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How to care for my geek husband?
August 24, 2008 4:12 PM   Subscribe

I need help understanding how my hyper-smart geek husband's brain works. I want to give him the understanding he craves but am having a hard time inhabiting his plane.

I have been happily married for some years to a wonderful, geeky, man whom I love deeply. He's super intelligent (mathematician/computer scientist) and has tons of fabulous qualities, but even he admits that he's a "difficult" character: he believes himself to live a life of pure logic and despairs - literally despairs - at all the irrationality around him.

I'm also a geek, but to a less extreme extent (I'm also female - don't know if that's relevant). He admits that I am "more rational" than average but still at times rages at me for my idiocy when I don't agree with his "rational ideas". He does this to friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, too, with predictably disastrous results. My default reaction is to try to explain the causes and reasons behind mine and others' seeming irrationality, to talk about the complexity of real life and the validity of implicit social rules - but this infuriates him further.

I've pretty much come to the conclusion that as I love this man, I just need to accept how he is and find strategies to deal with the fact that there will sometimes be inevitable conflict.

However, last night, after a discussion about politics sparked off by him yelling "liars!" at the TV, he admitted to me that he often feels lonely not being able too talk about his ideas without them being "attacked", and pleaded with me to try to just "go with it" when he has some idea he wants to discuss. Now, I'm sure I often *do* do this (after all, he chose me to marry - I must occasionally get things right) - but frequently I genuinely don't know how, and we don't seem to be able to figure it out together.

For example, last night the idea he floated was that every person holding public office should be under video surveillance 24/7/365 as a condition of holding the job. I responded that this was unrealistic and that nobody would ever want office given this condition. I guess he was looking for me to riff with him on the advantages of such an idea, but frankly, I really thought it was lousy. I can't lie to him - not when he's seeking to have an intellectually exploratory discussion - but I don't know how to respond both honestly and postively when the "abstract" ideas he posits seem to me to be as realistic as deciding to raise unicorns.

Although he works with computers, his passion is mathematics, and he seems to believe that his mastery of formal logic qualifies him to "fix" things outside of mathematics. He tells me he's starting from pure logic and then wants help working back to reality. However, when so many of his "fixes" concern human beings, I find it really hard to take them seriously without immediately bringing in issues around human nature. This, to him, sounds like .. criticism? irrelevance? whatever ... it's not where he wants to go.

Maybe my discussion style doesn't help - I am used to rough-and-tumble intellectual debates, where challenge and dispute is not a negative but a spur to strengthen one's arguments. I guess I need to learn to turn this off at times.

He's a really, really, angry man, and I can see that it hurts him, as well as causing social difficulty. He doesn't want to "give in" and be like all the other "sheep" and claims to value integrity and honesty above everything else. He admits he is an idealist, and while I admire that, a large part of me wants to "cure" that so that he won't be continually disappointed when humanity fails to live up to his ideals.

I understand that you can't and shouldn't try to change someone. I accept that he is likely to remain "difficult" and abrasive. I would, however, like some advice on how to help him feel less alone. He tells me he'd like for just one person in the world to understand him, and he wishes it could be me. I wish that too - what should I do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (61 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
Maybe you could start by telling him how irrational it is to assume that one person is the end-all-be-all of rationality.

Beyond that, when he gets himself all riled up like that, just back away slowly. And maybe bake him some cookies or something if you want to be really nice.
posted by phunniemee at 4:24 PM on August 24, 2008


Perhaps you can soften the vitriol a little by pointing out that no person acts with 100% rationality all the time -- not even him.

Example...What are his favorite foods? Is there anything out there that he craves and really enjoys eating? Something scrumptiously tasty that he would never tire of consuming? Well, the human body just needs calories and nutrients to keep it working. Those calories and nutrients don't necessarily have to taste good. The body could care less. A perfectly rational choice is to eat based on nutrients and calories alone, forgoing flavors, textures, odors entirely. Would he eat a diet of flavorless but scientifically and nutritionally perfect food for a week? A month? The rest of his life?

You might also gently remind him that becoming angry over what he percieves to be other people's irrationality is itself a form of irrationalism.
posted by brain cloud at 4:27 PM on August 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


Sounds like just plain old irrational anger issues to me.
posted by IronLizard at 4:29 PM on August 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


He admits that I am "more rational" than average but still at times rages at me for my idiocy when I don't agree with his "rational ideas".

He needs to let it go. The most fundamental thing to learn as a human being is that other people are more important than ideas.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:30 PM on August 24, 2008 [19 favorites]


He sounds like a lot of engineer types I know; blessed with intelligence but lacking any sort of grounding in philosophy with which they can engage the political and social world around them.

If he is anything like the guys I know he is uptight and completely devoid of humility. He can't fathom the fact that there are entire areas of human experience and knowledge of which he knows nothing. That's the problem with the hard sciences - if you don't know something it's only because you haven't gotten that far in the book. The soft sciences require a much broader grounding and patience for learning.

He needs to mellow out, pick up some courses in philosophy and sociology, drink a beer every now. Getting him to do that will be just about impossible though because he sounds like a stubborn ass.

Sadly, guys like this only come around when they are up against the wall, when their marriage is on the rocks, or they have alienated would-be friends and coworkers... or interestingly, when they find Jesus and decide they are going to become more compassionate.

Hopefully it won't come to any of that with your husband. It sounds like he is opening up some to the idea that his views are painfully idiotic, or at least a poor match for the world around him. You should continue to press him on this realization and help him explore issues he is interested in in-depth. You should also not be shy about expressing your own feelings about the whole deal. Once he sees how much grief his attitude is causing you he should come around.

Good luck.
posted by wfrgms at 4:32 PM on August 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


I knew a person sort of like this. Pointing out ways that his worldview was wrong didn't help because he usually had a way to out-debate me. I think it did help to encourage him (and help him) to spend more time with his friends, so he could spend some of his mental energy on them instead of me.
posted by dreamyshade at 4:32 PM on August 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


...Also, you could talk to him about Victorian science. During the Victorian era, people were obsessed with finding a rational, mathematical answer to explain humanity. Riding the wave of Newton, scientists aimed to boil incredibly complex and abstract concepts (like human nature) down into a tidy and logical constant. This, obviously, was not accomplished. (Which is why so many people championed crackpot theories like phrenology.)

And if he doesn't want to engage in an intellectual debate with you, I have a feeling your husband is less hyper-smart and geeky than you think he is. Sorry.
posted by phunniemee at 4:32 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sounds like you might understand him after all. I bet you understand him better than anybody. Understanding ≠ agreeing. He needs to understand that.
posted by grouse at 4:32 PM on August 24, 2008 [9 favorites]


Reason can be applied to systems. People aren't systems. "I wouldn't like it" is a perfectly valid reason to reject an idea even though it may make no sense from an empirical, rational point of view.

The problem is not you. The problem is your husband and his abject misathropy. If you want to help him feel less alone, you should try to socialize him more. If being around people makes him angry, get him into therapy. If he wants to be happier, he needs to come to grips with the idea that rational people can disagree on matters that cannot be argued from pure reason.

And, see, the thing is, your husband isn't a creature of pure reason. He yelled at the TV. Did he think that the people on the TV were going to hear him?
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 4:35 PM on August 24, 2008


It sounds to me like your husband has some self-esteem issues along with difficulties in communicating with other people. He also sounds incredibly immature and adolescent in his need to be better than everyone else while still feeling hurt that he's not understood.

I don't think that he's upset that no one understands him - he's upset that no one agrees with him. He's acting like a spoiled brat, and everyone is letting him do it. We all learn to get along with others by punishment and reward. If you are disagreeable and argumentative, you will not have friends - if you are enjoyable to be around and make others feel good about themselves, you are always welcome. I think you need to start setting some serious boundaries with your husband. He does not have the right to be unpleasant and then expect you to "understand him." I would start by refusing to indulge him in his arguments - and that's what you are doing - indulging him, because most people would not have any tolerance for that type of baloney.

Stop holding his hand and let him learn how to respect other people's opinions.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:40 PM on August 24, 2008 [9 favorites]


This isn't a geek issue. The problem is not that he's hyper-rational and it makes him angry; the problem is that he's angry and that he justifies it with this I'm-just-so-damn-rational narcissism nonsense.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 4:44 PM on August 24, 2008 [33 favorites]


He probably views the world in perfectly logical models, instead of a complex structure of absurdity and rationality. That's the beauty of math, and logic. You can "see" systems working out, and your mind tests out the irrationalities and ultimately creates what you perceive as the "perfect" balance.

There are a few problems with this thinking. One is that you can never know it all. Engineers, mathematicians, and very concentrated individuals especially have this problem, because they spend so much time in their "perfect world" that they don't realize that the rest of the world is fundamentally absurd. Second, you can't change the actors, which flies in the face of a scientist or engineer. You can't "fix" people, or make them fit your model. They work on their own wavelength. Third, life is flawed. Very, very flawed. And no amount of "fixing" will ever correct this. So instead of driving yourself nuts trying to fix everything that's wrong (and you will go nuts), you need to be "rational" and realize what you can control and what you can't.

I empathize with the boyfriend. I also empathize with you. I've seen both first hand (I've been the former; people around me have played the latter). I don't have a solution. I've just had these experiences (I still do), and I can understand the frustration. It's very, very hard for a scientist to admit that the world is fundamentally absurd. That's a tough pill to swallow. Hopefully after more years (perhaps less spent in "the lab"), your husband will come to terms with this.

BTW, I really, really disagree with the sentiment that anger is somehow irrational. If a loved one is killed, you feel anger. That anger is a perfectly rational (i.e. logical) response to a fundamentally absurd act.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 4:52 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think LittleMissCranky hit the nail on the head: this isn't about understanding your husband, or how to get to the same level of intellect, or rationality; it's about realizing that he's *not* being rational all the time. Honestly, I couldn't live with that, and would probably either let him know that your ideas are just as important as his, or let him babble on and on about his brilliance.
posted by OLechat at 4:54 PM on August 24, 2008


Yeah, this is an angry guy. We lead lives full of things that are irrational. Irrational things happen to us. It's irrational to think more than a small percentage of people even *care* about being rational.

What I got from your post was that your husband leads a sort of joyless life. He's sucking the joy from you, as well. Human beings were probably programmed to be irrational, so we could deal with forces around us that are not and will not be rational. By denying this reality, your husband is boxing himself in an impossible-to-exit corner. He's not happy with himself, but for someone so obsessive about rationality, to admit the error of a fundamental personal philosophy is almost impossible.

He'd probably also be impossible in therapy, too, but that deserves a try. You're also enabling him. Anyone I've ever been with who told me that all politicians should be under constant video surveillance would have gotten a "You're an idiot" comment from me, and no more. For the simple reason that it's too dumb an idea to waste time on. So why do you debate such crap?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:57 PM on August 24, 2008


You might find some kindred spirits here. He's a lucky guy to have someone who is willing to stick by his side after he "rages at you for your idiocy." Just be careful that you don't spend all of your energy fixing him & meeting his needs. Your [social/intellectual/intimacy/idea-floating] needs deserve attention too. Yours and his.
posted by headnsouth at 4:58 PM on August 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Let's get one thing straight: the problem isn't that you don't "get his logical ideas". The problem, as I see it, is his lack of understanding and agressiveness. He's the one who needs to seek help with his emotional problems. What the ideas are and his intelligence is besides the point. He has anger management problems and it's ruining his social life and you won't help him or yourself by putting up with it.

You can't really adapt to his agressiveness in a sound way. One strategy could be to just ignore him or leave him temporarlily when he's angry and refuse to discuss politics and such until he changes his behaviour. You don't deserve to be screamed at so you shouldn't listen. You could tell him that there's only so much you can take and that he needs to change if your relation or any social relation are to work properly. Then you can suggest therapy or medication or whatever. The important thing is that you don't accept him not actively seeking change and that you support him in trying to change, if he does.
posted by okokok at 5:01 PM on August 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


He doesn't want to "give in" and be like all the other "sheep"

I know some people like this. They're generally very smart. But they use their intelligence as an excuse to be huge assholes. Being smart doesn't give you the right to be a jerk.

This isn't your problem. This is his problem. He has no right to get so angry with you just because you disagree with him on some dumb off the wall idea he had while watching television. Frankly, I'd encourage you to encourage him to seek counseling.
posted by Justinian at 5:02 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


He's ignoring the human condition. People are not solely machines, there is more to them than simply the biomechanical and chemical reactions that power them. Art, poetry, justice, mercy, charity - grind up the universe, and you'll not find a single molecule of any of them. Yet we have words to describe these concepts because they exist, for us.

I encounter this often in IT, especially programming - programmers think - 'but it's logical FOR ME. Why doesn't anyone else understand how to use it?'

You need to gently remind him that humans are more than just logic. We're not even mainly driven by logical drives. However, you can argue that emotions and feelings drive us in important ways, even if they're not logical. We feel love and protect those closest to us, even though logically we should have the feelings for all of those of our species. Yet the drive to protect and spread your own genes in particular is a fundamental part of evolution, and leads to greater diversity and strength in depth across the species.

OTOH, gossip, talking with friends and other social rituals bind a group together, and allow the group to prosper and protect each other even when some individuals would be better off alone, as they contribute more than they gain. Social rituals allow some to specialise and do things that would not be possible without the group's support. Imagine if we all had to grow our own food in addition to our other duties!

Anger, fear and other 'negative' emotions are related to the biochemical reactions that result, that then alter our body chemistry to perform short term feats we otherwise could not. Fear allows us to run faster, anger gives us more physical strength, through the use of adrenaline etc.

'Because people wouldn't accept it' is a perfectly good answer for why something is a bad idea. Imagine a world without ambition, love, lust, anger, or friendship. That is a world driven by pure logic, without emotion. Would we even survive as a species were we not driven to do things for our own survival (or at least survival of our decendants) by 'illogical' urges and desires? It'd certainly be a lot more dull.
posted by ArkhanJG at 5:03 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


What is it they say about insanity? It's repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

I, like both of you, think I'm a geek as well -- and it seems to me that the big thing is we like to problem-solve. You can either problem-solve in reality or you can problem-solve in theory, which has the added benefit of not having to be based in any reality whatsoever. Seems to me that's what he likes to do, have this idealistic mathematical view of the world. I see nothing wrong with that. The troubling part is his inability and frustration in not having his view be completely shared. That has to be a very lonely feeling, for both of you.

Two suggestions:

1) Think of it as role-playing. Whenever he gets into these modes, think to yourself that this is a thought experiment. We're playing in a theoretical environment with a set of ideal conditions, human nature doesn't have to be a player. There is not going to be an empirical test.

2) It seems you need to help each other. Perhaps try to bring him closer to your way of thinking as you attempt to come closer to his? When he gets into these modes and wants your input, state that its a thought experiment "So, we assume X?"... then go down this path with him. Once satiated, trying to bring it back, "What if we don't assume X? What if we try to include a human being's tendency to get away with something if they can?" Try to turn the realism that you're proposing into a variant of the problem on which to test the hypothesis. How could we solve the problem if this is the case? Perhaps that can bring you closer together by understanding how both of you think.
posted by miasma at 5:07 PM on August 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


He admitted to me that he often feels lonely not being able too talk about his ideas without them being "attacked", and pleaded with me to try to just "go with it" when he has some idea he wants to discuss... For example, last night the idea he floated was that every person holding public office should be under video surveillance 24/7/365 as a condition of holding the job. I responded that this was unrealistic and that nobody would ever want office given this condition. I guess he was looking for me to riff with him on the advantages of such an idea, but frankly, I really thought it was lousy. I can't lie to him - not when he's seeking to have an intellectually exploratory discussion - but I don't know how to respond both honestly and postively when the "abstract" ideas he posits seem to me to be as realistic as deciding to raise unicorns.

It has been my experience that people who want to defend cockamamie worldviews (like "Politicians should be under constant surveillance") have a whole little routine worked out that they're DYING to unleash upon someone willing to listen. See if helps to let your husband riff on the subject for a while by himself before mentioning that you think the idea is stupid. Instead of just flat out saying it's stupid, mention a reason that it's stupid disguised as a question that HE has to answer. So, like, when he's all "Politicians should be monitored constantly," you could counter with "Hmmm, tell me more. Why should we do this?" and then let him get his little schpiel in, and then you hit him with "How would we go about actually doing this?" and "Would taxpayers want to pay for this?" and "Do we really want to know what they're doing all the time?" and whatever other points you want to bring up.

I dunno, maybe you're already doing this and he's just super angry. But if he wants to have a discussion about something, maybe let him talk about his wacko idea before you make his think about why it's ridiculous.
posted by 23skidoo at 5:07 PM on August 24, 2008 [8 favorites]


he admitted to me that he often feels lonely not being able too talk about his ideas without them being "attacked",

There seems to be a real disconnect between his self-image as a person of logic, and his unwillingness to debate or explore the merits of his ideas.

If his ideas are supremely logical/rational, they ought to stand up to scrutiny; the surveillance idea you cite is a great example of that. You raised a reasonable objection to his idea, which he ought to be able to counter.

It actually sounds like he's actually quite an emotional person - his angry reactions to critiques and disagreement aren't really the hallmarks of a logical person.

Similarly:

He doesn't want to "give in" and be like all the other "sheep" and claims to value integrity and honesty above everything else.

Again, if he values integrity and honesty in himself, why doesn't he value it in others. If your (or friends' opinions) of an idea of his is negative, is it not dishonest and lacking in integrity to offer those critiques? Again, it seems like what your husband needs most is some serious introspection time and to understand that, again, there seems to be a big disconnect between what he says he values and what he acts like he values.

Just be careful that you don't spend all of your energy fixing him & meeting his needs.

Exactly.
posted by rodgerd at 5:13 PM on August 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


It's also worth saying that as a species, we've taken a long time to get where we are, and a lot of the things that make us up are are best redundent, or at worst not enough to seriously harm our ability to make more of us.

A lot of what makes us, well, us, is a collection of bad ideas that somewhat works. Take the human body. The spine is just bad design, plain and simple. There's a design that was good for a horizontal animal, and we've put a double kink in it so we can stand upright. That has advantages, but at the cost of a lot of lower back injuries. Or having the blind spot in the eye. that comes from the location of the optic nerve terminating inside the retina. Many animals don't have flaw, because their eye evolved differently. Or the air intake crossing the food intake, that's just not thinking ahead.

The human mind is in a similar state on confusion, muddle, competiting impulses and just plain foibles and madness. And yet... how much could you remove or 'improve' before we ceased to be human? Social niceties and conventions allow us to live together in large groups, when otherwise our impulses would lead to quite a thinning of the herd. People don't follow the law because they're worked out the logical advantages of their application, they follow them because they're afraid of the consequences of breaking them.

Right result, wrong reason. Just like a lot of the rest of the human experience.
posted by ArkhanJG at 5:21 PM on August 24, 2008


23skidoo gives very good advice. When he brings up an idiotic topic he wants to rant off about, just let him get it out of his system. You could go with the classic "Hmm." "Oh, yes?" responses, which might be enough fuel or might annoy him. You could also ask a lot of questions until he hopefully realizes how stupid he is being, or doesn't want to talk about it anymore because you've Socraticed him into a corner.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:29 PM on August 24, 2008


Tell him he needs a therapist to help with his anger issues. He doesn't sound hyper-"smart" he sounds hyper-"snobby" and used to putting himself on a pedestal. It also sounds like you are reinforcing this by letting him put you down all the time. I would make him take some accountability for his problems, or DTMFA. There are many very smart people who are smart enough to find successful ways of maintaining healthy relationships with us normal people.
posted by Raichle at 5:31 PM on August 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


Try exploring ideas without going straight to their merits or lack of them. That takes imagination. You can think of it as an intellectual, conversational version of improv -- learn to say, "Yes, and..."

For instance, what about raising unicorns? That seems to me to be a perfectly fine topic for conversation. I imagine you'd have to find yourself a supply of virgins, for instance, and what would that entail? Would abstinence programs start working if abstinent kids had a chance to work with unicorns? Can you imagine the Unicorn 4-H program? My God, can you imagine how much you could charge just for composted unicorn poop? How would you market that to gardeners? And so on.

Learn to handle ideas without having to take them seriously as real-world proposals.
posted by sculpin at 5:38 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Although he works with computers, his passion is mathematics, and he seems to believe that his mastery of formal logic qualifies him to "fix" things outside of mathematics. He tells me he's starting from pure logic and then wants help working back to reality. However, when so many of his "fixes" concern human beings, I find it really hard to take them seriously without immediately bringing in issues around human nature.

You could be describing my s/o. Seriously. He's an engineer who writes computer programs for predicting action in the stock market... you can see where this goes. He feels that human beings should be equally as "predictable." I tell him over and over again, you can't apply algorithms to humans.

I don't have much to offer other than empathy. I have the discussion of "Yeah, but you need to give humans a bit more slack." at least six times a week. I'm always gentle with him, even when I think that his ideas are - as you say - as realistic as raising unicorns.

Thankfully, my s/o isn't, as you say your husband is, angry. He's pretty easy to talk down when he starts getting full of himself. Still, there are times when I want to pick him up by the ears and shake him until he understands that NOT ALL ASPECTS OF LIFE CAN BE REDUCED TO MATHEMATICAL EXPRESSIONS.

The best thing you can do for yourself is just to take a deep breath and remind yourself that yes, he did choose to marry you for a reason. Perhaps reminding HIM of this when he starts getting upset might help too. Very, very gently say "Well, I know I may not understand you, but I do love you and hey, you married me, so I must have SOMETHING going for me!"
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:51 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


One thing's for sure. Your husband isn't nearly as unhappy as he would be if everyone "understood" him - or rather, if he suspected he'd been figured out.

He gets off on the idea that he's special and superior. Even to you. Kind of like a narcissistic teenager. If everybody else in the world became the way he claims he wants them to be, he wouldn't be able to nurture this heart of piss anymore. On the other hand, if he knew people who he thought really understood him, he'd panic --because he would first realize that even he, with his almighty brain, is understandable, and because anyone who understands this garbage behavior would realize how big his self-image issues are. Couldn't have that.

(And also, I agree with everyone who's pointing out that a dude this full of anger is not a logical, rational person. By definition.)
posted by Coatlicue at 5:54 PM on August 24, 2008 [5 favorites]


Your husband's behavior sounds a little over the top. However, sculpin is absolutely correct. It sounds like your husband wants to feel like he has a supportive partner with whom he can share his frustrations, ideas, rants, whatever, and he feels hurt when he opens up to you, his wife, and your reaction is to become adversarial. If you want to make him feel better you should stop taking these discussions as an invitation to argue with him and work on being a better listener.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:54 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


The question is how can she be the one person who understands him. I would suggest having him make a list of the books that most influenced his outlook; taking a close critical look at his family life (an easy one!); really break his world view into parts and figure it out -- what makes him him. Exactly as you would do your favorite artist or author.

I'm betting that he's asking not for you to agree with him but for you to be able to "translate" what he can't properly express, thereby "understanding" him. For example, when he says politicians ought to be under watch, he may not literally mean that; it may be a satire and he may intend for you to focus on the object of that satire. If you understood the basic principle he draws from, you will get what he's saying. (Agreeing is a separate matter.)
posted by luckypozzo at 5:57 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I do feel for you, anonymous, your husband could have been me, had I less anger management skills. (And please, people, calling her husband a jerk or worse doesn't help matters at all.)

It can be extremely frustrating, moving from work or a mental life in which everything is logical and supremely ordered - engineering, programming - to the chaotic, irrational behaviour of the real world. I think you have a fairly good grasp of that: it's the transition from one state to another, or the friction between them, that is your husband's problem.

Along with the suggestions given above, I can supply a few others. A lot of geeks tend to see themselves as "minds carried around in a bucket of flesh": that they are elevated above irrationality or mere spurts of biochemicals. Of course, this isn't true: we're just better at ignoring or dismissing those impulses. Gently pointing out the inarguable truth that your husband is an animal, is a hairless ape with an advanced mind, might help. He has nightmares, autonomic shivers, just like the rest of us. Indeed, the anger he displays (sometimes inappropriately) is itself irrational - anger doesn't solve the problem, or convince other people to his point of view. Anger is the friction of his logical expectations meeting the illogical reality of human society.

So. One suggestion: "be the change you want to see in the world". If your husband is frustrated with politics, urge him to enter it. Media, same deal. On a smaller scale - if he's frustrated with the way your community is headed, urge him to work to turn it in another direction, with the understanding that he will be working with people who have a different (perhaps illogical) perspective from his own. Bashing them over the head with logic doesn't usually work - cannot work in an illogical system, by definition, and neither does raging at the system. Instead, he will have to find ways of working with people, rather than trying to use his intelligence to bulldoze his way through the problem.

Another suggestion: he needs to come down from his rarified intellectual tower on occassion. Not only is this good for your relationship, it's good for him. Anything that works at an emotional, instinctual, gut level will work: jazz, rather than Bach, Pollock rather than Mondrian, massage rather than intellectual discourse (or perhaps both at once), sex (even angry sex) rather than frustrated logic. Anything that he can feel, in a good way, and keep with that feeling, rather than the temptation to bring his intellectual guns to bear on a "problem" that may not need solving at all.

Finally, an understanding that other people, those outside your marriage, are not his problem. Yes, he has to live in the society that they create, along with his input. And yes, the desire to fix things - the need to correct the broken clockwork of the world - is a very strong one. But he can't fix everyone, and it's futile to try. (Teaching, and a number of relationships, taught me that). Instead, he can work on what's important - your marriage, your families, your community.

I hope this helps a little - the best of luck to both of you.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 6:25 PM on August 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


I am going to be blunt. He is a bully, pure, plain and simple. Because of his anger about you not being an automaton of acceptance to his ideas I would say that his ideas can't handle examination. He is irrational just by his irrational behaviour. Ideas go through a Darwininian process and the fact that he can't even handle the usual idea process that undergraduates go through during late night talking sessions is a bad sign. Man, if he is like this to you, a person that he loves, well it sucks to be one of his students who is trying to learn and examine ideas by questioning.

I agree with people upthread, it is being narcissistic and using his proclaimed intelligence as an excuse to be a jerk. It is not enough to have an idea, it is about execution and realization. As an engineer he should be concerned about results and let me say that his personality gets no results.

I live a sliver of your life, just so you know that I speak with personal experience.
posted by jadepearl at 6:33 PM on August 24, 2008 [6 favorites]


There was an entire TV series devoted to this (I am at least half serious). Star Trek Next Generation. Look at the way the character "Data" (an android) approached the world. He used pure logic, was faster and smarter than anyone on board the Enterprise, and did indeed find social relationships and politics puzzling. But if your husband were to watch all 178 episodes (and if he hasn't already what kind of a geek does he think he is?) I think he would begin to understand that intelligence, sophistication, technology and logic will never "solve" humanity.

I hope you don't think this answer is flippant. I was a math/computer science major in college, and I'm somewhat socially clueless, but I think he needs to recognize the limits of "computability". For references I would cite The Nerd Handbook, Computational Complexity Theory, and The Star Trek Next Generation Episode Guide.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the spiritual aspects of life. It does not sound like that is an aspect of his personality or world view. Some great minds have been theists. He might want to read C. S. Lewis (great logician!).
posted by forthright at 6:36 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


ludwig_van, I think you're right about what her husband wants, but the second part of your answer ignores her right to express herself. If she stopped feeling like it was OK to talk to him honestly, it would be ultimately damaging to their relationship. Also enormously unfair and damaging to her.

Anonymous, I have a few suggestions for what your husband can do:

(A) He can start respecting you. (This behavior is out of line and you're a saint for trying to help.)

(B) He can write a book so he can express his ideas and understand them himself. Once he sees his ideas on paper, they might not seem as right as they do in his head. Or maybe they'll be brilliant. Sounds like he needs to let them out in order to know.

(C) He can start talking about his ideas to other people than just you. See B if (when) he runs into the same trouble that he has with you.

(D) He can realize that no one in the world is fully and completely understood by another person.

(E) He can understand that (D) is OK. In fact, wonderful. We grow close to each other by understanding each other better, but that growing understanding does not have an end.
posted by dosterm at 6:36 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


This isn't a geek issue. The problem is not that he's hyper-rational and it makes him angry; the problem is that he's angry and that he justifies it with this I'm-just-so-damn-rational narcissism nonsense.

Exactly, 100%, yes. A close family member *is* this guy. There's also the martyr thing, "oh, woe is me, nobody understands- really, deeply understands- my ridiculous ideas." Then there's the pouting. And the arrogance.

What's difficult about these people is that they don't think they are any different from the rest of us- they assume everyone thinks the way they do and are somehow restrained from admitting it. Unlike a classic jerk, who really doesn't care what people think, these people desperately want to be liked and understood, and have no idea that other people have to work at understanding, compromise and fair play.

What can you do? Besides finding a way for him to realize the folly of his ways, try to understand when he's "shooting from the hip" and to roll with it, and when he's serious.
posted by gjc at 6:47 PM on August 24, 2008


This sounds very much like a guy I knew. Even when I would try to explain that the world and the people in it were not rational, he would merely fall back on his "idealism" and say that that doesn't mean we shouldn't hope and try for rationality anyway.

I realized, in retrospect, that there was another approach I might have tried. I think the problem was that I never disputed the real premise of his arguments. Instead of saying that expecting rational behavior was irrational, I should have said that there is no inherent moral good in rationality. Being "rational" (or "efficient," another favorite) is not a stamp of virtue - there are rational acts that are despicable, and irrational acts that can be good.

This might not work for you, if you or he both believe that rationality is inherently ideal. I'm sure that my friend, for instance, would still have thought that this was incorrect (he is of the Randian "taking a bullet for your loved one is a selfish act" camp). But it might have at least helped him understand where I was coming from.

On preview, I also agree that your husband sounds a little like a bully -- you have no obligation to simply stand there and let him rant at you. He may feel lonely and think he wants to find someone else as "smart" as he is who "understands" him, but it sounds like you are smart and understand him perfectly. What he really wants is someone who will sit still and occasionally say, "You're so right!"
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 6:54 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


the second part of your answer ignores her right to express herself. If she stopped feeling like it was OK to talk to him honestly, it would be ultimately damaging to their relationship. Also enormously unfair and damaging to her.

The point is that in a close relationship there's a time to be honest and there's a time to be supportive. I think that being able to realize when it's better not to express yourself, even when you feel confident you are correct, is a mark of maturity. It's something I struggle with sometimes. If I thought someone was wrong about something I used to always want to tell them so. Now I have a much easier time realizing when it won't be necessary or productive and letting it go unsaid, even though I think I'm right. The question says:

he admitted to me that he often feels lonely not being able too talk about his ideas without them being "attacked", and pleaded with me to try to just "go with it" when he has some idea he wants to discuss.

This seems reasonable to me. I think everyone wants to be able to just feel listened to now and then without the threat of being argued with. The asker further states:

I would, however, like some advice on how to help him feel less alone. He tells me he'd like for just one person in the world to understand him, and he wishes it could be me. I wish that too - what should I do?

If that is her goal, I think the answer is pretty straightforward. If you can identify when your husband is looking for support, give it to him rather than arguing. Is it more important that you demonstrate why his idea about surveillance of politicians is wrong, or that you make him feel happy and loved?

The way the question is laid out does paint the husband in a pretty bad light and makes me wonder if what the asker claims to be looking for is actually what she wants to hear, but it seems most productive to take the question at face value. I strongly disagree with all of the answers suggesting ways to argue with the husband or condemning his character based on a few one-sided paragraphs.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:56 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Your husband cannot "live a life of pure logic" and also be an "angry, angry man" who rages at you and other and "despairs" at those who do not see the validity of his opinions.

You say you believe you should not try to change someone. I disagree. He needs to change, otherwise he will continue to be angry and miserable. And so will you.

There are good suggestions upthread. Reread them, and start by realizing that you can love him best by encouraging him to change.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:56 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think sculpin has the right idea here--try discussing ideas on the abstract plane that he seems to be more interested in. You can respond to his ideas by essentially suspending your disbelief, just as you would in, say, a discussion of whether Batman or Superman would win in a fight to the death; you don't have to pretend to like the idea, or that you think it's plausible, in order to discuss it. You can present your disagreements as questions: "Wouldn't that keep anyone from wanting to run for office? Or ensure that we were governed only by exhibitionists?" which will either allow him to enjoy the intellectual challenge of answering these questions, or get him to realize that his ideas need some work.

Obviously there are some more fundamental issues here, but I think approaching his ideas as an intellectual exercise will help with the one you are asking about. I suspect this kind of thing--"well, I think it's silly, but supposing for a moment that we lived in a society where this wouldn't be totally absurd"--is what he means by "going with it."
posted by fermion at 6:59 PM on August 24, 2008


ludwig_van, that makes sense. He should feel like he can speak without getting jumped on. It just didn't sound like that was the case here, and I was just objecting to the idea that she should just be quiet and let him rant whenever he wanted. Which you're probably not suggesting. I'm sure there's a happy medium between her letting him rant and rave and immediately arguing his points. But ultimately, in a partnership, it shouldn't be completely her job to figure out what he needs. He should also be willing to listen to her. I read the question as saying that he was acting like this all the time, and that's too much.
posted by dosterm at 7:14 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


The whole "I am purely logical" thing is a fallacy. As a mathematician, he should be very familiar with the idea of systems and frameworks that are based on different axioms and with which you can do different things. He should also be familiar with the idea that there are limits to what you can do with them.
People aren't "irrational" so much as acting based on rules he doesn't understand. There are rules of emotion and the system as a whole is incredibly complex and nuanced and maybe chaotic. As a mathematician, he should find great beauty in this and have endless curiousity in his attempts to understand or even grok it.

I don't know that this would be helpful at all to him specifically. I just get sick of the idea that "rationality" is somehow more valid or worthy of interest than what we've got.
posted by trig at 7:14 PM on August 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


yeah man, it aint gonna happen. I went to college in an honors program that attracted such hyper-geeky dudes (the example to benchmark the geekiness that I always use is that one of my roommates had the highest score in the nation on the medical school entrance exam) and it is not going to happen. Homeboy does not want frank discussion of his ideas, he just wants someone to validate his logic and the size of his "incredible brain" by agreeing with him.

People that smart in general, particularly those who never meet someone who schools their amazing intelligence, never admit that they have holes in their logic Unless they regard you as having comparable intelligence, your opinions will always be invalidated with his incredible logic/rationalization abilities. Thus, they never really want to hear new ideas, just defend their existing ones.

In fact, one thing I learned from my program is that the smartest people are the least willing to listen, and the best at defending their positions. This makes for some crappy conversations. He needs to grow up a little, that's all. You don't need to indulge his little world where he's right all the time, and giving him the responses he's looking for (agreeing with his crazy-ass logical premises) is only going to reinforce that he's right and other people are wrong, driving him inward.

I'd try to show him that there can be value and joy in other things than being right. how about some non-logic hobbies? My girlfriend suggests animals, they are nice, fuzzy, and are not logical, and he might love them too. Maybe volunteering with animals?
posted by wuzandfuzz at 7:14 PM on August 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


Also no one in the world is completely understood, and people don't understand yet do understand each other at the same time. Maybe there's beauty in that too.
posted by trig at 7:19 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


As someone who considers herself a rational mind and frequently gets disappointed by society's irrationality and is the nerdiest girl I know, I can weigh in on this.

"I'm also a geek, but to a less extreme extent (I'm also female - don't know if that's relevant). He admits that I am "more rational" than average but still at times rages at me for my idiocy when I don't agree with his "rational ideas". He does this to friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, too, with predictably disastrous results. My default reaction is to try to explain the causes and reasons behind mine and others' seeming irrationality, to talk about the complexity of real life and the validity of implicit social rules - but this infuriates him further."

Being female makes you no less of a geek. I am female and I am the paragon of nerdiness.

I rage when, for example, I'm not understood AFTER repeating my ideas many times. Ask him, perhaps politely and if he's not stressed, to explain these things to you. Treat it like a cheerful, fun conversation. Do both of you enjoy bouncing thoughts off each other? Enjoy it. Debate dualism vs. positivism (I come down securely in the positivist realms).

Does he have less social acuity than most people you know? Granted, I have loads less than many people, but I'm pretty good at observing folks.

"However, last night, after a discussion about politics sparked off by him yelling "liars!" at the TV, he admitted to me that he often feels lonely not being able too talk about his ideas without them being "attacked", and pleaded with me to try to just "go with it" when he has some idea he wants to discuss. Now, I'm sure I often *do* do this (after all, he chose me to marry - I must occasionally get things right) - but frequently I genuinely don't know how, and we don't seem to be able to figure it out together."

Ask him how he thinks he's being attacked. He sounds a little insecure and may think you're coming on as pushy in a conversation - I don't know what you two do. Emphasize that this is a debate and less personal than he thinks. Stay cheerful.

"Although he works with computers, his passion is mathematics, and he seems to believe that his mastery of formal logic qualifies him to "fix" things outside of mathematics. He tells me he's starting from pure logic and then wants help working back to reality. However, when so many of his "fixes" concern human beings, I find it really hard to take them seriously without immediately bringing in issues around human nature. This, to him, sounds like .. criticism? irrelevance? whatever ... it's not where he wants to go.

Maybe my discussion style doesn't help - I am used to rough-and-tumble intellectual debates, where challenge and dispute is not a negative but a spur to strengthen one's arguments. I guess I need to learn to turn this off at times."

See, this is where I can't help you - I view challenge and dispute the same way you do. Do not turn your arguing off. Perhaps mention that you think he's viewing your challenges the wrong way - they're not personal attacks!

"He's a really, really, angry man, and I can see that it hurts him, as well as causing social difficulty. He doesn't want to "give in" and be like all the other "sheep" and claims to value integrity and honesty above everything else. He admits he is an idealist, and while I admire that, a large part of me wants to "cure" that so that he won't be continually disappointed when humanity fails to live up to his ideals.

I understand that you can't and shouldn't try to change someone. I accept that he is likely to remain "difficult" and abrasive. I would, however, like some advice on how to help him feel less alone. He tells me he'd like for just one person in the world to understand him, and he wishes it could be me. I wish that too - what should I do?"

He's not the only person who wants to be understood. I deal with this too. I suspect he may have some amount of depression in addition; I dealt with depression for 20 years and anxiety for 3 years; you both may need help. It is legitimate to be angry at society; it sucks right now. One of the things that benefits me most is when one of my friends does something that shows they care; it's a buffer against the anger.

You can deal with this.
posted by kldickson at 7:20 PM on August 24, 2008


Maybe he should start a podcast, i.e., a talk radio show.

Seems like a good place for people with his mindset to be able to share (and vent) their ideas, however rational or irrational.

But he needs to call it, "The Most Rational Man On The Planet" and do it in a cheerful, in-your-face way, instead of this passive aggressive thing he's got going. He's like a guy who whines about the "kick me" sign on his back, when he put it there himself.

A certain type of arrogance can be entertaining and attractive. But right now he's being a precious little bitch about his ideas. If he wants to have more impact with his views, he needs to be up front about them, and at the same time have a sense of humor about it.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 7:24 PM on August 24, 2008


Now maybe your husband really is a crazy mean idiot aggro-man, but I'm going to suggest something different for a moment: sci-fi.

I think your husband is really looking for you to shut off the practical and have a really interesting "What if" conversation. I don't think he's being logical. I think he's being imaginitive. For instance, taking an off-the-wall idea and creating a world where that off-the-wall idea would fit right in is a common theme of science fiction.

You might think 24/7 surveillance is a lousy idea, but you're just limited by your ability to imagine a society where it would work. To give you some idea of how you'd open this up to a cool and interesting dialog, give this book a shot. Don't let the theme put you off-- it's an engaging and neat way to start a thought exercise with your husband. Robert Sawyer is really good at these types of "What ifs" and following them to their logical, or sometimes surprising conclusions. (Among this particular book's many themes is the idea that 24/7 surveillance could be a positive.)

And, hey-- I'd be pissed, too, if my S.O. just shut down these conversations with how stupid or impractical they would be in "the real world."
posted by Gable Oak at 7:59 PM on August 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


i share some traits with your husband and i've been working to move past my insularity and predilection to delusions of superiority for several years. i don't know your husband, but i think you're asking how a stubborn, arrogant man can be humanized a bit. i don't know if it's a possibility or even a desire of you share, but the one thing that helped me to understand human nature better, be more patient, and appreciate life more is my son. i'm not saying that anyone should have a child to solve their issues, and that may not be appropriate or wanted in your relationship, but it helped broaden my perspective tremendously.

it takes longer for some folks to realize that there is only one logical answer to the postulate "either everyone else is wrong or i am". there is no elegant solution to the human nature. what's more, it's not a problem to be solved in the first place. actually, that reminds me, i would strongly recommend watching the films human nature and dopamine for some interesting jumping-off points for discussion.

none of that really answers your question, sorry. he is angry because he is frustrated. he wants to vent to you, but he's not clear about his tone when he does, which leads to misunderstandings. that's not news to you. i think that sculpin & fermion are onto how to handle that, but sculpin's more abstract tack may not work as well if your hub feels like he's being patronized. asking questions that are pointed without being immediately dismissive could be productive. "should taxpayers have to pay for this 24-hour surveillance?", "do politicians not have constitutional rights, despite their public responsibilities?", or "wouldn't confidential meetings need to be out of the public eye?" "if so, who would determine what content is or isn't classified?" allow him to rationalize his logical solution and he will frequently see the impracticality, if not the absurdity, of the idea, even if he won't admit it.
posted by ashabanapal at 8:46 PM on August 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


As others have mentioned, this is not really a "geek" issue. Many geeks have unusual techie-type ideas but most don't wrap themselves up in anger.

Labels are a little uncomfortable, but it sounds like he is a "fundamentalist", someone who's ideas cannot be challenged, who sees the world in "us vs them" terms.

Coping with the situation might be the same a situation where an agnostic is trying to get along with a deeply convicted born-again Christian.
posted by storybored at 8:54 PM on August 24, 2008


Oh, second thought - get him a metafilter account.
posted by storybored at 9:00 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


(... as if you need one more "answer"!):

How's this for some simple logic:

1) Is he happy? (Sounds like a "No" to me.)
2) Is he logical? (He says he is.)

Being logical isn't the key to happiness. QED.


Also, unless your not sharing something with us, he hasn't published anything we can read to assess his relative brilliance.

My own standards for logic sort of point me to Euclid and perhaps, Bertrand Russell. If SO thinks he's hot, have him hit the Elements for a while and see if he can come up with alternate proofs to a few dozen theorems. When he gets a handle on that, he can peruse Prinicipia Mathematica by Russell and Whitehead and learn just how far down the scale he is on the 'life of pure logic' scale. These people deserve to be classified as different life forms.

He might also benefit from reading about Euler, a great mathemetician (no...I mean GREAT!) who was also beloved and a wonderful human, by all accounts.

This boy needs a dose of humility. Euler may be just the thing. Honestly, better people have died unknown. He needs to appreciate that.

The geek/humanist dichotomy is a convenient fiction, but it is just as often an excuse for laziness as anything. Truly smart people know that they are fundamentally ignorant, or at best, slightly specialized savants. No one can encompass even the tiniest percentage of the catalog of human knowledge. SO is demonstrably not anywhere near the top of the heap, based purely on what you relate.

Even smarter people realize how fascinating is humanity, with all its apparent contradictions. It is the ultimate puzzle; a game in which the rules are fuzzy, adaptable, and incorporate bizarre randomness (or what appears to be, sometimes!). Like the few microseconds after the Big Bang, it is a place where normal rules do not always apply.

He may benefit from studying social biology, a branch of science which uses deductive and intuitive logic, speculation, and statistics to infer reasons for human behavior rooted in our biological heritage. It allows for a semi-mecnahistic framework of why we are the way we are that appeals to science types, and may help him develop an appreciation for the way nature has integrated its own peculiar logic into our genome.

And you.... well, don't buy his rants at your expense. You sound absolutely charming.
posted by FauxScot at 9:02 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


"the heart has reasons that reason know not"
-pascal
posted by alex3005 at 9:19 PM on August 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


He sounds a lot like my husband was before (and during early years of) therapy, and a lot of learning about anger management. 23skidoo's suggestions sound good, but -

My default reaction is to try to explain the causes and reasons behind mine and others' seeming irrationality, to talk about the complexity of real life and the validity of implicit social rules - but this infuriates him further. . . . he often feels lonely not being able too talk about his ideas without them being "attacked", and pleaded with me to try to just "go with it" when he has some idea he wants to discuss.

as someone else asked, what does your husband perceive as "attack"? Mine perceived questions of the kind 23skidoo proposes as attacks and hurtful criticism, no matter how lightly or fun-lovingly I asked them. So if that's the case, to help him feel less alone, approaches such as sculpin, Gable Oak, and fermion suggest may work better.

I understand that you can't and shouldn't try to change someone.

No, but wouldn't couples, ideally, grow and mature emotionally as individuals as well as together within the relationship? Help each other become the best people they can be?

If you don't mind his rages, great. No call for him to change himself. If they bother you or they ever become seriously problematic for your peace of mind, though (for instance, they may get worse or more frequent under stressors like workplace issues, death of a loved one, ever-dwindling circle of friends/family willing to listen to him), it's entirely reasonable for you to expect him to help make the relationship work. That means he'd have to acknowledge and adjust behaviours that are suboptimal for the health of the relationship. IME, that kind of self-awareness and relationship-awareness was difficult to incubate, without professional help, in somebody with a ginormous ego. Couples counselling may be the only way to get someone like that into therapy.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:24 PM on August 24, 2008


I'm agreeing with the general consensus that he needs a dose of the humanities / counseling. I'd also pick up some books on Neuroeconomics for him.

Point out that decision-making is work and that not everyone is to work hard to maximize their payoff from a particular system.

He needs to work on his empathy skills a bit. Maybe leading questions are the way. "But why do you think people act the way they do in this situation?"
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:15 PM on August 24, 2008


He understands using complex models to understand things, right? Weather models, etc. Well, he needs to work on a model of human behavior. And since he'll need it all the time, he needs to do it in his head and continue tweaking it till he's got it right. Start with Theory of Mind and go from there.

Example: I never understood the slow drivers on the freeway till my water pump burst far away from my mechanic. When I got over 55 it over heated. Drop below 40, it over heats. So I was doing 50 on the freeway. There's *always* a logical explanation for even the most irrational behavior. It may be as simple as people's fight or flight complexes being triggered, or more complicated.

Here's another. Ever wonder why the drivers in the fast lane always start out slower than the slow lane when a traffic light turns green? Count the number of cars in each lane on this image. Each driver has a reaction time between when they see they should move and when they do. That gets multiplied by the number of drivers. Since there are more drivers in the fast lane, if you're at the back, it'll absolutely start slower. Additionally two of the slow lane drivers left enough space so they could get started more quickly, again making that lane faster. And finally there's the turning lane on the left that people will pile into very slowly since it'll be red by the time the main light turns green. All of that combines to make the fast lane start slower than the slow lane.

Do I still get fed up by it? You bet, but I understand it too, which means I'm rational, and that's the important difference.
posted by jwells at 5:17 AM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oddly enough, trying to be a Vulcan is one of the simplest acts of irrationality. Logic is digital. The world is analog. While there are many things that follow simple rules and order, most things do not, including your husband.

I think your desire to understand him is laudable. Unfortunately, I agree with many of the armchair psychiatrists here in that he has a lot of difficulty accepting himself to start with.

Let me give you an example - I worked with a guy who, shortly after California enacted its "Three Strikes" law, made the following suggestion: "first time offenders are required to watch as the third time offenders kill, clean, cook and server the fourth time offenders to the second time offenders." which is, of course, intended to be morbidly funny. You could spot the people in the group who weren't entirely mentally healthy because they were wondering why something like that couldn't be enacted. Yikes.

Sometimes it's entertaining to play what-if speculation games and take rule systems to their logical and impractical extreme, but that's the sport: in the end you have something that is just ridiculously impractical to implement. I think maybe he's forgotten the funny - there's a lot of it to be had in the world.
posted by plinth at 5:57 AM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I am not a medical or psychological expert, but it sounds to me as if your husband's behavior is a spot-on match for Asperger syndrome: he has an unusually limited way of looking at the world that focuses on order and responds explosively when the world behaves outside that focus. There's a number of books that address relationships with people with Asperger's, as well as some appropriate webpages. If you check out one page, it sounds as if ASPIRES (Asperger Syndrome Partners & Individuals Resources, Encouragement & Support) is the one to check out.
posted by WCityMike at 8:05 AM on August 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


By the way ... at a much younger age, I was your husband. When I was much younger, I decided to be a Vulcan and to live my life as close to emotionless pure logic as I could.

I've been reading old journals to try to get a clearer view of my origins, and looking back, it was obvious why I adopted the Vulcan persona. It was because both my emotions and the world as a whole were both frightening the ever-lovin' shit out of me at the time. I simply couldn't handle the emotions I was dealing with. They were overloading me. So I decided to just lock them off as they didn't exist. I couldn't control the societal things that were hurting me and my family at the time, but I also couldn't deal with that lack of control.

I still can do the "Vulcan" thing to an extent: it's proved a useful talent to be able to temporarily shove my emotions completely off to the side, but the key is that the "shoving" isn't as brutal as it was then -- it's now more of a "listen, you're not useful at the moment to me, so just stay there cooped up in THIS area of the brain and we'll deal with your (the emotions') concerns/reactions later, okay?" thing. But trying to brutally stamp them down into a fine paste as if they didn't exist: well, the organics of our brains just don't like that very much. Putting them in a fenced yard for a little bit: good. Trying to slaughter them into non-existence: bad.

If your husband's experience as an adult is like mine at that earlier age, the world is overwhelming him (thus the anger), and he's trying to fix it using the only tool he thinks will work: his ability to handle complex systems.

If he is able to model something really complex, then he's used to that skill working for him to solve anything. He's used to the act of understanding things that are really, really difficult to understand. He's not used to that skill failing him, and that's what's making him really upset. And that particular skillset is indeed failing him there, with these models of fixing the world that he's proposing. And, presumably, emotions as well.

I have a feeling that social skills training would be up his alley. Why? At least from posts I've read here from people who underwent social skills training for Asperger (I can't remember the comments in question, but if I spot them, I'll post links here), in such training, procedures are given. Procedures that people who can do it naturally have never itemized, they are procedure-ized and written down. In other words, he'll be told: "Perform task X, task Y, task Z, and task AA, and most likely you will get a result of Social Behavior BB." Which my entirely non-expert, layman's guess is that I think he would probably like a lot.

I didn't undergo that training myself; I got out of the "Vulcan" phase of my life at some point. (Couldn't say when.) I imagine I could still sometimes use this training, though.

Again, I'm not a psych or medical expert. But my e-mail's in my profile or you can MefiMail me if I can be of any further help, just from the basis of maybe having had a distant cousin of the problem that your husband is dealing with, and that being of help to you.

Good luck.
posted by WCityMike at 8:33 AM on August 25, 2008 [6 favorites]


I suppose this the kernel of how I disagree with plinth and many commenters -- I seriously doubt that he'd be wondering why something like that couldn't be enacted. It's the word "irrelevance" that tips me off. (That, and your mention of being at home in the "rough and tumble of intellectual debates", which is a mild red flag for me about instinctive oppositionality. See also.) Every mathematician I've known has been a dreamer, and I've happened to know a few. If he really wanted to implement his silly ideas, your implementation-related criticisms would be relevant. But he doesn't, so they're not. The guy just wants to talk with his wife.

As I read it, he isn't angry because he can't spy on politicians 24/7. He's irritated because, by his rules, you are being a stolid, pompous killjoy. And it's frustrating because you are, almost certainly, his favorite person in the entire world -- if you can't understand how to play with him, who can? If he's as bright and ultrageeky as you see him, he's been made to feel like a space alien his whole life by people who can't or won't understand why he loves what he loves. Now he's an alien even in his own marriage. How hopeless that must feel!

Unfortunately, he's painted himself into a corner by clinging to this idea of himself as Mr. Rationality. Logically speaking, your points are not out of the bounds of reason. Logically speaking, he should remember that you do not mean to be attacking him, his values, or his process, and he has no call to react emotionally. Logically speaking, he has nothing to complain about. Unfortunately, this isn't about logic, which means he's out of his depth when he wants to talk about it. So he flails. On preview, I think WCityMike and I are circling some similar ideas: flailing is not what he's used to, and it's very upsetting.

It's true that the guy could use some help from the humanities side of things, but less to fix him or soften him than to help him express his values. I suspect he tends to jump to an easy answer to get away from the discomfort of flailing around -- he knows he values intelligence and rationality, so if he feels like he's being rubbed the wrong way, it's surely because somebody else is being idiotic and irrational. Right? (Wrong!)

Some people, such as jadepearl, believe, "It is not enough to have an idea, it is about execution and realization." Others, like me, see intrinsic value in having an idea, and find that the idea can be enough. There's no logicking our way across this disagreement; it's about what we value. If the Myers-Briggs folks are right, it may even be a matter of temperament. I brought up the unicorn business because I believe that you'd be well-served to learn how to handle ideas in a way different from the way you're used to, and not just because it might make your husband happy. If you can't bring yourself to let your reasoning imagination loose from the bounds of How Things Really Are, then as I see it, you're missing out on chances to explore and have fun. He has some things to learn from you about coming down to earth, but you have some things to learn from him about putting your head in the clouds.
posted by sculpin at 9:24 AM on August 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


My suspicion is that he "corrects you" often when it comes to everyday discussions about relatively banal things. Always the smartass, who has to be right and make sure everyone else knows it. I've been in both roles plenty of times. So then he opens himself up to a smackdown by putting forth grandiose and impractical ideas, giving you the opportunity to snap him back to reality. I don't know what the answer is but you may have to teach him humility by exhibiting it often, while reminding him of it just enough (and kindly enough) not to defeat the whole purpose. Learn to recognize when he's playing (or even ask nicely--is this a thought experiment?) and remind him that we all deserve a similar courtesy; especially those of us who are not constantly on-guard trying to come off as flawless and perfectly informed. You may not enjoy the thought experiments at all, but ask yourself whether that's a function of his behavioral patterns or if he just needs to find a friend who enjoys indulging in such things. If he breaks his own rules of the conversation, smacking your contribution to the conversation to the ground, it's up to you whether you'll playfully remind him of the rules or take your toys and play elsewhere.

My temptation is to throw things back into people's faces ("but last week YOU said the opposite, as I will explain after I carefully disect that conversation and this one before your eyes") but it doesn't work on people like this if your goal is to be happy around each other. I don't know how he can even rationalize the existence of "irrationality" if the Universe is the purest physical manifestation of logic and mathematics. Just humbly remind him that his frustration is natural but "everything happens for a reason...it just may not be a reason you particular care for." Reality was not created to impress him, but it would serve him well to find a way to appreciate it.
posted by aydeejones at 2:41 PM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


By the way, much of where I'm coming from here owes a big debt to Peter Elbow's concept of "the believing game". When I was in college, I read his essay on that in Writing Without Teachers; it's served me well for almost twenty years now. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of how to "go with it" and gain a certain kind of intellectual flexibility, you could do a lot worse than looking into his stuff and giving it a try.
posted by sculpin at 10:26 PM on August 25, 2008


I am reminded of Spock. At times he could be the most logical person in the room, and nothing you could say could refute the cold, perfect sense of logic written for him. At the same time, he was quite often aloof - the price he (and other logical types like him) pays for his abilities. As other posters have said, the problem isn't you. Trying to confront him with his own irrationality when he's convinced he's right may involve more of a fight than you're interested in... So your choice may sound like 'smiling and nodding' - allowing your husband to think he's perfect and always right - or getting him set on the path that nothing is perfect, and he has to accept that.

Seconding the possibility of Asperger's - it's certainly not a diagnosis that will require a marked change, but may give him the sense to realize that things aren't quite right with him. Wired posted a self-scoring test online that you could ask your husband to take or take it for him... Either way it might be a further indication of his mindset, where he stands, if any medications / treatments may be in order. I wish you luck :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 8:36 AM on September 11, 2008


I think the two categories of response we're seeing here ('there is something horribly wrong with him' vs 'oh, he just wants to talk hypotheticals') are probably divided on the same question - is he serious about this as a solution in the real world, or is he just trying to play with ideas? It can ve excruciatingly frustrating when you're just trying to play with an idea and everyone doesn't understand that's what you're doing - it feels like you're living in a world where noone else derives pleasure from thinking. And I don't mean "reaching conclusions", I mean "thinking".

You've already had plenty of responses from people going 'ASPERGER'S!!' or saying he's a compassionless asshole using logic as a justifier for his anger. So I'm going to stick with the "sci-fi theory" as it's called above and actually offer YOU advice - instead of offering ideas, ask questions. If you ask good questions, questions that make him go "hey, I hadn't thought of that" it's a good way to act as his intellectual equal. Regardless of the quality of your questions, trying to work out the ramifications together makes you into a team, instead of opponents, and you can still produce your challenges to the ideas - "What do you think would happen if you did that?" "Do you think that would change people's willingness to run for office?"

OR, when he's angry, you can just say "Yes, I can see why you'd want better checks on their behavior" and let him cool down. I know with me, as soon as someone agrees with me I'm all on top of my idea picking holes in it (that is, once I know that they're not going to reject me out of hand as an idiot, I'm able to engage honestly with the idea).

(PS: I do think being female tends to mitigate our out-there geekiness, because society, our parents, etc. just will not put up with it - women are socialized to be 'friendly' much more so than men, who are more likely to be left alone)
posted by Lady Li at 5:14 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


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