches us to travel through life with personal gratitude. The bottom line is clear: grumbling grows out of an ungrateful heart. The truth is also clear that “when I am truly grateful I will not grumble.” The grumbler focuses on what he does not have that he wants and on what he does have that he does not want. Through this negative focus he loses sight of the “blessings” he does have and, therefore, cannot feel grateful. Yet, in spite of his blindness there are grounds for gratitude. His negative belief is “there is nothing in my life for which to be grateful.” He can purposely change to a new belief that “there are grounds for gratitude in my life.” He initiates an active search for specific items in his current life for which he can be thankful. The focus on this new belief will allow this traveler to exit the Grumbling Highway and cross over to the Gratitude Highway. The new highway allows for a much safer and more successful journey through life.
(2) “The Greatness of Grace”
The second software program trains us to travel with personal grace. Without grace we are forced to travel with justice alone, that is, a rigid lifestyle governed only by law and consequences with no mercy or flexibility. Without grace we judge people and circumstances with rigid standards, and we demand that every perceived injustice be dealt with in the harshest of punishment. Without grace nothing in life is good enough; nothing can measure up to our unrealistic expectations and standards. Predictably, we are frequently disappointed by other people as they “mess up” and “let us down.” Furthermore, we are disappointed with ourselves as we are unable to live up to the unrealistic belief system we legislated for our own lifestyle. Without grace our journey along the Grumbling Highway will maintain our misery.
The introduction of grace will bring mercy, compassion, and flexibility. By definition “grace” is “what we need but don’t deserve.” Without doubt you would prefer to receive mercy or grace (that is, what you need) and not justice (what you deserve) from the people in your relationships. Our ability to extend grace to ourselves and to other people will significantly decrease our tendencies for grumbling and will strongly increase our practice of gratitude. Furthermore, while grumbling tends to “tear down” other people and relationships, the extension of grace will “build up” in helpful ways. When applied to personal living and to relationship life the “oil of grace” will decrease the “squeaking of complaints” and will increase the efficient wheel-turning of successful travel along the Gratitude Highway.
(3) “The Growth of Grit”
The third software program enables us to travel with personal grit. The word “grit” is defined by Merriam-Webster** as “firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or change.” By this definition a consistent grumbler is grit-deficient. Unable to keep his mind firmly focused on gratitude and grace the grumbler sees only negative losses and threatening dangers. Without mental firmness and heart-felt courage the grumbler can only feel anxious and angry, fearful and frustrated, worried and wearied. In contrast, the growth of grit overcomes the negative view and replaces it with positive perspectives. The grit-sufficient person travels the Gratitude Highway with an optimistic outlook and with consistent courage.
In summary, the grumbling pattern is cured as the basic belief system is transformed from a negative to a positive mindset. This much-needed transformation is reinforced with the installation, internalization, and integration of three important anti-grumbling software programs: “The Grounds for Gratitude,” “The Greatness of Grace,” and “The Growth of Grit.” The combination of these efforts will surely construct an effective cure for grumbling behavior.
Concluding Thoughts . . .
Relationships are important. Therefore, they merit our best attention and skillful safeguarding. Among a host of relationship threats is the dangerous pattern of grumbling. The material presented in this article encourages people with grumbling tendencies to initiate a transition of growth toward gratitude, grace, and grit. The results of this mind-set transformation will be welcomed and appreciated by the individual and all those with whom he has some type of meaningful relationship.
Our safety and success in relationship travel depend a great deal on our choice of highways. The cloud-covered Grumbling Highway is inherently dangerous and depressing, and breakdowns and collisions occur frequently. In contrast, the Gratitude Highway is certainly not problem-free, but hopeful optimism does dominate the perspectives of its travelers.
I wish you well as you try to grumble less and travel better in your personal life journey.
As always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.
*BDCRT:The Baker Dictionary of Current Relationship Terminology is a fictitious work developed by the author for illustrative and descriptive purposes. Therefore, the work is not available at local bookstores or online.