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The Difference Between Complaining and Venting

Complaining is asking for change. When my wife complains, she wants me to present her with an alternative. Venting is getting it off your chest. This is where she just wants me to listen to her frustrations.
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I was at work on a Sunday when I got this text from my wife, Mel, "I've officially lost it today."

I went to work early that morning, and would be there until late. Before that message, I got one that read, "Church is just great today." She was being sarcastic. I could tell. Mel, being the hardcore mom that she is, took all three kids (ages 1, 6, and 8) to church by herself. I've done this before, so I know being in a church bench with those three little turds feels like being trapped in a hot cage with wild animals wearing suits and dresses, their little teeth spackled with saltine crackers.

I'm sure it was hell.

I've been putting in a lot of hours at work lately. I work for the athletics department at a university, and during the summer I manage summer bridge programs. These are programs that help kids straight out of high school make the transition to college. They take hours of planning and programming. I've been working weekends and evenings, and when I'm home, I'm not really fully there. I'm stuck in my phone, answering text messages from student workers.

It's a new job, and Mel and I are both adjusting to it, which means I get a lot of messages like the one above from Mel. The crazy thing is, I always refer to it as "my new job." I talk about my new responsibilities and stress, but honestly, at the end of the day, were it not for my wife caring for our children during the day, there is no way I could take on a job with this many hours and a wacky schedule. So it really is "our new job." When I work evenings, Mel works evenings. When I work weekends, Mel works weekends. I think this is the real stress of parenting and marriage. It's a give and take between husband and wife, and when one is working long hours out of the house, everyone is putting in long hours.

The sad thing is, when I got Mel's text, I didn't think about any of that. I thought about the stress of my new job, and felt a pressure in my chest. A tenseness that I couldn't really define, so I reacted with anger. I thought to myself, "I have got so much going on. I don't need this." And I don't think that Mel's intention was to make me feel that way. I don't even think she was complaining. I think she was venting. This is something that took me a long time to understand. There is a difference between venting and complaining. Complaining is asking for change. When Mel complains, she wants me to present her with an alternative.

Venting is getting it off your chest. This is where Mel just wants me to listen to her frustrations. This is the same as when I come home and complain about students I work with. I don't expect Mel to solve the problem (although sometimes she does help me think through a situation). What I want is for her to listen and understand.

Mel knows that my work schedule can't change during the summer, but she just wants someone to acknowledge her frustrations. But even now, after 10 years of marriage, I still struggle identifying the two, and my default setting as a man is to interpret it as complaining, and try and fix the problem, so when I got her text, I felt like I needed to rush home. I wanted to just split for the day and help her, but I knew that I couldn't, so I felt pressure. I felt the tug of war between work and home.

As a father, I feel this every time I miss a soccer game for a late night work meeting, or I miss a parent teacher conference because it happened during the day, or when I can't make it home for dinner. And I think Mel feels it to, every time we go over the budget, and we come up a little short. I think she feels pressure to go back to work. This is the give and take. This is the struggle between work and home. I want to be home, spending time with my wife and kids, but I also feel a tremendous responsibility to support my family and be successful. Almost every day I feel this, and as I looked at Mel's text, I felt it all the more.

I wanted to call her and tell her I was frustrated at work and that I wished I could be there. I wanted to tell her I was sorry. I wanted her to tell me a few good things that happened so I could feel better. I wanted to call and fix her problems. But I knew none of that would change a thing. I was stuck at work. She was stuck at home.

"I'm sorry," I sent back. "I love you."

"I love you, too," she wrote. "I'm just venting."

Clint Edwards is the author of No Idea What I'm Doing: A Daddy Blog. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.