Why does my wife zing me all the time?
November 3, 2010 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Why does my wife zing me all the time? How should I react? Is there a way to stop it? Am I being paranoid?

My brother told me a few years ago he wasn't looking forward to hanging out with my wife & me any more, after her constant "zinging" of me. I started paying more attention and it seems he has a point.

Take last night, for example. Two examples in one evening, and illustrative of the casualness and the pettiness of this thing that happens. Every single day of our lives together is filled with this:

At dinner, my 11-year-old daughter was eating a clementine I'd brought from the store. I mentioned that I was surprised the clementines were still good, as they were over a week old. My daughter said a few had gone bad but most of them were still fine. My wife said, "They're tangerines." I said, "Oh, did you bring some tangerines home?" She said, "No, those were tangerines you brought home." I said, "Then why did it say 'clementines' on the bag?" She said, "I thought clementines only came in wooden boxes." I didn't say anything else.

After dinner I was going to walk the dogs. I said to my wife, in a friendly tone, "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?" She said, "Do you want me to?" I said, again in a friendly tone, "Yes! That would be great!" She said, "Then why don't you just ask me to?" I said, "Never mind. I guess I can't open my mouth without putting my foot in. I thought I was being friendly."

She's not the type of person to be put off normally by an indirect request, I should perhaps point out. In fact, her mode of communication is so far off the charts, direct-communication wise, that it once took her an entire 1-hour marital counseling session to ask me a direct question. Counselor: "Ask Bovious to pass you the kleenex." W: "Bovious, I want the kleenex." C: "No, ask him." W: "Bovious, hand me the kleenex." C: "Say, 'Bovious, would you please pass me the kleenex?'" W: "Bovious, KLEENEX."

So maybe my always being wrong is a way of communicating...something?

She once said, in a counseling session some years ago, something that I believe goes to what's going on here, but the dynamic is so strange that I can't begin to unwind it. What she said, in response to why she was being difficult, was, that she was trying to "put Bovious in his place." She wouldn't explain it and I haven't been able to get her to discuss it.

Another time, our counselor asked about her father. My wife (actualy, then-fiancee) hesitated. The counselor said, "Is he kind of a bumbler?" My wife started SOBBING and said yes.

I am a programmer / analyst who started at a major organization as a telephone salesperson and worked my way up to a well-respected PA in the IT department; my current job is a well-paid PA. I've supported our family financially since we started out together.

Anyway, I have a variety of responses to this situation.

Sometimes I might say, "Why do I always have to be wrong? Even if I'm wrong, which I wasn't this time, still, why is that the only thing you want to talk about?"

Most of the time I just ignore it but I'm hurting.

Other times, it's "Zing!"

Other times, it's, "I guess you got me. I was wrong. Again."

She has no response other than to say, comically given the circumstances, "I don't always say you're wrong."

Well, not always. Most of the time, though. Enough of the time that outsiders are noticing it. Enough of the time that I hesitate to talk to you in front of outsiders or even when we're alone.

I'm so tired of this dynamic. She gets a kind of far-away look in her eye that I imagine to be her riding the glorious wave of my wrongness.

It's to the point now where I'm waiting for it whenever I open my mouth around her, an occurrence which is becoming rarer and rarer. Maybe I'm paranoid now. It's insane.

I've learned to be very careful and circumspect when I want her to know about a problem. For instance, our dishwasher has a hole in the silverware basket. This weekend I found that forks had been placed so as to fall through this hole, which blocks the water arms from spinning. I said, "Maybe you forgot, we have to avoid this hole in the basket." She started yelling at me, "I DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT IT!" I calmly said, "Oh, ok, maybe you didn't hear me when I mentioned it and showed it to you last week. It's ok if you forgot, I was just reminding you." "YOU DIDN'T SHOW ME!" "Ok."

She *HAS* to be right. I *HAVE* to be wrong. We can't BOTH be right.

Have any of you broken through this kind of situation with your family and sanity intact?
posted by bovious to Human Relations (99 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I said to my wife, in a friendly tone, "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?"

Why didn't you just ask her?

I don't really see what your wife does as "zinging" you, but I do see some passive-aggressive power-struggling on both sides:

"Maybe you forgot, we have to avoid this hole in the basket."

That's really patronizing. You could have either a) meded the hole or b) rearranged the forks and then commented on the annoying hole.
posted by noxetlux at 10:15 AM on November 3, 2010 [13 favorites]

posted by noxetlux at 10:15 AM on November 3, 2010

Are you still in counseling?
posted by Gator at 10:16 AM on November 3, 2010 [7 favorites]

I came into the question assuming, from the title, that the response would be something like "little zings are perfectly healthy, sometimes you should make fun of each other a bit, etc."

Your scenario is way, way beyond just a zing, and the burden isn't on you to avoid saying things that make her jump all over you. Given your examples, she's clearly in the wrong. Consider additional counseling at the least (perhaps both couples/marriage to work with each other and some time one-on-one with someone to help heal), but this may be a case of DTMFA.
posted by Rallon at 10:17 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Rightness" and "wrongness" can be pretty big deals in relationships, but I think that most of the time concern with those things is really a symptom of something else. Usually an insecurity of some kind, possibly related to unresolved hurts, not necessarily caused by you.

As far as resolving that... good luck. My mother has similar issues, and none of the family really gets it. If my experience is anything like yours, trying to address these issues almost immediately sends the conversation off at a right angle about something you didn't even know was an issue. Assuming you can even get that conversation going at all.

It's possible that she's intimidated by you, or just generally intimidated by life. I think that's part of my mother's deal: my dad has an MD, my mom didn't finish college. She's plenty sharp, but there's stuff she doesn't know, and whereas my father has had formal training and decades of professional practice sharpening his ability to express himself clearly, she hasn't. She has a lot more trouble articulating things, and I think sometimes her frustration there works itself out as a downright pathological insistence on maintaining a running list of how often other people are wrong about stuff. Just can't let things go.

All that by way of saying that this situation sounds like an absolute unholy mess, and I don't have any real concrete advice about making things better. You have my sympathies, and I'm interested to see how others' deal with similar situations.
posted by valkyryn at 10:18 AM on November 3, 2010 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, I know that it is possible to ask more directly than I did, but my point is, we always always always have to talk about the wrongness of what I said. I didn't just ask her because the question as phrased was what came to my head and seemed harmless enough.

I think I should get credit for friendly intent. It's easy to say that everything somebody says is annoying or patronizing in some way.
posted by bovious at 10:18 AM on November 3, 2010

Honestly, in your 2 examples, I can't see what you're talking about at all. In the first one, she thought she was correcting you on something, when you pointed out she was wrong, she explained why she was wrong. It doesn't sound like it was confrontational. In the other example, you asked in a friendly tone but a jerky way for her to do something for you, and then you were totally passive aggressive about it when she called you out on it (actually, both times you were totally passive aggressive about it). From just these two conversations, and no other context, I would have assumed that she was complaining about you, not the other way around. Even if she's usually OK with indirect requests, it doesn't mean it's ok, as you point out later when you say she can't do the direct request thing -- it doesn't make it less annoying when you do it.

I grew up in a family/culture where knowing things and knowing them correctly was really important. It never offends me for someone to correct me because of COURSE I want to be right, and why wouldn't someone who I was close to to point out when I'm wrong? It would be weird. I have had trouble when being close with people whose philosophy does not line up with mine on this, because I've corrected them in a way I would absolutely want to be corrected, and they would get mad because... I don't know, because it was rude I guess? I still don't get that side of the argument, though I know people feel strongly about it.
posted by brainmouse at 10:21 AM on November 3, 2010 [48 favorites]

The thing that is coming through loud and clear in your question is that there's a breakdown in trust on both sides. From the examples you give, it seems as though neither one of you is willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the other, to assume that something was meant kindly but phrased in-artfully, and so you retreat to fighting stance as soon as the conversation goes a bit awry.

Are you still in counseling? This seems like the sort of situation that is tailor-made for couples counseling.

If you're not willing to do that (or until you do that), here's my suggestion: you can't control her tone, or her words, or what she does, but you absolutely can control your side of the dynamic here. It may be that short-circuiting your angry or defensive reaction to her words is enough to get her to drop her fists, as well; even if it's not, I bet it will give you clarity and a bit of peace to not feed into the unhealth dynamic.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:22 AM on November 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

I felt quite sad when I read this. From what you have written, it seems that she doesn't respect you, your opinions, or your friendly and good intentions (mistaken as they may be. And she appears to be quite contemptuous and scornful of all of you. You can do nothing right in her eyes. If even outsiders are noticing, it's bad. Real bad. Like divorce bad.
posted by moiraine at 10:22 AM on November 3, 2010 [16 favorites]

In some of the examples you give it sounds like you want to be right too. Maybe the problem is you both want to be right or you are both seeing this as a "one person is right, the other person is wrong" situation? Really, it doesn't matter who is right or wrong. The examples you give are really trivial quibbles in terms of actual life issues. So what if she thinks clementines only come in a box? I wouldn't sit silently and fume over her comment as though it means she's trying to point out your stupidity.

Also, in terms of the peach cobbler example, I think your wording sort of set you up for it. You asked her if she felt like making it, which is really indirect. Why not just say "hey, could you make some of that peach cobbler? It's super awesome and I'd love to have some when I'm back." Just because she hasn't mastered the art of asking direct questions doesn't mean you get a free pass too.

You mention counseling. Do you still go? Have you continued to bring this up in sessions?
posted by joan_holloway at 10:23 AM on November 3, 2010 [10 favorites]

"Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?"

"Why do I always have to be wrong? Even if I'm wrong, which I wasn't this time, still, why is that the only thing you want to talk about?"

"Maybe you forgot, we have to avoid this hole in the basket."

This is not how you talk to people. Seriously, if I was in a household where someone kept speaking to me in this manner, I would flip my shit. This does at all seem to be about her being right and you being wrong. It's about the fact that you two really have no idea how to communicate to one another without driving each other up the wall. That is a serious problem and there is no "right" or "wrong" in this situation. I am glad and I hope you are still in counseling, because otherwise there are few ways to solve this.

My advice? You want something? Ask for it. Your wife clearly has problems with that as evidenced in the therapy session, but so do you. Here are some examples:

"Could you please make some of that peach cobbler while I am out? It is delicious and I love it when you make it for us."

"I feel like you are always treating me as if I am wrong and it has been making me upset. Lets examine our responses to one another lately and see what's up exactly."

"There is a problem with the dishwasher. If you put the forks in that place, they have a tendency of falling through and not washing it. Here, let me show you where they should go."
posted by griphus at 10:26 AM on November 3, 2010 [55 favorites]

I would definitely advise more counseling. I'd also normally advise the OP to try to (gently) confront the wife when she zings him - not in an accusing manner, but a "I heard you say X. Can you clarify what you meant when you said that to me?" and "When you said X to me, I felt hurt, and here is why." But wifey sounds so slippery and hard to reach that it might be more trouble than the OP wants to take. If this is a woman who takes one hour in counseling with a professional to ask a direct question, it sounds like she has issues that might be very difficult to fix, IF she wants to fix them.

So, the question for the OP is: If she doesn't change, and continues to deliver zingers, are you going to be happier with her, or without her? Does the relationship offer you good times that make up for the verbal abuse (and yes, I think this is what it is)? What example are you and your wife setting for your daughter in how she relates to potential partners?

If the wife doesn't change then the OP needs to think about himself and his own needs. Are they being met here, or not?
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:26 AM on November 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you to the responders so far. No, we're not in counseling any more. Even our counselor agreed that we were spinning our wheels. That was over 5 years ago.
posted by bovious at 10:27 AM on November 3, 2010

An excerpt from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell studies communication between a couple that has the same "feeling" as your communication with your wife. The writer goes on to explain the implications of their communication:

At no time as the conversation continued did either of them show any overt signs of hostility. Only subtle things popped up for a second or two, prompting Tabares to stop the tape and point them out. Some couples, when they fight, fight. But these two were a lot less obvious. Bill complained that the dog cut into their social life, since they always had to come home early for fear of what the dog might do to their apartment. Sue responded that that wasn’t true, arguing, “If she’s going to chew anything, she’s going to do it in the first fifteen minutes that we’re gone.” Bill seemed to agree with that. He nodded lightly and said, “Yeah, I know,” and then added, “I’m not saying it’s rational. I just don’t want to have a dog.”

Tabares pointed at the videotape. “He started out with ‘Yeah, I know.’ But it’s a yes-but. Even though he started to validate her, he went on to say that he didn’t like the dog. He’s really being defensive. I kept thinking, He’s so nice. He’s doing all this validation. But then I realized he was doing the yes-but. It’s easy to be fooled by them.”

Read rest of excerpt.
posted by moiraine at 10:28 AM on November 3, 2010 [7 favorites]

Seconding "contempt". That's the tone that I picked up throughout your description of her interactions with you. I know it's hard to pick examples, but would you say that "contemptuous" pretty well characterizes her personality?

I don't think it matters why she's like that, unfortunately. She's not going to have a breakthrough and say, "Oh, you're right. I'm like this because I'm not the breadwinner of the family [for example; seems likely enough to me]. I know exactly how you feel, and I'll stop immediately!" It's just how she is.

It also seems like it's tearing you up inside, and it made me sad to read. If counseling doesn't produce immediate real concrete changes, I think it might be time to move on.
posted by supercres at 10:29 AM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It's really really really hard to give examples without the inflection and tone of voice in a case like this, so don't let that get you down.

+1 for continued counseling.
posted by Avenger50 at 10:30 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

The examples you give aren't ones where it's easy to assign blame to one or the other party. So much of how we "read" daily interaction is context-dependent and tone-dependent, and multiple small conflicts can build up to have emotional implications that don't necessarily seem obvious given the bare facts of any one quarrel.

For instance: the peaches thing. Your wife's reaction does sound excessive on the face of it, but it'd make sense if she was feeling unappreciated in general for the household work she does, or if she was overworked and you'd been unsympathetic/oblivious of late.

In general, I think the best way to deal with small negative interactions is NOT to read them literally and to try to assign blame accordingly, but to view them as symptomatic of general tension in the relationship, and to try to fix the general emotional "tone". One good way to do that is to try to efface some of the general negativity by making sure you have plenty of positive interactions per day. IIRC, Dr. Gottman gives 5:1 as a good working ratio for positive to negative marital interactions.

So if you've had a fight with your wife over something stupid, maybe try your best to interact with her in unequivocally positive ways (sincere compliments, backrubs, listening to her talk about her day, whatever) about five times before the next tiff comes up. Or alternatively, you could apologize for being on edge and ask her to do some positive stuff for you. I suspect that the happier you're both feeling with each other and with life, the easier it will be not to get stuck in small irrational arguments about ridiculous things.
posted by Bardolph at 10:31 AM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Even our counselor agreed that we were spinning our wheels.

I'm not exactly sure what this means, but considering everything you've told us I have an inkling it means you were either not working at the therapy like you should have been or you had a shitty counselor. Try again, and harder.
posted by griphus at 10:31 AM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

Yeah, sorry, no. This isn't the OP's fault. IMO, "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?" is a completely reasonable way to phrase a request, the same way that "Would you like to..." and "Do you want to..." essentially mean the same thing, colloquially.
posted by supercres at 10:32 AM on November 3, 2010 [24 favorites]

What strikes me is that you didn't notice until your brother pointed it out. Does that mean it never bothered you before? Or that you considered it "normal" before?

As you said "It's easy to say that everything somebody says is annoying or patronizing in some way." That applies to you, too. Her statements aren't so over the top zingy. In the first, she really believed they were tangerines and was wrong. In the second, she may have not just wanted it assumed that she would cook something without getting "credit" in the form of being asked directly, like it was her choice, rather than her job.

In short, more counseling sounds like a good idea, maybe with someone new.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:33 AM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

It sounds mutual from your examples. For instance;
"Oh, ok, maybe you didn't hear me when I mentioned it and showed it to you last week" is all about making HER wrong. (How about: "Hey there's a hole here that I keep meaning to fix but haven't, so be careful."? Even if you have to say it 10 times in a row.)

You guys both sound like you can't trust the other to not hurt you, and rightfully so. I don't know the answer to fixing it, besides going to the counselor and/or making an agreement to not do that any more. What you CAN do, is make sure you're keeping your own side of the street clean, and (if it were me), asking her in a non-aggressive way to cut it out when it starts up again. (As in a quick: "don't be mean" or something, and then drop it.)

Excuse this if this is just me projecting but could it be that you both have some background where being wrong was simply not acceptable? I know it comes up all. the. time with adult children of addicts/alcoholics, and I'm sure there are circumstances, too. (Like maybe having perfectionistic or control freaky parents? I don't know.) But can happen is that when they feel insecure their instinctive reaction left over from childhood is to make sure everyone around them is MORE wrong, to deflect attention from themselves. It's dumb but it's understandable as a leftover defense mechanism. Untraining it is a nuisance but can salvage relationships of all sorts.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:34 AM on November 3, 2010 [9 favorites]

IMO, "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?" is a completely reasonable way to phrase a request, the same way that "Would you like to..." and "Do you want to..." essentially mean the same thing, colloquially.

There are people to whom not being asked questions directly and having the agency (pointlessly, in their opinion) transferred like that is a really bad pet peeve. His wife seems to be one of these people.
posted by griphus at 10:36 AM on November 3, 2010 [20 favorites]

My only thought here is this: "Why are you still married to this person?"

Whether you want to answer in thread or not is up to you, but I think you need to answer that for yourself. If it's not some variant of "I love her and she makes me happy/enjoy her company" then you should think long and hard about what that means.

"Because of the children" is not a good answer.
posted by nomadicink at 10:36 AM on November 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Unlike several other people here, I really don't see much harm in your comments as you've presented them. I wouldn't be at all offended by "Would you feel like doing this for me while I'm out," it sounds a little self-effacing at worst, like, "no pressure, only if you feel like it, honey." Sometimes people (and I don't know if your wife is like this) can find direct requests to be more like demands, and find them off-putting.

Anyway, if your counselor gave up on you, I'd suggest finding a new one, for yourself at least, to help you come up with some better communication methods and coping mechanisms for when you're feeling frustrated. It would be great if your wife would agree to join you, but as others have said, you can't control how much effort she puts into things or how she responds.
posted by Gator at 10:36 AM on November 3, 2010

It once took her an entire 1-hour marital counseling session to ask me a direct question. Counselor: "Ask Bovious to pass you the kleenex." W: "Bovious, I want the kleenex." C: "No, ask him." W: "Bovious, hand me the kleenex." C: "Say, 'Bovious, would you please pass me the kleenex?'" W: "Bovious, KLEENEX."

This was the tell. If it took her an hour to repeat a simple sentence, she either has some cognitive issue, or some serious emotional block relative to you. It's not hard to repeat a sentence verbatim.

Does she have these communication issues with everyone, or just you?

How is she with your daughter?

I don't think there's a simple answer to this problem. It sounds like it will take a lot of hard work with outside support (counseling), and that a major piece of it will be just getting her to admit that there is a problem at all.

Good luck.
posted by alms at 10:37 AM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry. My sister & my mother are both like this. They make no effort whatsoever to get the content of what your saying, focusing on the minutia of the word choice or other obnoxious hair-splitting devices. There is no percentage whatsoever in trying to get the conversation on track once they've started.

Personally, my take is that your wife needs individual counseling (yeah, I know: Fat Chance). Maybe schedule an individual session with the counselor to discuss the continuing deficit in results: A time when YOU can clearly and fully express your dissatisfaction & question him/her on how that fits into the treatment plan.
posted by Ys at 10:38 AM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Preface this by saying, of course, a lot of nuance is lost in just reading a description of interactions. But.

Just responding completely honestly, what you are describing do not sound at all like one-sided interactions to me. You sound just as invested in "being right" as your wife, the only difference is that you "concede," but in a kind of passive-aggressive, "well if you're going to be that way about it" manner. Responses like "then why did it say clementines on the bag" definitely read as argumentative to me. You know what "Oh, ok, maybe you didn't hear me when I mentioned it and showed it to you last week. It's ok if you forgot, I was just reminding you" sounds like to your wife? "It's okay that you're either a liar or an idiot."

In this interaction:

I said, again in a friendly tone, "Yes! That would be great!" She said, "Then why don't you just ask me to?" I said, "Never mind. I guess I can't open my mouth without putting my foot in. I thought I was being friendly."

You are giving up on what you want and putting yourself down (though again in a kind of po-faced, self-serving way) as an alternative to simply saying: "I'm sorry, would you please make me some peach cobbler?" You are refusing to simply make a polite, direct request. Why is that? Put aside your wife's tendencies and look at that question just from the perspective of your feelings. You knew what she was asking you to do. It wasn't an unreasonable request. Why not just ask directly as requested?


"Why do I always have to be wrong? Even if I'm wrong, which I wasn't this time..."

A common theme in most of the interactions you describe is that you are actually fairly consistent in asserting that you are, in fact, right. Which makes your wife wrong.

I'm not defending your wife particularly here, the way she is acting sounds very unpleasant, I'm just saying I don't know what her side of your relationship would sound like but given the scenarios you describe it does not sound like the one-sided abuse you seem to think you are describing, it sounds like two people arguing some unstated, deep relational disconnect using the dull trivialities of life (clementines versus tangerines?! also, have you considered buying a new damn dish drainer, they are $15-30 at your local Target and there is one argument avoided, yes I know that is not the solution but seriously, just, do that anyway). You have different argumentative styles, but what you describe sounds neither conciliatory nor friendly to me.

She gets a kind of far-away look in her eye that I imagine to be her riding the glorious wave of my wrongness.

I don't know what your core problems really are nor how to solve them short of still more counseling, but I guarantee you whatever is happening there it is not that. Do you consider your wife to be a rotten, mean, uncaring person at heart? If not you might consider the viewpoint that she is just as hurting and confused and unhappy in these constant interactions as you are.
posted by nanojath at 10:39 AM on November 3, 2010 [54 favorites]

To be honest, you both sound like you're acting like jerks. Conversation is not war. Yes, her crap about putting you in "your place" is complete hostile bullshit, but you seem to have a strong case of need-to-be-right-itis (and I am a fellow sufferer, so I am not judging here) and it sounds like you guys are constantly grappling.

I feel really sad for your kids.

Also, these aren't "zings". "Zings" are witty putdowns. Hers are just cranky putdowns. Yours sound like sullen, dogged arguing. Do you guys actually like each other?
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:40 AM on November 3, 2010 [26 favorites]

In my opinion, when people overreact in situations like this, it may look like it has something to do with you - clearly the overreaction is directed at you - but it might not have that much to do with you. You're just a readily available target. You are probably right to assume that this is old behavior that stems from the relationship with the parent. Or maybe something is consciously or subconsciously bothering her. She sounds desperate, frustrated with something, and easily annoyed. She may also not be willing to recognize this, out of fear.

Your part in this situation is that you are beginning to get resentful because you don't know how to protect your boundaries and quite frankly you've hit a complicated brick wall with her. I agree this is a problematic situation. See the thing is you can't really control who she is, you can only control your reactions, and there are probably things you could be doing to make the relationship better. I mean, there always are. And that's always a good place to come from.

Try not to take her behavior personally. Do the best you can. It sounds like part of her defense mechanism is an unwillingness to work on or discuss these type of issues. Which is hard. If you love this woman and want to stay in a relationship, just see if you can be more patient.

In the meantime I think it would be a good idea to seek counseling on your own. And then maybe in the future this is something you can discuss with her.
posted by phaedon at 10:40 AM on November 3, 2010

What was the dynamic in your wife's family between her parents? Her father was a bumbler, was her mother the forceful one who got things done?

Have you told her that her tone and tact are hurtful?

Also, her want to "put you in your place" is a bad sign, especially if she can't elaborate. She has more to deal with than "zingers."
posted by filthy light thief at 10:40 AM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

And if I were a counselor, I would probably fire you guys, too, because you each seem to have an incredible amount of energy invested in the idea that you're right and the other person is wrong.

Neither of you is going to get anything done in terms of improving the relationship until at least one of you lets that go. Preferably both.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:42 AM on November 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Your wife resents the hell out of you, for reasons I can't even begin to guess at. What she's doing is taking it out on you in the most passive-aggressive way imaginable.

Unless your wife is some sort of super-autistic, there's no reason besides resentment that she would pretend not to understand that "Would you feel like making me some more peach cobbler?" is a request for her to make you some more peach cobbler, not an inquiry into her general emotional state regarding the concept of preparing a specific dish for you. The parallels between that encounter and the Kleenex thing are worrisome.

Her communication is completely indirect and wrapped up heavily in resentment. Your best bet is going to be to try to talk to her one person to another, tell her you love her and you want this all to work, and try to get a straight answer out of her about how she even thinks of you, or feels about you, or what have you.

And take a while, before you ask, to prepare yourself for a negative outcome, whatever that might mean to you.

If she's still invested in making this marriage work, get thee to counseling.

Good luck.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:44 AM on November 3, 2010 [12 favorites]

"Maybe you forgot, we have to avoid this hole in the basket."

That's really patronizing. You could have either a) meded the hole or b) rearranged the forks and then commented on the annoying hole.

I don't think this is patronizing. Even if it was, for the OP's wife to yell at him and apparently deny the truth about what had happened is downright wrong. That's a problem with her behaviour, and not only is it not going to be fixed by him dancing around her, silently mending things and cleaning up after her minor mistakes instead of just mentioning them like a normal human being, it's simply unfair to expect him to do so. His wife has a responsibility to control her reactions.

However, Bovious, I would agree with some of the other answerers that your first example doesn't seem like a big deal, and that you could have phrased yourself better in the second one. Making peach cobbler is kind of an undertaking, and if somebody wanted me to do it for their benefit, I would want them to acknowledge that by actually requesting it and not talking as if it were something I were doing for myself. I'm sure you did think you were being friendly, but I can see why your wife was annoyed, and I think that with her annoyed response she was trying to tell you why. It's hard to adapt your way of speaking to other people's sensitivities when you don't share them, but it might be worth it to really try being more direct, if it would make your wife feel better about being asked to do things for you.

That said, I still think you and your wife are dealing with legitimate communication problems and while I'm not sure what other advice to give you, it's NOT all your fault.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 10:49 AM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

my point is, we always always always have to talk about the wrongness of what I said.

I just keep coming back to your follow-up here. Is it possible that you and your wife have fallen into a stagnant pattern where you don't talk about much other than day-to-day "can you do this" stuff--or maybe even a slightly-exasperated snippiness with each other--and it's really your brother's comment that is making you re-consider all this in a new light?

I ask because while I can see your interpretation of the three interactions you give us--she is "correcting" you in a sense in each one--that interpretation is really far afield of my first impression, and evidently of the first impressions of a lot of people here. If you start looking for evidence that your wife is zinging you, I think it would be easy to start to see it everywhere, precisely because you've boxed yourself into worldview where she's either disagreeing with or correcting you ("talking about the wrongness of what I said") or she's saying that you are 100% correct. Even if really healthy friendships and relationships, the course of normal communication is going to result in a lot more interactions where the other person is questioning or correcting what you're saying and a lot less where they are chiming in to say "yes, you're exactly right." This is triply true if you're past the stage in your relationship where you sit up with a glass of wine for an hour after dinner and talk about everything under the sun; if your interactions have flattened out to logistical directions and requests that the other person do (or do not do) something, the feedback you get is probably limited to when the other person thinks you're mistaken.

The thought pattern where you are now:

She gets a kind of far-away look in her eye that I imagine to be her riding the glorious wave of my wrongness.

seems to be one that you could easily get yourself into if you've accepted your brother's interpretation of what is going on in your relationship (she's zinging you, rather than "we just never seem to talk much anymore, and when we do it's more like squabbling") and have started to build up this narrative in your head.

Just something to consider. Regardless of what your counselor said five years ago, I think it's time to get back into counseling (with a different counselor) if you're in this much pain about it.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:50 AM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

My wife said, "They're tangerines." I said, "Oh, did you bring some tangerines home?" She said, "No, those were tangerines you brought home." I said, "Then why did it say 'clementines' on the bag?" She said, "I thought clementines only came in wooden boxes." I didn't say anything else.

The phrase in bold is where it sounds like YOU zinged HER. Based on this very little slice of your dynamic, I'd say that she perhaps feels like you are the one who jumps all over her and needs to be right all the time. Obviously tone is what could determine who zinged who, and I wasn't there. But if you guys get all worked up pouncing on each other over confusion about fruit, go find another counselor.

As for your second example, can you see how she might be touchy about being asked an indirect question after she has, herself, sat through an hour-long counseling session dedicated to teaching her to ask direct questions? Obviously you guys need serious intervention over her inability to communicate effectively, because you're clearly suffering.

Can't say as I've ever "broken through" as I'm much more inclined to break up, but with the history between you and this woman who you love, I'd say you both need to do some very serious self-evaluation about what you want from each other and the marriage. Be prepared to accept your share of contribution to the problem. Go back to counseling individually and as a couple.
posted by motsque at 10:50 AM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yes I was in a relationship like that once. It wasn't the requests that got zinged so much as the opinions. Every opinion I expressed got zinged. It never got better.
posted by londongeezer at 10:51 AM on November 3, 2010

I'm going to hazard a guess that the bickering over facts is a stand-in for neither of you feeling EMOTIONALLY listened-to. For example:

She started yelling at me, "I DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT IT!"

This is an emotional defense, not a factual one -- the yelling gives that away. By insisting she's still factually wrong, you're making it unsafe for her to be in error or for her to feel upset. You missed her point, which wasn't that she didn't know (or more probably, didn't remember), but that she was upset you were chastizing her.

"Never mind. I guess I can't open my mouth without putting my foot in. I thought I was being friendly."

An incredibly emotional response, no matter how "reasonable" you think it is. It immediately shifts it from being about the peach cobbler, or from how often you are wrong, to a "poor me" litany that she can't possibly say anything to that won't make it worse. (Because it's so passive-aggressive, as others have noted.)

I don't think what you two need to talk about is rightness and wrongness; I think the problem is that neither of you feels emotionally heard by the other and you're both lashing out in ways that are only semi-related.

I also notice that instead of TALKING to her about these issues, you're trying to cryptically interpret a lifetime of past incidents ("put him in his place" "bumbler" etc.) that came up at one time or another. Maybe some of these are important and how she really feels. Maybe some of them were fleeting emotions or badly-expressed sentiments. But the fact is that you're doing phrenology when you could just TALK to her. (I have to tell you, if my husband was upset with me and was relating five-year-old remarks to the internet to find out what I "really" felt rather than ASKING ME what I felt, I would absolutely flip my shit. I'd be fucking furious.) Is it that you don't believe her when she tells you how she feels? You don't want to hear it because it's threatening? Or communication has deteriorated so far that you literally can't have the discussion?

(Also, honestly, in the two examples you picked, I see much more of you trying to prove to her that you're right, and it making her defensive, than her trying to prove you wrong.)

One tool you can try is feed back; when she makes an emotional statement, you repeat it back to her, using as closely to the same words as she did that you can, and say, "is that right?" or something. "So what you're saying is, when I remind you about the hole in the dishwasher, you feel like I'm treating you like a child, is that right?" And if that ISN'T right you keep repeating it back to her (when she corrects it) until you correctly reflect her emotional state back to her. You will be amazed a) at how badly people do at reflecting WHAT THE OTHER PERSON JUST SAID and how they "make over" the statement to fit their preconceptions of what the other person said and b) how hard you have to concentrate on listening instead of formulating your next retort and c) how validated it makes you feel when someone feeds back to you.

Of course it works better when both partners participate.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:52 AM on November 3, 2010 [28 favorites]

I don't think it is about being wrong or right (stop with the paranoia and "zing!"ing right now!), it sounds like passive-aggressiveness gone wild - on both your parts. I think you need to have a long conversation about the _intent_ of words versus the _literal meaning_ of words. A loving person will usually go on intent, not literal meaning. You can only really relax around someone else when you don't have to worry about them picking apart your words. Sometimes things do get totally lost or misunderstood though, and you will then need to handle them with a combination of humor and grace.
posted by meepmeow at 10:58 AM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

This stuff isn't "zinging," at all.

You're both contemptuous.


"Never mind. I guess I can't open my mouth without putting my foot in. I thought I was being friendly."

is a lousy thing to say, and hints at why somebody might want to 'put you in your place.'

I can't understand what's being dwelled upon in the citrus conversation, but. You're both being twerps to each other.

How was the course of your career relevant here? Also mystifying. Your own communication skills are not beyond reproach. I agree with the notion that you guys dealt with a lousy counselor.

My view on these things is that loss of respect for one's partner is a great death knell for a relationship. Many things can be fixed, but once respect is gone...yeah. And it sounds like the two of you are having these passive-aggressive bullshit nitpicks about turns of phrase because neither of you has any respect for the other. Dwell on why you married her and what you like about her; find a good counselor and work, hard, on getting this happiness-sucking nonsense out of your lives.
posted by kmennie at 11:03 AM on November 3, 2010 [11 favorites]

Your first example (clementines and tangerines) sounds like it's you trying to score points on her. Your second example (peach cobbler) sounds like you being passive-aggressive about asking for something. Neither anecdote makes your wife out to be the problem, and it's interesting that you think they do. You sound patronizing and condescending.

Are you willing to return to counseling? It sounds like you both could use it, if you want things to improve.
posted by Sternmeyer at 11:06 AM on November 3, 2010 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Upon further consideration, I cite this:

I've learned to be very careful and circumspect when I want her to know about a problem. For instance, our dishwasher has a hole in the silverware basket. This weekend I found that forks had been placed so as to fall through this hole, which blocks the water arms from spinning. I said, "Maybe you forgot, we have to avoid this hole in the basket." She started yelling at me, "I DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT IT!" I calmly said, "Oh, ok, maybe you didn't hear me when I mentioned it and showed it to you last week. It's ok if you forgot, I was just reminding you." "YOU DIDN'T SHOW ME!" "Ok."


I might suggest counseling on your own. With everything taken into consideration, I'm thinking that the most likely scenario is this: Your wife has come to see you as someone who always needs to be right. You generally are not aware you do this, so you're not really seeing what it is she's striking back at you for, or why she resents you. Now, bear in mind that I'm taking it on faith that what you're describing here is an accurate representation of the general tone of the discussion.

I really suggest you talk to a therapist, and in the meantime I suggest perhaps employing the tried-and-true technique of polite fiction.

So your wife puts the forks in the wrong way. You've opened with "Maybe you forgot." Even if it doesn't feel that way to you, to the other person it may sound accusatory.

From there you go to "Maybe you didn't hear me when I mentioned it to you and showed you last week. It's okay if you forgot." That's kind of problematic, in phrasing. Whether you realize it or not, you're spelling out specific reasons why you believe she is wrong and you are right - and to you this feels like a mere statement of reality, but especially when wrapped in the attempt at a conciliatory note, and especially when said to someone who already resents you, it comes off as reproachful, condescending, and disrespectful.

So. The polite fiction. If employed here, it may have gone like this:

"O wife, dearest embodiment of uxorious splendor (you may have different terms of endearment, I don't know), just a heads up on something - there's this sort of, it's a hole in the silverware basket on the dishwasher, I guess. Just wanted to let you know. I'll fix it soon as I can."

The same message has been conveyed. But there is no reproach in it, there is no subtle reminder of what she has done wrong in your view, and even if you know for a fact that you already told her, this gets left out of the discussion because it adds nothing.

Now, if she gets angry and says "You already told me that!" which I admit is more than likely given what you've said, the solution is to smile and say "Oh man, you're right. I'm sorry. My memory ain't what it used to be," and then a good-natured chuckle, "Guess I'm finally getting old."

Extend this notion to other instances of confrontation. If you're going to correct her on a thing, only ever do it when it actually matters. "No, dear, I'm serious, that car has no brakes. Please don't drive it." Don't get upset about it. Don't butt heads over it.

If the above advice sort of sets your teeth on edge at the idea of saying you're wrong when you know for a fact you're not, even though it's about something as trivial as whether or not you told her about the dish basket, then I think we've found the problem.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:08 AM on November 3, 2010 [40 favorites]

You both have taken on the stance that 1) the other person will always think you are wrong or dumb and 2) each conversation is laced with history of these ideas that your partner thinks you are incompetent, insincere, or looking to prove them wrong AND that both of these things are more important than anything you might say.

At this point, it's not so much about the small interactions as it is that you are both coming into them with so much baggage and a complete breakdown of trust and partnership. Even "walking around on eggshells" has made you both more defensive and passive aggressive, and both of you feel as though you're in this alone.

The only thing to do is strip everything down to the bare bones and each be able fully acknowledge and to tell the other how hurt you have been over the past years by the other person- for a multitude of reasons- and how you feel like you are each constantly trying to prove your intelligence, worthiness, and value to your partner while also feeling like it's a hopeless feat.

I'm not sure if this is possible without therapy given where you both are right now, but if you do go back to therapy you need a therapist who won't let either of you off the hook or make this about how you talk to each other over small requests. It needs to be about how you're not actually communicating at all because neither of you see the point in it, and so you both snipe at each other as a way to avoid actually talking about your emotions or real problems. Additionally, both of you would really need to commit to being quiet for long periods of time, not immediately commenting or defending yourself, and genuinely listen to the other person talk for as long as needed- and there will be a lot of long pauses because you're both so out of the habit and unused to talking without immediately having to brace yourselves for a dismissive/combative response from your partner.
posted by questionsandanchors at 11:09 AM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

Answers that try to parse who was actually right in these interactions, and who was actually wrong or passive-aggressive, are missing the essential problem here: strong relationships simply aren't as obsessively concerned with who is right and who is wrong, especially in such trivial contexts.

They also aren't as obsessively concerned with the question of which partner "started" the dynamic of points-seizing; you're both in the habit now, and the only way this relationship will ever improve is if both of you commit -- preferably explicitly -- to stopping such pettiness.

She gets a kind of far-away look in her eye that I imagine to be her riding the glorious wave of my wrongness.

Yeah, I understand what you're describing and this is an awful dynamic -- one she will have to cease if your relationship is ever going to flourish -- but it sure doesn't sound like you're very different (what the hell is "Oh, did you bring some clementines home?" if not a childish invitation to her to restate her mistaken belief more explicitly so that you can point out the error? what the hell is "Then why did it say 'clementines' on the bag[, idiot]?" and who cares whether they're clementines or tangerines enough to sustain a whole conversation about it, once the tone of that conversation has turned remotely hostile?)

Wake-up call: I'm glad I'm not in a relationship with either of you, and you will both have to relax in ways that will feel like "being the bigger person" if this situation is to improve.
posted by foursentences at 11:15 AM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: All of your responses have been invaluable, and I thank you all for taking the time to make them.
posted by bovious at 11:15 AM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

When you feels as if, in your relationship, you are either always wrong or always put down, a learned helplessness ensues where you just kinda give up and think, "Well, I'm never going to be accepted the way I am, so why try any more?" And then everything goes bitter and hard.

What throws me is that your question makes it sound as if both of you are in this position. I've read your question twice over, and it sounds as if you are both threatened by her and condescending to her, while she is both resentful of you and feels put upon. I think she feels you question her intelligence, while you feel she insinuates you are lying or something...it's all just really sad.

And you are both exhausted.

What are you getting out of this relationship? What is she? Instead of talking about clementines and kleenex, I'd be asking the big questions: Do you still love me? Can we try to put each other's feelings first and let go of "wrong" and "right" completely? Can we stop walking on eggshells and be direct about what we are feeling and what we want?

For instance, if you had just said, "Tangerines, clementines, what does it really matter?" and let it go, or if she had just said, "I'm sick of the damn hole in the dishwasher discussion, just replace the stupid fork and be done with it, okay?" The two of you could laugh about it all and go on with life.

What I really think you need to do here is stop listening to your brother, who is not in your marriage and doesn't have a clue what the day-to-day interaction is like, first of all.

Then try not to assign motives to actions which very likely are not premeditated.

Accept when someone is upset. Notice the way that person is behaving, and *back off*. Do not try to "logic" them out of their emotions. When someone is upset, explaining why they are wrong and you are right does NOT work. They are too emotionally involved to hear logic just then, anyway.

And lastly, Don't. Sweat. The. Small. Stuff. Let it go.

Otherwise, if the two of you can't agree to give the benefit of the doubt to each other and work on your communication skills, I think you are better off parting ways.
posted by misha at 11:17 AM on November 3, 2010 [14 favorites]

I think kmennie is right on the money. You both seem to be acting contemptuous toward one another, waiting for the other to go first in being the bigger person. You have to go first. "But, but, but," it's tempting to sputter. But nothing. You have to go first in modeling loving, healthy behavior. You have to stop with the power struggles first- even if that means she always "wins".

I also agree that you have to stop listening to your brother. Your brother grew up just like you did, and probably communicates just like you do, so OF COURSE your wife will be the bad guy in his eyes.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:20 AM on November 3, 2010

Yeah, sorry, no. This isn't the OP's fault. IMO, "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?" is a completely reasonable way to phrase a request, the same way that "Would you like to..." and "Do you want to..." essentially mean the same thing, colloquially.

Wow. Hi, OP. Okay, I find your question fascinating because reading it, I thought, "OP, I would have a really hard time responding calmly to you, too. You sound very passive aggressive and it would rile me."

Then I read the responses and saw that as many disagreed with me as felt exactly the same way I do. Which made a lightbulb go off in my head.

This is the exact same sort of communication dysfunction I've dealt with in my own relationship. And the fact that it took me a minute to realize that says a lot about how deeply linked this problem is to the very way in which you see the world and how you communicate -- versus how your wife does.

As for me and my SO -- during the honeymoon period, we ignored the small bumps in the road these moments caused. After the honeymoon was over, the small snags turned into stabbing knives and we'd exit the most innocuous conversations wounded and enraged and seething at each other -- feeling misunderstood, disrespected, and wrongly attacked.

After so, so many tense conversations followed by angry explosions of pent-up hurt feelings followed by long, tiring conversations in which we hashed out what exactly had gone wrong, I can say it boils down to this, at least for us:

We have completely different styles of communication.

What you think is a fine way to ask a question sounds to your wife like a jab.
What she feels is a fine way to reply (while repressing her wounded feelings) sounds to you like a jab.
Jab jab jab, back and forth.

The first step is acceptance: this problem is fundamental to your relationship and won't go away. Ever. But if you love her and want to stay with her, you CAN learn how to manage it in a way that doesn't leave you both bleeding. In fact, speaking from a tentative place of success, I'd say you can learn to handle it in a way that will make you feel *closer to each other.*

So. Here's my suggestion.
1) You both need to learn to be alert for when the other person says something that hurts your feelings. (This is hard to learn. It's easy in the moment to gloss over your own emotional reaction and focus instead on The Other Person's Asinine Behavior.)
2) Then, once your feelings are hurt, you need to muster the courage to say immediately, "What you just said hurt my feelings."

Your partner's reaction to this will be total bafflement. I guarantee it. She didn't mean to hurt you. She won't understand why. But because you'll have agreed to this system beforehand, and because she loves you, she will bite her tongue and take a deep breath and say, "I'm so sorry. Can you explain to me why it hurt your feelings?"

The next trick will be figuring out how to reply in a way that does NOT blame her or hurt HER feelings.

Good faith is required to do this. You need to believe the other person cares about your hurt feelings enough to let go of his/her irritation and focus on you. It helps, then, to include voluntary and constant expressions of love in this conversation, even if the other partner doesn't seem to be listening. You'll see a much better response if you reassure e/o that your relationship is still the best thing since sliced bread, that you adore her, and that you will NOT let this problem get the better of your relationship.

I know very well how damned hard it is to short-circuit this cycle of miscommunication. Sometimes I read AskMefi questions where people emphasize that "similar communication styles" are crucial to a relationship's success and I feel my heart sink. At one time, such comments made me think that SO and I were doomed, no matter how much I loved him.

But I can't tell you how encouraging, inspiring, and gushy-love-and-butterflies-inducing it is start having these conversations (which will always start off the have one of these thorny interludes) and resolving them QUICKLY, compassionately, and without *lingering* hurt feelings. The resolution to the same-old-shitty-infuriating-argument begins to feel NOT like a surrender but instead like a powerful affirmation of the love we share. The arguments still suck, but for less time, and the aftermath is absolutely lovely. Together, we congratulate each other and say, "We're getting better at this. We're so good at being in love!"
posted by artemisia at 11:25 AM on November 3, 2010 [66 favorites]

By the way -- hopefully this goes without saying, but just in case -- you'll need to do all the above for her, too. You'll need to respect her when she says your remark hurt her feelings, even though you "know" it wasn't meant that way. You'll need to let go of the idea that she's "crazy" for taking offense to such an innocuous remark. If you both do this, you'll have a much better chance of making this work.
posted by artemisia at 11:27 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I thought tangerines and clementines were pretty much the same thing.

Does you wife do anything outside the house? Work, volunteer, etc? I don't think you sound terrible, but you do sound a bit like a boss to an employee. Just because you're walking the dogs, doesn't mean she needs an equal or reciprocal task. You could have said "When I'm back with the dogs, wanna have some cobbler together?" without setting her up for a little job.

The hole in the silverware basket--if my husband told me, I'd probably ask him how we can get a replacement or fix it, because I sure as hell don't want to get a little warning or correction every time I load the damn dishwasher.

And if she's not working, she might be out of the habit of the give and take of job/task/chores communication.

And if you're being very patient and/or reasonable, I'd throw the cobbler at your head. Nothing is more infuriating (to me, and thus to all women everywhere in the universe) than a guy very slowly, calmly and logically correcting or instructing me.

So maybe you're using IT office-speak and she's throwing it back at you by being Mrs. Correcto.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:28 AM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

"put Bovious in his place."

Now there's a curious turn of phrase. Here is a hypothesis.

She is younger than you and less experienced. At the start of your relationship this will have been even more pronounced, since you were both younger then. In addition, men have often been taught more high-value skills as kids than women have. For example, I'd guess you can change a plug, and hammer a nail; maybe she can't. She might know more about how to keep the house clean, but that's not a very highly valued skill. Being a stay-at-home Mom or working low-end clerical/retail Part Time Mom Jobs is not a recipe for personal confidence either.

Life may well have taught her that it's VERY important to be permanently nice to everybody, which means subsuming her desires as far as possible and never ever asking for what she wants. Her parents are less likely to have actively encouraged her to take responsibility, to have agency in her own life, to make decisions and act on them with confidence, or to act in a leadership role.

This has contributed to developing a dynamic where you're often acting in a slightly parent-like role and she's acting in a child-like role. You make more household decisions, you explain things to her, you put up shelves for her. You earn the household income.

In this context, "putting you in your place" means explaining to you in the only way she can manage, that she doesn't like you in this parental role. She feels stupid every time you explain something that she feels she should know already. She would desperately like to contribute equally to your relationship by being wise and experienced in her own right, having expertise of her own that you value, and being easily able to perform common tasks like loading the dishwasher without needing help.

If my hypothesis is correct, perhaps you can help by encouraging her in learning new things, by valuing her experience and her opinions, by listening to her with both ears, and by being volubly grateful for the contributions she makes to your household. Try saying: "Mrs Bovious, do you have a moment? I have a thorny problem at work and I'd really value your opinion on it".
posted by emilyw at 11:28 AM on November 3, 2010 [7 favorites]

IMO, "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?" is a completely reasonable way to phrase a request, the same way that "Would you like to..." and "Do you want to..." essentially mean the same thing, colloquially.


There are people to whom not being asked questions directly and having the agency (pointlessly, in their opinion) transferred like that is a really bad pet peeve. His wife seems to be one of these people.

PRECISELY. I cannot stand it when someone does this to me. If you would like me to make you some peach cobbler, ask me if I would do you the kindness of making some peach cobbler. Don't couch it in some odd framework whereby I spontaneously feel like taking some action for my own enjoyment, completely bypassing the step where you are actually asking me to do something for you. Acknowledge that you are actually asking me for a favor, take agency and don't maneuver to avoid your discomfort with the near-invisible shift in power dynamic that comes with such a request.

And the response of 'Oh I'm such a terrible person, I guess, I was just trying to be nice' completely cuts out the possibility of reconciliation in that exchange, as (as Eyebrows McGee noted) she is immediately cast as the villain and there's no way to counter your characterization of the disagreement without 'kicking the puppy' as it were.

Re: the tangerines/clementines -- you actually more strongly corrected her (and a bit snottily), and she then acknowledged that she was wrong and explained why she had mistakenly contradicted you in the first place. Far from "zinging" you or demanding that she is right, she is actually putting herself in a position of vulnerability by both admitting she is wrong and owning up to her own ignorance (about which I'm sure she felt insecure and embarrassed).

You two have a very odd conversational dynamic, loaded with resentment and fear of belittlement. As others have noted, it also seems characterized by neither one of you being wiling to give the other the benefit of the doubt. Frankly, nanojath's read of the situation is exactly how I read it, and you might want to take the advice to think about why you are interpreting your wife's intentions in the worst possible way and why that exchange about the cobbler went the way it did. You seem to be suffering a willful disconnect between your own actions and the results, and disavowing your role in this conversational dynamic in order to bolster the tempting vision of yourself as a innocent, put-upon victim. There are problems on both sides here, but you can only start working towards a solution once you abandon the premise of your own blameless martyrdom and stop seeing every interaction through this lens.
posted by tigerbelly at 11:40 AM on November 3, 2010 [26 favorites]

I think you desperately need to be right as much, if not more, than her. And you passively aggressively assert your rightness, while pretending to concede and then you pat yourself on the back for being the bigger person.

"Maybe you forgot, we have to avoid this hole in the basket." She started yelling at me,

Maybe you're an idiot, but uh, obviously there is a hole in the basket, so don't put things in the hole.


I calmly said,

Look at me being the calm rationale adult.

"Oh, ok, maybe you didn't hear me when I mentioned it and showed it to you last week. It's ok if you forgot, I was just reminding you."

Yes you did know about it. You're either lying or an idiot, but luckily you have me here to remind and clean up after your mistakes. I'll once again be the bigger person here by telling you that it's ok you're an idiot and that you are wrong because I did tell you. Because there is no way that you are right. It's not possible that I told you, but you didn't hear me or that I actually told our daughter and not you or when I told you, you thought I was talking about something else. You clearly forgot and I am right because I did tell you.


I've known you long enough and well enough to get all this passive aggressive subtext. Just because you say it in a calm and friendly tone doesn't mean I'm not picking up on your contempt for me. I'm so angry and frustrated I want to scream and so I do, but without actually articulating what I am really angry about.


Once again I am the calm rationale adult who will graciously concede to end the argument and I once again win the fight for moral superiority.

I'm not saying she's in the right here either, but you can't read her mind or know her intent. And if you get credit for your "friendly intent" (and I don't actually think your intent is friendly), then you have to give her the benefit of the doubt too.

You both desperately need to get into therapy. A lot of therapy. The contempt you both have for each other is just painful. I can understand why your brother would be uncomfortable, but he may be putting the blame on your wife because she is overtly aggressive and you are passive aggressive. Chances are he isn't picking up on this, but wife clearly can and she is reacting to it over and over. I realize you don't realize how passive aggressive and patronizing you are being, so her reactions seem like they are coming out of nowhere, but you really are. There is a horrible cycle going on here where you're passive aggressive and/or patronizing and then she reacts in a way that gets you upset, which makes you even more resentful and more passive aggressive. You need to get into therapy so you can get to the bottom of this.
posted by whoaali at 11:52 AM on November 3, 2010 [17 favorites]

IMO, "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?" is a completely reasonable way to phrase a request, the same way that "Would you like to..." and "Do you want to..." essentially mean the same thing, colloquially.

The issue is not the difference btwn "Would you like to..." and "Do you want to..." Cooking can feel like a chore, so how does this sound: "Would you feel like taking out the trash and folding the laundry and washing the dishes while I'm out enjoying an after-dinner stroll with my beloved dog?"
posted by Sarah Jane at 11:54 AM on November 3, 2010 [14 favorites]

At dinner, my 11-year-old daughter was eating a clementine I'd brought from the store. I mentioned that I was surprised the clementines were still good, as they were over a week old. My daughter said a few had gone bad but most of them were still fine. My wife said, "They're tangerines." I said, "Oh, did you bring some tangerines home?"

I'm curious. Was "Oh, did you bring some tangerines home?" a serious question, or were you being sarcastic in some way? Just one example of how I found those two initial examples very hard to decipher without being able to hear the tone being used.

I agree with the commenter above that it's interesting how split the responses are. It's almost like you are speaking two completely different languages. I'm left wondering how you communication is with your child, who is sitting there listening to all of this.
posted by BibiRose at 11:55 AM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

You know, we have a basic 'be nice' rule, which means even though I might say 'shut up' to someone else as a ha-ha or 'fuck you' (jokingly) I would never say it to Mr. Llama and we don't go with mean-spirited teasing, sarcasm, little barbs, etc.

At first it felt sort of silly, years ago, but I think it's really a good rule to have.

Also: eye-rolling is the kiss of death. It's a measure of contempt. It's absolutely poison. If you feel yourself eye-rolling, it bears thinking about. I'm just getting it from the overall picture you've painted here, of yourself as beleaguered and her unreasonableness. It sounds like there's a great deal of underlying hostility and remembering to be polite, civil, and kind is the absolute first thing for both of you.

It sounds like you both probably feel pretty lonely in the marriage, and if you want that closeness, both of you have to work toward what Kurt Vonnegut called 'basic human decency.'

So I'd say: have a sit-down, and then tend your own side of the street.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:08 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Speaking two different languages is exactly what I thought too. So much so that I'd recommend that you look at the 5 Languages of Love as a starting point for finding out where this mismatch is.
posted by plinth at 12:08 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've read your question through a couple of times, and skimmed the responses.

If you just gave me those two interactions without context, I wouldn't see much remarkable about them. Even with the context you give, I'm having trouble seeing what she is doing to make you upset. I'm not sure that I *can* sort it out without hearing and seeing it, or having a better idea of the whole situation (from both perspectives) - I don't think any of us can.

At the very least, you and your wife have a pervasive communication issue. This will not resolve itself. The two of you continuing along this way will not get you to resolution, nor will one of you trying to fix it alone.

If you want to work out the way the two of you interact, then say okay, fixing this is my priority - you don't care if you've been wronged a million times in this relationship, it doesn't matter. Who is at fault and to what degree - irrelevant. There's a problem, this relationship is valuable to you, and you're going to come to the table with a humble and willing and generous spirit and enlist your wife to come along with you and hopefully you can both get to a place where you have that same type of spirit about working this out - but you say okay, you will "go first", and not with an attitude that it makes you a better person or puts a point in your column.

It's okay if you don't want to work it out, but if that's the case then it would probably be better for both of you to own up to that and stop interacting in ways that are not beneficial to you.

If you aren't willing to jump in pretty wholeheartedly and give it a try, then you may not want to fix this very much. There's a payoff for each of you in the interaction you have - I don't know what it is, but it's there.
posted by mrs. taters at 12:16 PM on November 3, 2010

I got the impression that your wife zings you because you beg her to zing you so that you can be the victim and not have to confront whatever's really bothering you.

Your side of the exchanges you excerpt here are gold-plated passive-aggression.
posted by facetious at 12:16 PM on November 3, 2010 [20 favorites]

It sounds like you both have forgotten to be kind to each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt. You two are butting heads and the situation is getting worse and worse. One of the quickest paths back to empathy and caring is to remind yourself about what you love about your wife. Why did you guys get married and decide to have children with each other? If you never saw her again, what are the things you'd miss most about her? How is your relationship working?

You will never be able to control her, her responses to you, or how she feels about you. The only thing you can really control is you, your responses to her and how you feel about her. Here's an experiment you can try to bleed out some of the tension in your relationship. Set aside being right and your anger and try being hyper-aware of how you're treating her and make being kind and loving your priority no matter how snippy she is with you. Really listen to her and watch out for what she's saying between the lines. Spend a day letting her be right. Express how much you love her and care about her and want her to be happy and mean it. Even if she comes at you with dragon lady, respond with love and kindness.
posted by Kimberly at 12:25 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

"I can understand why your brother would be uncomfortable, but he may be putting the blame on your wife because she is overtly aggressive and you are passive aggressive."

It also seems possible that the brother shares the OP's formative family dynamics, and therefore shares the OP's assumptions about normal communication, value of tone vs. content, etc. That goes straight back to the discussion about fundamentally different communication styles.


bovious, you might get some mileage from experimenting with letting yourself be wrong once in a while a lot more. You say that your being wrong is the only topic of conversation, but that might get short-circuited a bit when you let go of being right. It's hard to let the universe be littered with so many factual inaccuracies (they're clementines! you knew that! You told her about the hole in the drainer! There was nothing wrong with asking her to make cobbler!) but it's better than the other detritus that's building up in your relationship.
posted by endless_forms at 12:27 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Spend a day letting her be right.

Once you've done it for a day, do it for a week. Or a month. It'll give you both such a break.
posted by endless_forms at 12:29 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Even our counselor agreed that we were spinning our wheels.

I just want to re-emphasize what griphus said about this, upthread:

"it means you were either not working at the therapy like you should have been or you had a shitty counselor."

My husband and his ex-wife had a relationship where the only communication between them was arguing, belittling or passive-aggressive manipulation. Who was Right/who Wins was the only driving factor in their relationship. They tried counseling, and it devolved into using the therapy work to prove who was right or wrong.

When it came time in their therapy to look in the mirror, and try to correct one's own behavior before pointing fingers at the other, they simply weren't capable of that, as a couple. Neither could lower a gun once it was drawn, because that would be admitting one was in the wrong. There was zero respect, and less than zero trust.

The counselor released them. He said that, ethically, he couldn't keep accepting their fees when it was clear that they were incapable of the most basic behavioral and emotional changes that would be necessary to start repairing the relationship. They divorced soon after.

If a professional has already said that you two are incapable of repair—then you need to get a second opinion, in order to insure that your first therapist was not wrong.

If it proves that your first therapist was not wrong, then you need to either accept living with the current circumstances, or pursue a divorce.
posted by pineapple at 12:32 PM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

This entire question could have been written by her, using the exact same examples, with the exact same complaint about you. If the two of you can't be in counseling without "spinning your wheels," then one of you needs to be. Or both of you, but separately.
posted by Etrigan at 12:34 PM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

OP, what isn't clear to me exactly is how you would have liked her to respond to your statements. You obviously want some sort of different exchange, but I'm not sure what it is.

For example, how would you have liked her to respond to your "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?"

-Would you have like a serious answer? "No I wouldn't"

- Would you have liked a witty retort? "Well, would you feel like doing the laundry next week to get it?"

-Or a warm answer? "Well, actually, I'd rather wait til you come back so we can do it together, because we haven't spent a lot of time together."....

My point is, you clearly want some sort of response from her, but you aren't approaching her with language that will make it more likely that you will get the response you want. You want to approach her the way you want to approach her, AND get the response you want. I don't know if you can always have both, so it sounds like you've both staked out encampments and are settling in for a long, grudgefest. What's crazy is that in a way you're actually complimenting her - you like her cooking. You think she's a good cook. But since no one is willing to budge, it became a pre-fight.

And admittedly, if my husband said the phrase: "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?" I'd be hard, hard pressed to say something other than 'No'. Unless it came with some extra language like:

-Baby, your cobbler are amazing.....
-Hey, to repay me for dropping off all of that laundry last week......
-I know it would take you about 5 hours to get the ingredients and cook it, but......
-If I do the dishes all next week......
-It's been a crappy week, and I need a little lovin'......

.......would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I am gone?

Finally, I admit I am acutely aware of this type of conversation - for the past few months my husband has really liked a particular beverage, and everytime I see it in a store I buy him one. Several times, when he sees it in the fridge, he comes over and says "thank you sweetie", which I realized was nice. But the warm and fuzzy feelings only came when he finally came over and said 'hey, thank you sweetie. You got this beverage because you were thinking of me. Is there anything I can get for you?" It was the first time I realized that I was asking for something without actually asking for it. I was asking for a sign of affection, which I associate with giving someone a small gift, like their favorite beverage. So I'm just wondering if you're asking for something in your request, without actually asking for it. Because she's asking you to just go ahead and ask for it, and she might say yes.
posted by anitanita at 12:42 PM on November 3, 2010 [15 favorites]

Why does my wife zing me all the time?

Understatement of the year. Your question should be "My wife and I despise each other. Should we divorce?"

Picture a world in which you are allowed to walk away from this marriage with no consequences at all. Basically, God has given you a "get out of jail free" card and you can start your life over without this woman in it. You will never see her again.

Does this idea fill you with profound relief, or profound regret? If regret, then get thee to a marriage counselor (again). If relief, it's already over.
posted by benzenedream at 12:42 PM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Just wanted to say, let go of being convinced that because your brother said so, you are being "zinged" all the time. Your brother is not the one you are married to.

I think you should listen especially to what artemisia and Eyebrows McGee said; the point is that if you want to get past this you'll have to let go of your own hurt and focus on your wife's—and she'll have to do the same for you. If you love each other and want your marriage to work and want to be happy you'll do this. It's pretty much as simple as that.
posted by dubitable at 12:47 PM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

>No, we're not in counseling any more. Even our counselor agreed that we were spinning our wheels. That was over 5 years ago.

Get another counsellor. If that one doesn't work, get another. You may have to go through many of them to find one that clicks. Or go just on your own if necessary.

I think the issue of her dad is a core one. If it brought her to tears, and it's something she's holding close, then that needs to be explored.

In the meantime, stop playing this back and forth game of 'tennis'. Example:

you: These clementines are yummy.
Wife: they're not clementines, they're tangerines.

You serve, she knocks the ball back. Now, you're tempted to respond. But you stop right there. Don't respond. Saying "Well, the bag says clementines" is to be avoided. Asking "why does the bag say clementines?" is worse. The back and forth tennis continues. Just don't answer.

The issue is IMHO you are playing the same game as she is. Passive-agressive, beat-around-the-bush verbal sparring. Just stop the game. Don't try to have the last word. Don't talk back. Just communicate clearly, directly, lovingly, and keep your mouth shut otherwise.

Yes, you are not the problem. Or at least not 100% of the problem. But you can change the way you approach her. That in turn will compel her to behave differently - not cured or fixed necessarily, but the old patterns will start to change.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 1:08 PM on November 3, 2010

Having scanned the many answers, I detect some common themes, and I have a suggestion as to how to escape the situation you're in:

Communicate differently.

Start beginning your interactions with a remark that requires that she politely respond, such as:

Dear, do you have a moment for me?
Darling, I'd like to get your advice if you have a second.
Honey, can I get your opinion on something?

She can say, "not now," but only so many times, at which point you say, "OK, I'll check back with you later." At some point she is going to have to be reasonable and actually talk to you. If she says (irritatedly) "WHAT??!! What is it you want?", you are perfectly justified in saying, "Well, I wanted to make sure that this is a good time to talk. Is it?"

Once she consents to speak with and listen to you, be polite but direct in asking for what you want. Or tell her you want to ask her for a favor, and then ask for it directly. Or ask for her advice, and when she gives it ask her for her opinion on the most appropriate person -- you or her -- to solve the problem. Etc. If she says something important or clever, tell her so and tell her you intend to act on her advice.

Try being a diplomat. Being a diplomat is not being a suckup. Being a suckup consists of empty flattery. Being a diplomat consists of using language to solve problems so that all parties get what they need or want.

I am sure you can get plenty of books on how to change your communication style. This is what would work for me in your situation. I am sure there are plenty of other communication strategies that would work well.
posted by Mr. Justice at 1:12 PM on November 3, 2010

(thread too long couldn't read).

Okay, I might be projecting but listen.

This is uncannily like how I remember having it (not that) long ago. Matter of different realities.

I bet she doesn't even know what she's doing, or she doesn't even care because she does indeed project her unsolved father relationship on you (THAT is something I remember too well. There's NOTHING you can do).

Well, naturally some of your responses come out in a strained manner. Look, as I see it, it's gonna mess with your head earlier or later. You can't teach her to see your reality; and obviously, in a power dynamic where you're 'always wrong' (for whichever reason), for you to accept - even understand - her reality isn't helpful at all.

Unless you go back like hell to counseling and you hit upon a saint of a counselor or something, I don't give this the slightest bit of a chance; hurts a lot saying this. You know what happened to me after trying to keep my patience (gold-plated passive aggressiveness anyone?) for years? One day she lost her patience with the situation and I just got dumped, two 7+10 y/o kids in house and all: "please move, and soon, because it's not very practical if we get out of the house, is it now".

Since you can't make it 'right' anyway, there will be no 'right' way out, so waiting any more isn't your answer. In my opinion at least.
posted by Namlit at 1:17 PM on November 3, 2010

P.S. Very importantly, if she doesn't like something you say, and it's relatively minor, there is no real cost for apologizing.

E.g., "Why don't you just ask me to make you peach cobbler, then?" There's no cost to saying "I'm sorry, I wish I hadn't said that. I'd love some peach cobbler; would you make me some?"

Similarly, there's no real cost to the occasional compliment (which should of course be genuine); e.g., "Thanks for that peach cobbler. It was really good." "You did a great job with X. I really appreciate it." etc. etc. etc.

Compliments coupled with reasonable and polite (but direct) requests will go a long way.

posted by Mr. Justice at 1:19 PM on November 3, 2010

I agree with all those who sense that you and your wife have the same problem with being wrong, and that it's a deeper issue than the content of your arguments would seem to indicate.

But regardless of how complex the reasons may be, I would urge you to follow the advice to immediately start practicing being wrong. The difference this will make is probably unfathomable to you -- I know because I couldn't imagine it either. My need to be right nearly destroyed my current relationship before I started letting myself be wrong. The rewards are great, though. Believe that. You've become accustomed to living with a lot of bitterness in your relationship, as has your wife. She may not be responsive to your changes right away, but unless she's already given up on the marriage, she will feel the difference if you do this sincerely and she will start responding in kind more often.

And you will feel the difference too. There's a sense of peace that comes with letting go of the need to be right. When you know you're doing the right thing, the loving thing, as opposed to simply "being right"...being right begins to seem a lot less important.
posted by spinto at 1:40 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

My sympathies, this sounds like a really frustrating lockdown to be in. You sound like a man committed to his marriage, and it may help to see this as a challenge for you both to conquer in the "for better or for worse" sense. With the help of a better therapist.

This is what it sounds like to me that you're up against:

You hate fights. You are on eggshells to prevent a further unpleasant scene, whatever it takes. You do this by always acting rationally, friendly and like an adult. You have to be like this, because your wife sure isn't (it seems to you). To the contrary, your wife seems to use every opportunity pick on things you say or do, this provokes you and your growing resentment is making it hard for you to continue with your assumed equanimity. But it is very important for you that you prevent a fight, or at least if there is going to be a fight, you sure don't want it to be because of something *you* said.

In other words, you are trying to keep what happens under control. You are trying to control both your own and her actions. This...doesn't work in a marriage.

And as someone who acts similarly, let me tell you what another gain for you is. The other gain for you is that without picking a single battle, you can always "win" by being morally superior. You never have to put yourself and your frustrations to the test by actually duking it out with your wife. You never have to risk "losing". By always being calm and friendly and on the superficially logical plane ("then why did it say clementines?", "oh, you must have forgotten"), despite gnashing your teeth inside, you always assume the adult role in the relationship. And as your counterpart, she is always cast in, or assumes, the role of the nagging bitch. Even in the eyes of others, like your brother.

Believe me, your wife can sense your seething underneath your friendliness. And your strained politeness pushes her buttons even more. Your wife is frustrated by your relationship and your good guy / bad guy dynamics, that's why she is constantly sniping at you. But your wife, too, does not want to get it out into the open. She, too, is indirect and releases her irritation by putting you down in small ways.

Right now, you two have reached a precarious equilibrium. As long as you are taking the "adult" route and she is underhandedly sniping, the underlying conflict needs never be discussed. She can rely on you to not let the big fight happen, as you can rely on her.

But the conflict is there, and whatever it is, it needs to happen. Because slowly but surely, if things go on like this, it will kill your love.

Already you don't trust each other to be honest. Already, you see everything the other person does in a sheen of contempt or suspicion.

If I were you, I would say:
"Wife, I am unhappy with the way we are acting to one another lately, and it seems to me that you are, too. I feel like everything I do will potentially get a sniping comment from you. And I feel like you are frustrated with me, too. I am afraid of what will happen to our love if we let this go on. What do you think?"

If you do this, you can only hope that she still trusts your honesty enough, can put down her sniping gun long enough, to answer honestly herself. Also, you must, MUST stifle any impulse you have to speak for her or try to control her side of the conversation. So don't offer interpretations like "You are doing this because" or a self effacing "I know I annoy you when I" or whatever. Just let her say how she feels about it and hope and pray that she will admit that there is a problem.

Even if not, I recommend getting a counsellor simply because it is a problem for you, and it needs solving. Tell her this is so important to you because she is important to you, because your marriage is important to you. Tell her again that you love her. Mean it.

You do still love her, don't you?
posted by Omnomnom at 2:08 PM on November 3, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: It seems like you and your wife don't like each other very much sometimes.

You know what? I think that's OK to a certain extent. I love my husband dearly and he (I believe) feels the same way about me, but sometimes, we get into a pattern of sniping and snapping and "zinging" each other. We can TELL when it's happening, and it makes us both incredibly frustrated and unhappy, but it can also go on for weeks.

For us, it's a life thing. We both get so busy, feeling so pulled in a million directions, so disconnected from each other, that we are taking out our exhaustion and frustration with the world on each other. It doesn't help that my husband is scary-genius-level smart and has a self-admitted issue with ever being wrong about anything, and that I have a short temper and a smart mouth.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I can nip my part of it in the bud by making a conscious effort to just be NICE. Please, thank you, and being direct but polite about what I need can make a huge difference, even if my husband is not to that point yet. More often, it results in a very shouty come-to-Jesus that lasts for about 30 minutes. It's not pretty, and I don't recommend it - probably we could find a better way to hash it out if we had some time for therapy - but it's what we've done for the last 15 years and we get over it.

It *really* helps if we can make some time to reconnect with each other, away from the kids and away from our house and all the distractions to be found therein. In fact, I just sent him an e-mail this morning suggesting a date night this weekend, because I feel us edging toward the snappy talking and meanness, and even a few hours on our own together can make a huge difference.

There are a few cliches that I try to keep in mind, stupid as they may be. The first is "would I rather be right or happy?" The second is "two ears and one mouth mean I should listen twice as much as I talk." Believe me, I am not in the least submissive to my husband, ever. But sometimes, just actively trying to be nice and not take things personally makes a huge difference in my interactions with everyone, including my husband.

I don't know - maybe your situation is too far gone for simple things to help. But maybe trying to be nice, and think the best of your wife and her intentions, might not be a bad place to start? At least until you find a therapist you can work with, or some other mechanisms of sorting things out.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 2:18 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised that only a few people have mentioned the father issue, to me that's huge. My 70-year-old relative picks on her dear, generous boyfriend whenever he does something that's even remotely like her father, who died when she was only 13. Some people can't or won't get over stuff like this, and it's up to you to make a decision accordingly.
posted by Melismata at 2:19 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: Totally agree with the comments saying you are having trouble communicating, and that the problems are mutual -- you both are packing a lot of hidden meaning into your words that the other person can't possibly figure out (or at least, figure out accurately).

I don't necessarily agree with the comments saying "it sounds like you hate each other" -- the resentment can build up when you have this kind of communication problem, because each of you interprets the other person's words as being hurtful when they aren't meant that way.

While in law school, I read a lot about negotiation. I was surprised at how well it applied to my relationship. I learned to be much more forthright about what I was thinking and what I wanted. Most of all, I learned to take what my partner said at face value without imputing any bad motive to him. If I still felt hurt by what he said, I would immediately say, "I feel hurt by what you said because ___" and almost always, he would explain what he meant and it would make me feel a lot better. Or at least it would lead to a productive discussion. I think learning these techniques really strengthened our relationship, and I noticed him adopting them too over time. I think our improved communication skills have also made us much better parents than we would have been.

Two books I would highly recommend to learn these skills are "Getting to Yes" and "The Power of a Positive No." You can also do a web search for "active listening" and try to incorporate some of those techniques into your conversations with your wife. Counseling may be a good idea too, but I believe you can learn better communication skills on your own and that it will pay off. Good luck!
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:55 PM on November 3, 2010

"Honey, I feel bad when you correct me on little things that make no difference." What would happen if you said that?

If I called my husband out for "Do you feel like making (whatever)" or his saying 'tangerine' instead of 'clementine, it would probably mean I was annoyed or irritated -- either with him, or in general. Either way, it wouldn't be fair on my part, or kind.

I think it's always a better idea to talk about one instance, rather than a pattern, like "this thing you've been doing lately." And if possible, mention it right away. Rarely, if my husband is has a lot on his mind or is otherwise in a pissy mood, he'll correct me in a way that I don't like. I might say, "what did Martha say when she called the other day," and he'll tell me it was actually a whole week ago, without answering my question at all. It works for us if I remind him to speak to me the way he'd like me to speak to him. But he and I get along well almost all of the time, and are kind to one another. If your wife is correcting you and criticizing little things all the time, counseling may be the best way to change the dynamic.

It could be worthwhile to see a counselor by yourself, so you can learn to really believe that your feelings about being talked down to and criticized are valid. And you can find ways to talk about it in ways that she can't reasonably shoot down.

By the way, your brother referred to it as "zinging," but if it's enough to make other people uncomfortable, it's something more significant... like picking on you, or bickering. And the important thing isn't that she's wrong, but that it makes you feel bad. Anytime you feel as if you're walking on eggshells, there's a real problem.

And thank your brother for speaking up. It's really hard to tell someone what he told you.
posted by wryly at 3:02 PM on November 3, 2010

Most of the ways you worded things, even when you were obviously, 100%, factually right, would drive me up the wall, too. They are not friendly, they are passive-aggressive. There is a difference. There were all sorts of neutral responses to her statements. (In two out of three cases, she sounded much more neutral and direct than you did. The third was a toss up.)

"Would you feel like making me peach cobbler?" is infuriating. It is not friendly. It only seems to really piss off about 50% of the respondents, but since your wife did not jump to sniping, but only pointed out that she'd preferred to be asked directly, then *you* got snotty and passive aggressive, I do not see how she was in the wrong there. She's not an idiot, she understood the question. The point was that she probably falls in the 50% of people that it really, really annoys to be asked in such a passive-aggressive, agency-transferring way, and she was trying to make this fact known for future reference. (Seriously, if someone asked me that, I would say, "No, I feel like eating some ice cream and watching tv. Have a nice walk." However, if the question was, "I really feel like peach cobbler tonight. Could you please make some?" my answer would most likely be totally different.)

Just to reiterate, passive aggressive != friendly, no matter the tone. Your relationship sounds very unhappy, and I would find a different counselor, pronto, and cease focusing on being right or getting the last word in on every piddly thing. This weird visualization thing that you imagine your wife doing? That's probably not what she's doing. I would say with 95% certainty she is not surfing the wave of being right. She is probably frustrated, sad, angry or annoyed, with you, herself, and the relationship in general. Stop trying to make what you think she's thinking as unpleasant as possible so you can continue being the good guy.
posted by wending my way at 3:08 PM on November 3, 2010 [13 favorites]

A very important thing you need to do is ask her why she's so frustrated with you so often. There is a lot of theorizing in this thread about how she might feel, but you have a chance to actually ask her.

Approach that conversation with a beginner attitude. Think: "We have these massive communication problems, and maybe I don't even have the first clue what my role in this is. I am going to ask my wife what her opinion is about these issues, and listen to her and trust her as if she is as much of an expert on this as I am." Because she is. Listen to what she says. Even if it's hostile or makes you out to be the bad guy, because she might be as mixed up as you are about this, and it may take her time to actually trust you enough to talk about what's really getting to her. If the conversation gets emotional, maybe step away, and try again later. I'm not saying that your opinion about what's happening is wrong, but it may help to approach it that way.

Otherwise, I utterly agree with the advice above to stop engaging in the little word battles. Drop it. Let her be right. At least while you figure this mess out. Just letting that pressure ease up has to help you both think more clearly.
posted by hought20 at 3:13 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you guys could benefit from reading the book Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson, and receiving emotionally focused therapy (EFT) to get at your deeper issues. Also, The Five Love Languages, as someone mentioned above, might help you.

I have nothing to add that hasn't been said already. It sounds like a dynamic you are both caught in equally, and that pride is in both of your ways.
posted by xenophile at 3:40 PM on November 3, 2010

I am *so* glad you wrote this question, because I can totally relate to it (I'm generally considered the 'zinger' in my relationship, and to this by artemisia:

>We have completely different styles of communication.

I am going to be poring over this thread with a fine-toothed comb, searching for some of the answers I've been seeking for so long. I *have* learned a few things over the years, though, and let me chime in response to this (from the OP):

I think I should get credit for friendly intent.

To which I have to respond, "No, I don't think so."

There's a lot of things I say that end up being little digs to my wife's ears such as the ones people are mentioning. Some of them, I can see her point. Others, I have no idea how offense could be taken. But really, intent doesn't matter. You said something, it hurt her. Maybe you didn't mean to do it. Maybe--if the tables were turned, intent *would* matter to you. It doesn't matter to the person offended, though, and that's the only one that matters here.

There's two conclusions here:

First, she is not "wrong" for misinterpreting something. I didn't use the word "fault" here because it's ambiguous and not useful for this situation. Does fault refer to intent? It's a bit more helpful to view it as "I hurt someone with my words--maybe intentionally, maybe not, maybe I could have foreseen it with care, maybe not." But they're hurt nonetheless, and they certainly didn't ask for it.

Second, apologizing does not (have to) mean "I know what I did wrong and I won't do it again", but it can simply mean "I am sorry you were offended by what I said (even if I don't really know why". Because you don't want to see your spouse hurt, right? Surely it is regrettable that you are in the situation even if you don't see how you could have prevented it.

But you have to be careful that you don't fall into the related trap of "I'm sorry that you overreacted". This is something I'm still working on. I want to express sorrow, feel remorse for the situation, but I don't always want to imply that I know what I did wrong and I won't do it again--because often I *don't* know what went wrong. This approach can appear phony, and I'm trying to come up with something workable. It's not so much that I don't want to say I'm wrong--I just want to be able to *believe* it by knowing what I can do to fix it.

I have largely gotten over my desire to correct people all the time, but I have trouble admitting I'm wrong when I don't feel I'm wrong. I can admit that in certain situations it is preferable to say I'm wrong when I absolutely know I am not. And, I can just shut up when necessary, usually.

But what I really want to convey sometimes is something like "I think I'm right. I appreciate your point of view, but I don't share it. I could be wrong, though--why don't you tell me about your point of view--maybe I'm misinformed, maybe you have some new information I don't have, maybe you have some insight I haven't considered". Unfortunately I can't really get this across without my wife feeling like she has to defend everything she says, which I can certainly understand--as mentioned above, it's clear we're different communicators. So, I don't really know how we're going to resolve that frequent miscommunication.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 3:49 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Only read about half of the comments.) It seems as though neither of you trusts the other to be well-intentioned. Neither of you gives the other the benefit of the doubt. This can be hard when it gets into a pattern, with layering over past interactions. I agree with prior comments that you both sound unhappy. I agree that the communication issues are aggravating the situation. Perhaps off -topic: Could you take a vacation? (Are you having sex?) Sounds like you need a "re-boot," a re-commitment to love and trust. Also, if it were me, I would go to individual therapy.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 3:52 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I said, "Maybe you forgot, we have to avoid this hole in the basket." She started yelling at me, "I DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT IT!" I calmly said, "Oh, ok, maybe you didn't hear me when I mentioned it and showed it to you last week. It's ok if you forgot, I was just reminding you." "YOU DIDN'T SHOW ME!" "Ok."

If I were witnessing this exchange I think I'd want to kill both of you.

I don't get what you are trying to communicate with your examples beyond that you both seem to turn every minor point of disagreement into a fight and that you seem to think that she's ahead 6,713 points to 4,509.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 5:01 PM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

What a very interesting thread. I wanted to ask, are you and your wife from widely different social, cultural, or racial backgrounds?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:19 PM on November 3, 2010

I think that you are a rationalizer. You're a very logical person, but you're a little unconscious of your emotions and the real motivations for your behaviors, which seem to strike a lot of MeFites as quite obvious from your own examples. You're using your logical gifts to try to explain how you are right and she is wrong even as you complain that she is always trying to be right. Your wife sees right through your rationalizations, but she's not as skilled or inclined to logic, so she can't or won't calmly point out the flaws in your arguments (and they are arguments) because the arguments are just a smokescreen and she knows it. She knows it more than you know it.

You're very much lashing out at her, condescending to her, putting her in HER place. She knows exactly what you're doing even when you don't. She feels the jab even though you couch it both in carefully-worded sentences and in a friendly tone.

In the clementine example, you're trying to get her to admit that she was wrong, for no reason whatsoever other than to score a point. Is somebody allergic to tangerines? Then who gives a shit? Your life will be much happier if you don't point out mistakes that you know she doesn't want to hear.

In the cobbler example, you open up with what might be an innocent question. When you're surprised by her reaction, though, you don't ask yourself why she's upset. That's what you would do if you weren't competing with her. That's what you should do if you're trying to have a happy marriage. Instead, you got defensive and lashed out at her. (Saying "I thought I was being friendly" the way you did it is equivalent to saying "You're overreacting and this is all your fault!" If you said the same thing a different way, it would be an apology. But this is not an apology.)

Now I'm sure she's done wrong too. She seems to yell at you or zing you frequently. Maybe it's because she's sick of you lashing out at her while pretending to be friendly and rational or maybe it's something totally different. But either way, your behavior sure as shit ain't helping.

Try this:

Don't ever correct her unless she wants to be corrected. Don't ever teach her something if she doesn't want to be taught. Don't try to score points. When she gets upset, try to figure out why she's upset before you respond. (In the dishwasher example, she's upset because you're trying to get her to admit she messed up and if she won't you're going to damn sure make it clear that she did, even while you're pretending to be nice and polite with your tone and mannerisms.) Stop worrying about trying to change her for a while (or go to therapy) and just see what you can do differently. Don't point it out to her, because I suspect you'll have trouble not turning it into "Look how good I am! I'm really trying here! You're the problem!" Just do it. See if it doesn't help.
posted by callmejay at 7:44 PM on November 3, 2010 [13 favorites]

I'm sorry to say that I haven't read all the comments, but this sounds like a meta-communication issue -- a conflict based not on the words themselves, but on the perceived intent behind them. Would it be feasible to let go of right and wrong and focus on what is best for the relationship in that moment? Would it change anything if you took her words at face value?

I said to my wife, in a friendly tone, "Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?" She said, "Do you want me to?" I said, again in a friendly tone, "Yes! That would be great!" She said, "Then why don't you just ask me to?" I said, "Never mind. I guess I can't open my mouth without putting my foot in. I thought I was being friendly." <>
Possible responses:
"Okay. Peace cobbler sounds delicious right now. Would you mind making some while I'm gone?"

I think there may also have been room to mention your friendly intent, but only in a genuine way, seeking to clarify that building her up WAS your intent, and find out if and how she did not understand it that way. "I apologize. I really meant to request peace cobbler in a friendly way, and am sorry if it didn't come across that way. Next time, I will ask directly." If you say this wanting to make a point to her, however... just don't say it. For me, point-making is always death.

Another way to approach it is to assume that she is reasonable and you really are the one who is wrong -- not in a wormy, self-denigrating way, but in a constructive way, acknowledging that the only one in the relationship whose thoughts and actions you can control is you. "Fireproof" is an amazing movie that touches on this, if you are okay with Christian ideology.

Are your profession and your perception of the tone of your voice relevant? Consider that there are no points scored unless both of you feel that your marriage relationship has been made stronger.

Good luck... I hope you eventually got some peach cobbler!
posted by ramenopres at 9:02 PM on November 3, 2010

It would be helpful if you would tell us why you are still together. Is there any love in your relationship? Or is it all distrust and hurt? If only the latter, DTMFA.
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:24 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Agreed that this is quite interesting. Much has been said. I would try meditating on what you respect about her and looking for those things. I would also try looking for times when you are either factually wrong or criticize someone unnecessarily.
posted by salvia at 10:28 PM on November 3, 2010

am sorry if it

One thing I've finally figured out is that "sorry if" doesn't cut it, pretty much ever. If is a cop-out. When someone you love and respect is upset, you're sorry that.
posted by tangerine at 1:32 AM on November 4, 2010 [19 favorites]

Maybe you should (both, but especially you) quit making your marriage about right and wrong.

The moment you make one of you right; the other is wrong - which means simply someone is going to resent the other.
posted by filmgeek at 2:54 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

You said "Another time, our counselor asked about her father. My wife (actualy, then-fiancee) hesitated."

Why were you in counselling even before you got married? Was it regarding the same communication issues you have now?

If the answer to my last question is yes, then why did you decide to 'commit for life' to somebody you struggle to communicate with? And +1 for better/more counselling because this issue is almost certainly bigger and deeper than you realise.
posted by dimon at 5:24 AM on November 4, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, I'm touched by all the kind responses, by which I mean all of them. Thank you to all of you for sharing, commiserating, correcting, and advising. I'm still taking it all in. I don't know if I'll post a follow-up in a year or two :) but I'll be around.

Again, thanks.
posted by bovious at 7:37 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Would you feel like making me peach cobbler?" is infuriating. It is not friendly.

Sorry, I have to take issue with this. This is actually the way a lot people act friendly, whether you like it or not. I've had countless interactions with people (both ways) using this kind of phrasing, and to say that "nope, you weren't actually being friendly to each other" is, I think, a little much. Now, if it bothers one of the partners then I think that it's a good idea to make that known and to try to modify your behavior in light of that (and, spelled out logically, I can see how it might bother someone); and that's perhaps where the OP failed (e.g. failing to take her perception of the phrasing into account). But, honestly, to many people that kind of phrasing is almost identical to "Could you make..." (if anything, more considerate, since you're trying to, successfully or not, account for their feelings).
posted by the other side at 8:57 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

She's not zinging you -- you're frustrating her or you've frustrated her and she feels restless.

"Would you feel like making me some of that peach cobbler while I'm gone?"

What you might not see in your phrasing is that you're asking her to be happy to make you peach cobbler. You didn't say, "I would love to have some of that peach cobbler if you have the chance to make it." She may have had a lot to do or something she wanted to do. asking her if "she feels like" doing something is probably making her feel like she falls short of being the person you want her to be. She might have been looking forward to watching a show or calling a friend or cleaning up or something, and you threw in a chore for her that sounds like you want her to have fun doing it. Which means you aren't called to be grateful for it. Which is annoying. She's doing something for you but you have to make it sound like she has to feel good about it. Once you ask her, she can't say no, she doesn't want to.

I don't think she thinks you're in the wrong. I think she feels like what you want is not who she is. The way you say things to her, she may respond in ways that make her feel like she's a huge bitch and a horrible wife, which probably will build her resentment of you.

In short, she seems stressed and afraid and alone, like she can't talk to you or make you understand where she's coming from.
posted by anniecat at 4:10 PM on November 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I have a relative like this--If I say the sky is blue, she says, "No-- it's turquoise." I misspoke and mentioned "cream" in her latte and she raised her voice and said, "NO IT'S MILK" And on and on ad ifinium. It's at the point where I don't even want to have a conversation with her because I'm clearly going to be so very very wrong. I could see if it was a life-or-death situation, but these petty exchanges wear me out. Is your wife by chance a teacher?

Oh, I have no useful advice, just wanted to empathize. Good luck to you.
posted by Prairie at 7:06 AM on November 6, 2010

Best answer: Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love

I recommend this book because you guys are having conversations which seem fairly innocuous on the surface, but they are obviously hitting very sore spots. This is the best book I've ever seen to help identify those sore spots and talk about them in a safe and mutually supportive way.
posted by heatherann at 8:38 AM on November 6, 2010

Best answer: I haven't read most of the comments in this thread, bovious (but I have read all of yours), so please forgive me if I'm repeating anyone.

I don't want to come off like I'm harping on you and what you do as if nothing your wife does contributes to this problem and her behavior is A-OK, but since you're the one who's here and you're the one I can talk to I'm going to just talk about things you can change. I would have a lot to say to your wife if she were here. I have to say that my #1 pet peeve of the universe is being corrected (especially in a snotty way) when I am right by someone who is wrong, so I do sympathize with you.

After I read your post, I was a little confused by what you meant when you said your wife "zings" you, because I usually understand a zing to be a sharp/witty or trying-to-be-sharp/witty insult. But in the examples you gave, your wife didn't seem to be insulting you per se; it seems that what bothers you is your wife correcting you or making things you think/do out to be wrong. So my answer is going to be based on the idea that that is what's bothering you, and I apologize if I have misunderstood.

One thing that happens when someone makes you out to be wrong all the time is that you can become really resistant to admitting it when you actually are wrong, or even just acquiescing to that person's request when they ask you to do something differently, even though the way you've done it isn't "wrong", because of their own personal preference. It's easy to become really defensive, and want to hold on tight to the way you've been doing things, because maybe changing how you do those things would imply that you agree that you were wrong. And that is really irritating.

But when your wife wanted you to ask her directly to make the peach cobbler, I think you should have done that.

Yes, the way you asked her wasn't "wrong" in the sense that many people would have understood what you were trying to communicate, that you wanted her to make you some cobbler. But it was annoying her. Imagine you are trying to communicate with someone who is not your wife, someone w/ whom you don't have all this loaded baggage. There are two equally efficient and effective ways you can communicate with this person, one of which will annoy them, and one of which will not. Do you think you would factor the other person's annoyance into your choice of which to use, in that situation? If so, then the technical "rightness" of what you say isn't the only important thing when you communicate with others.

Yes, I know that it is possible to ask more directly than I did, but my point is, we always always always have to talk about the wrongness of what I said. I didn't just ask her because the question as phrased was what came to my head and seemed harmless enough ... I think I should get credit for friendly intent.

To me, "it seemed harmless enough" means "no reasonable person should have been annoyed by it." But the fact is, your wife WAS annoyed by it.

It is impossible to have a good relationship with someone if your stance is, "I know what I'm doing is bothering you, but even though I could easily do things differently, I'm just going to keep doing it because I think you shouldn't be bothered by it."

To me, *that* is being kind of petty. If you have absolutely no good reason for not changing an action like that, I think you should change it. If you have some kind of other very important reason for not changing the action or behavior (not just in this situation but in general), then you both have to make a good faith effort to work it out and accommodate each other. With each person mainly focusing on accommodating the other. Otherwise, things will never work and you might as well just break up.


To me though, it's a different story when she's trying to correct you on something factual, rather than just trying to get you do change an action or behavior that irritates her.

Sometimes I might say, "Why do I always have to be wrong? Even if I'm wrong, which I wasn't this time, still, why is that the only thing you want to talk about?" ... She has no response other than to say, comically given the circumstances, "I don't always say you're wrong."

Your wife sounds like she takes things really literally when she communicates and/or prefers really literal communication. Instead of saying, "why do I always have to be wrong" and "that is the only thing you want to talk about," which are not literally true, have you tried speaking more literally with her?

Have you ever asked her, "Why do you frequently correct me and make me out to be wrong?" Not in a passive-aggressive way, but in a matter of fact, blunt, let's-face-reality way?

It might be helpful to get even more specific - when things like the clementine/tangerine conversation happen, have you ever asked her, specifically, something like "Why did you correct me about the clementines just now?"

Honestly though, I think the best thing would just be to drop all this, and drop all the passive-aggressiveness, hedging, couching, and beating around the bush, and be completely direct and blunt, and say something to your wife like, "You correct me and make me out to be wrong about factual things all the time, and I find it extremely irritating. I need you to stop this behavior or our relationship is going to be irretrievably damaged. I'm requesting that you talk to me now about how we can make this change. If anything I do is bothering you, I'm requesting that we hash it out now."

Another time, our counselor asked about her father. My wife (actualy, then-fiancee) hesitated. The counselor said, "Is he kind of a bumbler?" My wife started SOBBING and said yes.

I know this is going to come off as rude, but I have to be blunt here. This sounds to me like her father was a spineless weenie and it drove her up the wall, and honestly, your passive-aggressiveness might be making her feel the same way about you.

If you prefer to be passive-aggressive and are more comfortable operating in life in that way, I think that is completely your right and I'm not going to judge you on that. However, I have the inkling that you are going to have to cut it right out if you want a happy relationship with your wife. It's completely your right to decide if having to change a major and ingrained facet of your personality is too much to ask, to be in a relationship with a given person. But to you, it might be worth it.

This is something I think you could find help with in therapy. If you go to individual therapy, IMO, it will be a lot more effective if you go back with a goal of ending passive aggressive patterns of behavior rather than just going in an open-ended way to explore whatever with the therapist.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:59 AM on November 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Definitely looks like a two-way street.

You're both playing a hot potato-style game of who's the F up? When you remind her that she forgot about the dishwasher, you're reminding her that she's not perfect. Payback time.

Also, you're not taking responsibility for your communication difficulties. When she asks you to be direct in your request for cobbler, you flip out about being wrong, rather than taking her request as a constructive remark. You're so hurt about the other times that she's been hard on you that you're missing your very overt contribution to the madness.

My guess is that you're both sensitive to the issue of being right or wrong.
You're both VERY ANGRY with each other.
Sounds like you're both also VERY HURT.

If you're therapy isn't getting down to the core anger and hurt, then perhaps you should try a different clinician.
posted by drjmac at 9:23 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Update: After taking to heart some of the advice stated here, I've tried to stop experiencing some of our interactions on such a prickly level. That is, if I say "A" and she says, "B" or even just "A-", I say, "Well, yes, possibly B I suppose" and we move on from there. I appreciate that the most important thing is to get along, even if it's obvious that she's using whatever I just said to react to something besides whatever I just said.

(And perhaps vice versa, as many have said hereabouts.)

No counseling in sight, but that could change.

I also am looking forward to having time to read some of the books recommended here.

Anyway, I got the email from mathowie recommending a "resolved" tag so I thought I'd do him that courtesy :)
posted by bovious at 11:04 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another book suggestion: Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. This is on my constant-use counseling shelf because it teaches a method for what the author calls "microscopic truth," where the listener repeats the statement without feeling words, and then tells the truth about what s/he is thinking.

You would like me to make peach cobbler.
When you asked me that, I began to feel angry.
I thought "I told him I was room mom today."
I thought "I feel like my activities aren't important."
I thought "I feel ignored."
I thought "My dad ignored me too, and this makes me feel like that."
posted by catlet at 12:23 PM on December 9, 2010

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