The Hook Up: Dealing with a Debbie Downer

I have been in a wonderful relationship for four years now with a woman I am ridiculously in love with — so much so that for the past year I have listened to her rant for at least an hour every day about her co-workers. I want to support her and listen to her, but I am at my limit. When I hear her stories, they usually enrage me because she works with assholes and anyone who hurts her hurts me. However, I am tired of her negative energy that is passed onto me every weekday for one to two hours. I don’t want this negativity in my life and I have been trying to convince her to try letting it go or to focusing her energy elsewhere so she can calm down. It’s toxic, so I don’t want it in my life, but I also don’t want her to hold it in so it’s toxic to her. Any advice on how to best navigate this issue? I want to support her but I also want less toxic negative energy in my life. I have enough of it from my own work day, thank you very much!

Anna says: Oof. One to two hours every weekday? That’s a lot of complaining. Does she work on the pig brain floor at SPAM or something? That’s pretty much the only excuse I’d accept for that amount of negativity. It’s great that you’re trying to be a supportive girlfriend in this situation, but that you also recognize and are trying to respect your own needs as well. Your Empathetic Lesbian award is in the mail!

Here’s the bad news. Venting, despite common wisdom to the contrary, tends to make our rage worse, and leads to more negativity and aggressive behavior. According to social psychologist Brad J. Bushman on Yahoo! News, “Venting is not an effective strategy for anyone trying to cope with daily stress, whether they have perfectionistic tendencies or not. … Research clearly shows that venting increases rather than decreases stress.” Venting keeps the ill-will and anger at the forefront of the complainer’s mind, making it harder for them to let things go. This isn’t to say that you should never express a negative feeling, or otherwise bottle things up, but rather that when we continue to gripe about how terrible everything is, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle that only leads to further gripeyness.

What DOES work to blow off steam without leading to more craptastic behavior are somewhat obvious, a little hokey, and may lead to eyebrow-raising if your girlfriend isn’t amenable to change, which she maybe isn’t. It’s a little difficult to tell from your letter just what you’ve tried already to tackle the topic. I’ll give you the least crunchy option first. Humor. When your girlfriend starts to go all, “Hulk smash Joe from Human Resources for not replacing toner AGAIN,” sit her down and show her a YouTube video of a shih tzu wearing yellow slippers. Or an episode of My Drunk Kitchen. Or, if those don’t work because your girlfriend is a robot whose funny bone was deprogrammed and replaced with Sad Feelings, then do whatever will make her laugh. My ex used to insert my name into pop songs and I found this to be hysterical, for some reason. A few minutes of laughter does wonders for our moods.

Another tactic you can use is to suggest your girlfriend counter her negative emotions with positive ones. Have her write down five good things that happened at work that day. I know that sounds a little Disney musical-esque, (“The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake!”) but if she can change her perspective little by little, she’ll have a harder time staying in that warped headspace of fury. And I don’t mean negative things disguised as positives. Like, “Today that jerk Delilah didn’t screw up the smoothie orders.” Writing s–t down is a form of release that’s much more effective than, say, punching something. If that’s too crunchy for her, then at least suggest she write down constructive actions she can take to address her stressful work situation. Though, if she’s talking about it for a few hours every day, it seems like the core of the problem has little to do with employee satisfaction, and more to do with an unhealthy coping mechanism she’s established in order to deal with it. But again, you’d know better than me.

Also, one of the most under-appreciated yet useful forms of abating bad feelings is to simply breathe slowly and steadily. Our bodies can work against us sometimes when we’re worked up, but they are also remarkably predictable. Tell her to take ten long, slow breaths. Doing so lowers our heart rates and sends signals to our brains that there’s no reason to panic. Tell her that when a bitch session comes on, she should instead sit quietly for 5-15 minutes. She can meditate if she wants or just sit there silently. It does wonders. Remember when as kids we had to take time-outs? Yeah, adults need them too. But don’t call it a time-out because that’s patronizing. What would Oprah call it — a Me Break? Let’s go with that.

All of these things (unfortunately?) require your girlfriend’s participation and cooperation. She might not be receptive to your ploys to calm her down. Or she might for a few minutes, but then launch into another tirade a little later on, and you can’t be expected to tell her to breathe every damn hour. That’s not your job. I mean, maybe it is. I don’t know you very well, but you don’t seem like a Lamaze coach.

What you can control is your participation in your girlfriend’s rants. I know that lately I’m like, “Let’s hop on the Boundary Train, everybody!” but I do think you both would benefit from establishing some ground rules on this issue. Tell her that you love and support her, first off, but that the constant complaining is bringing you down. If it’s amenable to you, give her a manageable timeframe. Tell her that she can bitch about her work for 10 minutes, and then she’ll be cut off. It’s not venting anymore if it consumes 10 hours a week; it’s dwelling. It’s obsessing. It’s unhealthy, in other words. The longer she spends steeped in negativity and resentment, the harder it is to drop it and think about other things. Complaining can become habit very easily if done over and over. Don’t be preachy with her, but do be firm. Tell her what you said in your message above. Tell her enough is enough, and that you can’t be the one to shoulder all the burdens of her work woes.

If she’s being mistreated at work and feels like she has ground to stand on, tell her to take her complaints to the management or HR, people specifically trained to deal with coworker kerfuffles. Here’s an article on how to complain constructively.

If none of these options work, then you might want to throw a therapist into the mix — those magical people who are specifically paid to listen to us whine!

Hailing from the rough-and-tumble deserts of southern Arizona, where one doesn’t have to bother with such trivialities as “coats” or “daylight savings time,” Anna Pulley is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Find her at annapulley.com and on Twitter @annapulley. Send her your Hook Up questions at askthehookup@gmail.com.

More you may like