"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
June 11, 2015
My Sister Complains
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

I live 1200 miles from my sister. We talk weekly by phone. When we talk, I spend about two hours listening to her complain about the people at work, the people at church, visiting teachers who try to help too much, home teachers who don't do enough, her friends who are never “there for her” and, most of all, about our mother.

Now, she’s started complaining that I don’t call her enough. I can’t call more often. It’s emotionally exhausting. But she has alienated everyone else. 

What more can I do?

Answer:

I’m not sure if you will be relieved or disappointed to hear this, but there is nothing more you can do for your sister. Her problem has nothing to do with the inadequate ministrations of others — including yourself — and everything to do with her own chronic dissatisfaction.

I don’t mean to insult your sister. And I don’t doubt that she feels genuinely unhappy. But it is unlikely that everyone in her family, workplace, churchplace and social circle is acting in a way that injures and abandons her to the wide, wild world.

Rather, it is more likely that she is friendless because she complains all the time and expects others not only to put up with it, but to remediate her underlying problems.

Every person passes through hard times that are worthy of complaint. Part of being a friend, home teacher, sibling, etc. is listening to and comforting a person who needs to blow off steam or bemoan her situation.

However, extended complaining — even about legitimately difficult situations — eventually drives away even the most patient listeners. Not because people do not wish to help, or because they lack sympathy, but because it is exhausting and futile to listen to a perpetual complainer. Complaining solves no problem, answers no question and clarifies no issue.

Nor does complaining make the complainer feel better. Instead, it tends to intensify the feelings of dissatisfaction that led the person to complain in the first place.

I don’t think anyone would blame you if, during your next call with your sister, you finally snapped. “Charlene! Enough already. If you hate your job so much, go find another one.” Or, “Your life is not that bad,” or, “It is not Mom’s fault that you’re poor.”

Still, you want to help your sister — she is your sister, after all, and are we not our brother’s keeper? You are doing a good thing by trying to maintain a relationship with her when her behavior has driven the rest of her friends and family away. The fact that she is difficult and has unreasonable expectations for people is a reason to have more patience, not less.

That said, your store of time and emotional resources is not infinite. So I suggest that you shift your question from, “What more can I do for her?” to, “On what terms can I maintain a positive relationship with her?”

I have four suggestions.

First, time. Two hours is a long time to listen to someone complain. Two hours every week listening to the same person complain about the same problems sounds exhausting. To break out of the two-hour rut, you might try calling her at different times during the week when you have only a limited time to talk.

You could call on your way home from work, on your way to a church meeting, during your child’s piano lesson or as you drive to the grocery store. When you arrive at your destination, say, “I’m about to go into the store and I’m going to lose you. Good luck on that presentation tomorrow — I’ll talk to you soon.”

Another strategy is to end the call when she starts to complain about the same old problems. “Hey, Char, I’ve got to run. Call me on Friday and let me know how your meeting went, okay? Good luck — you’ll be great.” Then, you can follow up or offer encouragement by text instead of by phone.

And if she calls at an inconvenient time, you don’t have to pick up the phone. Call her back when you can.

Second, tone. As impossible as it seems, try to make your conversations more positive. Ask about the good things in her life. Speak encouragingly. Redirect negative comments to something positive. When she describes what her visiting teachers did this week, say, “That was thoughtful,” or “How kind.”

When she complains that her home teachers didn’t help her, give them the benefit of the doubt: “Well, it’s hard to take off work on a weekday,” or, “Maybe they didn’t feel comfortable taking down such a large tree. Better for you to call a professional.”

You can also find opportunities to sincerely compliment her, the people she knows and your family members. “You’ve always been organized,” you could say regarding her new calling, “I bet you’ll be good at that.” Or, “Your visiting teachers sound like they really care about you.”

Third, remind yourself that you are not responsible for your sister’s feelings. You might feel sorry that she is perpetually upset, but it is not your fault that she is upset. She is upset because she is always upset, and the reason she is upset has nothing to do with you.

Finally, have low expectations. You do not have the power to solve your sister’s problems or make her happy. Do not expect your calls to brighten her outlook, improve her mood or change her mind about anything. Do not expect her to appreciate you. Do not expect her to be satisfied with your efforts.

If she were having a discrete problem, perhaps you could help her by providing advice or perspective. But if the root of her problems is that she is ungrateful and impossible to please, that she makes poor choices, that she blames others for her problems, or that she expects others to solve her problems, then the solution must come from her.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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