Complaining is a social lubricant that makes conversation easy, whether we’re talking about our families or the weather or the switch from Daylight Saving Time. When we commiserate with one another, we connect.

Some researchers suggest complaining facilitates bonding and is psychologically healthy. Irene S. Levine, a professor of psychiatry at New York University, describes complaining as an opportunity to feel understood. Through it, we offer one another “reassurance and support.”

The “bond” created by complaining is why, in its presence, many of us instinctually join in, even when we can’t relate to the specifics of the complaint. Maybe you’re not married to a messy husband, but your roommate is kind of a slob. Maybe your husband isn’t lazy and forgetful, but there was that time when he double-booked your schedules. I don’t know about you, but I have complained about people and things that had not bothered me otherwise, simply to be included.

A couple years ago, I sat with a group of exhausted young mothers as we sipped our coffees and laughed about our weeks. We relished the pause from a frenzy of kids and commitments, and gradually, the conversation drifted from catching up to complaining. At the time, I had one (relatively easy) child, so I listened quietly and sympathetically to their stories of chaotic life with three, four, and five kids. It’s not that I didn’t have complaints of my own, but I didn’t feel qualified to throw in.

One of the women turned to me, the only silent one of the bunch, and said, “This must sound awful to you. I bet this makes you never want to have more kids.” I fumbled for a response. The truth was, ...

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