What's a nicer way to say "BUTT OUT"?
May 6, 2011 9:01 AM   Subscribe

My husband is critical, I'm defensive, we fight. What are some tricks for defusing situations like this?

My husband is a great guy, and we have a good relationship. But he is also very particular about certain things, and inclined to be vocally critical or negative, which is his family-of-origin's standard dynamic. I'm not picky about my surroundings (in fact, am kind of absentminded), and came from a family with pretty intense conventions of positivity and civility in everyday discourse. In practice, this means that he tends to carp about small things (some of which are legit, some not). I, in turn, tend to roll with it for one or two rounds, then blow up from the accumulated stress of feeling generally over-regulated and disrespected.

Just an example of the completely mundane level of stuff we're talking about, on the average morning:
Him: Hey, where did you hide* those diaper trash bags?
Me: [*noting diction] They're under the changing table.

Him (aggrieved): These dishes are clean, and the sign's not turned!
Me: Aggh, sorry, I was in a hurry and forgot. I'll try not to do it again.

Him: Hey, looks like somebody left the knife out again.
Me: [simmer, think about how knife got left out because I was rushing to get his eggs on the table, because he doesn't like them cold, and would it kill him to just pick the knife up and clean it himself?]

Him: Why did you serve those new bananas with breakfast? There were some strawberries on the verge of expiration in the fridge. We should be practicing stock rotation.

We've had plenty of discussions about this, and the general upshot is that he feels he needs to vent his real annoyance when he notices something not to his satisfaction, and I resent both his presuming to complain about so many things, and his frequent implication that whatever's amiss is somehow my fault. Global negotiations are ongoing, but for now I would mostly like input on how I can manage these kinds of day-to-day interactions in a peaceful and respectful way. We've got a young daughter, and I'm sure it's stressful for her when I end up responding angrily to her dad's criticisms. On the other hand, I feel as though just passively accepting them might give her the impression that it's a husband's right to correct his wife, or that she should also feel free to police and critique my behavior.

Can anybody suggest a firm, brief and civil way for me to respond when I feel as though the tone is getting overly critical? I'm looking for something that doesn't foreclose the possibility of my having actually made the mistake in question, but also makes it clear that I find the tone or the fact of the objection problematic-- and ideally, something that would "flag" the interaction without necessarily provoking a brawl or making him feel accused. "Mind your own business" or "what's it to you?" is the general sense I'm looking for, but those are obviously pretty disrespectful and non-family-friendly in themselves.

Simply explaining myself or responding to the specific criticism doesn't work, because invariably he then feels he needs to explain why I did do it wrong and he was right to point it out, and then I respond, and hello, argument-in-front-of-small-child. Ideas? How can I stand up for myself while still keeping the peace?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
It doesn't sound like you two are on the same team here. It might help to remind him, and yourself, that you are on the same team. This usually helps my wife and I to reset into a better, more proactive way of handling tense situations.
posted by TheBones at 9:10 AM on May 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

When I start making helpful suggestions to my darling husband, he says things like
"I'm doing what I can, baby, thanks for covering for me!"
A reminder that he's busy doing a lot of other good things well (like making eggs and serving delicious bananas) and that I'm expected to be on his team. It works for us.
posted by aimedwander at 9:11 AM on May 6, 2011 [22 favorites]

OMG, I could have sworn my wife wrote this (she agrees). We even have young daughter! It's uncanny. Thanks for posting; you are not alone. I've found meditation and making peace (and keeping promises to) myself keeps me from externalizing my internal frustrations and carping about little stuff. Also trying to actively practice loving-kindness as a habit makes me more able to swallow the little stuff and just let it slide by without (unnecessary) comment.

There was a great post in AxMe that recommended, simply, to take any little things that continually irk you about your loved ones (e.g. unwashed dishes) and just 'shove them up your butt' because life's too short to be bitching at your spouse & kids.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

I can sometimes get nitpicky and naggy. Often when see the gross messy results left behind after someone shaves or flosses their teeth or whatever, I remind myself that someday I'm going to wish there was evidence of that person being around. It sounds morbid but it is true, and it changes my perspective instantly.

I don't know how you can suggest that kind of approach to your husband though; the fact that you've asked this anonymously suggests that you're not both looking together for a solution. So that might be your first step: talk to him (when there isn't any nitpicking going on) about how your different approaches to housekeeping and communication are affecting you.
posted by headnsouth at 9:20 AM on May 6, 2011 [15 favorites]

If his criticism is something you guys have discussed in the past, then try alluding to that with something good humored, like "Did you mean to say that out loud?" or "Was that comment for me, or was it just for you?" Maybe it really will be something he wants to discuss, or maybe (hopefully) he'll catch himself being a crank and just wash the goddam knife himself already.
posted by hermitosis at 9:20 AM on May 6, 2011 [12 favorites]

I am, unfortunately, like your husband. One thing that helps me dial back the criticism and apologize to my partner is internally asking myself "Is this really important?" Does it really matter how my partner cleans the kitchen counters, as long as they get clean? Does it really matter whether he packs the dishwasher as efficiently as humanly possible? Does it really matter if he shoves all of his money haphazardly into his pockets instead of putting it in his wallet? No, it does not. Sometimes I realize this as I open my mouth to comment and I manage to restrain myself; sometimes I realize it after I've already made a comment and my partner responds huffily; sometimes I don't realize it.

So "is this really important?" might work as a response. Or perhaps "these things happen," which has the benefit of not being a question and therefore of not opening up the possibility of further discussion.

But I think it's important for your husband to realize that a constant stream of nitpicking is problematic. It's the first step in solving the problem, but certainly not the last.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 9:24 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Him (aggrieved): These dishes are clean, and the sign's not turned!"
You: Well, you can certainly take care of emptying the dishwasher and then it will be done to your satisfaction.

"Him: Why did you serve those new bananas with breakfast? There were some strawberries on the verge of expiration in the fridge. We should be practicing stock rotation."
You: Oh, good, are you going to take over the cooking, fridge management, and shopping? I'll be so glad when you've got your systems in place and the stock rotation goes smoothly.

(That third one about the knife is maddeningly passive-aggressive. I'd scream.)

My husband is a little bit like this -- he's very exact in his work life and sometimes forgets that home is not work. (Although in other ways, I am much more particular -- how hard is it to turn the handles on the stove so they face backwards?? Why can he not fold the towels properly?? I guess we all have our things.) I am more likely to just redo what he did wrong and not mention it unless it's ongoing, or if it's a safety hazard. He always points it out to me, which makes me CRAZY and makes me feel attacked constantly, whereas he feels like by pointing it out in the moment so it doesn't get forgotten or ignored is important.

Anyway, when he is criticizing the way I just did something, I will frequently say some version of, "You're certainly welcome to take over managing that." Not in a snide way. I'd be deeeeeeeelighted if Mr. You Put The Big Spoons On The Wrong Side Of The Dishwasher wanted to take over all the dishwashing duties. But it makes him pull up short and realize that a) I'm doing things FOR him and for our family, not because it's my job, b) if I don't do it, he has to, and c) I do a lot of it, and d) everyone makes mistakes. He usually says, "Sorry, I didn't mean to nag" or "No, I didn't mean you do a bad job, I just wanted to point it out." "Well, I already know that, I just made a mistake because I was in a hurry." "Sorry, I wasn't thinking."

(This is also an excellent strategy for when I think his ideas are misguided. "We should really do X more often/start doing Y/teach the child Z." "Great idea, I'll print off a website with instructions/give you the childrearing book/tell you how to do it, and you can start right up! I don't have time to take on X/Y/Z right now but I know you'll do great." X, Y, or Z usually disappears from the radar.)

This could easily sound very petty -- "If you don't like how I do it, do it yourself!" -- but if you can say it calmly, it's really just, "If it's this important to you, then you, as a member of this household also responsible for its upkeep, should take over managing it." (Although it helps if this is already how you manage chores -- I don't like doing laundry, but I'm very particular about how it gets done, so I manage the laundry rather than constantly picking at my better half who is much more laissez faire about laundry.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:25 AM on May 6, 2011 [18 favorites]

(I realize both my first two example responses sound sort-of petty, but I'm irate on your behalf. :) )
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:27 AM on May 6, 2011

"Please don't talk to me that way."

"Please try and help me a little more, and criticize me a little less."

"I really do not like the way you are talking to me. I realize you mean while, but it's important to me that you dial it back a few notches."

And, very importantly, when he does amend his tone or talk to you the way you want to be spoken to, "Thank you honey, that was a really nice way to handle it. I love you."
posted by jon1270 at 9:31 AM on May 6, 2011 [24 favorites]

...you mean while well...
posted by jon1270 at 9:33 AM on May 6, 2011

In my previous marriage, I was subjected to constant criticism (and worse.) Defending, explaining, apologizing (even for things I shouldn't have) only fanned the flames. Counseling didn't help either (note that it's a "previous" marriage.) Anyway, I finally made a decision of how to respond, and that was to not respond.

I told her of my decision very calmly and flatly: "You accuse me and criticize me too often, and inappropriately. You know it hurts me, but you still do it. Any response from me causes the situation to escalate. So, from now on, if I feel you are being overly critical or accusatory, I will simply not respond. So don't wonder why I'm not responding because I have now already told you. I can only choose my own behavior, not change yours, so I choose to not respond to inappropriate comments."

I know it sounds passive-aggressive, and a higher road would be great, but he has to be on it with you.
posted by The Deej at 9:34 AM on May 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

It also might be worth it to a) explain to him that constant carping makes you less likely to pay attention to the complaints that are truly important, and b) devise a system whereby his complaints that, upon reflection, he believes are truly important are treated with respect. I feel like there can be a vicious cycle where, because I come up with so many random criticisms, my partner dismisses all of them out of hand, even though some of them may be legitimate (and at the very least are important to me). This makes me feel like I am being entirely ignored, which makes me more defensive and less likely to let the unimportant things go -- which, in turn, makes it even more likely that my legitimate concerns disappear into a sea of trivial criticisms.

For example, maybe to my partner my complaints about how he loads the dishwasher and my complaints about how he leaves water all over the bathroom floor seem equally capricious and worth ignoring, but for me, the dishwasher thing is in retrospect really not that important but I absolutely HATE stepping in puddles of water. I need to find an effective way to communicate these things and pick my battles more carefully, but my partner also needs to understand that some things that may seem unimportant truly do matter to me.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 9:39 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm the messy or less detail-oriented one in my marriage much of the time. I think one reason it's not a problem for us is that if an issue is brought up, it's not accusatory way. For example, my husband might say,

(as he is washing the knife) "honey, it looks like you forgot to wash the knife after you used it. Can you try to remember?"

or "honey, do you know where I can find the _____? It's not in the drawer where it usually lives."

Your husband's phrasing just sounds passive aggressive to me -- he clearly knows who didn't wash the knife, but it's not the end of the world, and if he wants you both to be on board with the little things that bug him but not you, he needs to accept that he will have to take more than 50% responsibility for those things. And vice versa.

From my end, if I see that my husband is willing to address me respectfully and put in some extra effort himself, I am more likely to remember and do the little things to make him happy.

My husband and I didn't get to our happy compromise without some discussion, though. We have a policy of letting each other know about the little things that matter to each of us. In our marriage, I'm the one who bitches about the knives, because they are beautiful carbon steel knives that were gifts from my dad, and I want them to stay nice. So when I noticed the knives going unwashed, I said "baby, that knife was a present from my dad, and I really want to keep it like new. So can we both do our best to wash it right after we use it? Thanks."

It really is about remembering that:
1. We're on the same team
2. Neither of us is without flaw
3. We both love each other and want us both to be happy
4. Neither of us is a mind reader, and different things stand out or bother each of us

The compromise or phrasing in your marriage will probably different, but both of you need to be on board with reaching the answer.
posted by freshwater at 9:39 AM on May 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

"S/he who does the cooking/shopping/cleaning/driving gets to choose what to serve/what to buy/how to load the dishwasher/what route to take."
"Feel free to take care of it, I have a lot of other priorities."
"Hey! Be glad it's clean!"
posted by lemonade at 9:41 AM on May 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's also really important for both people to let it go sometimes -- If I called my husband out every time he forgot to wash the knife, or he nagged me every time I didn't put the scissors away, life would be unbearable. And we know that, and choose to have a marriage that includes some little flaws in exchange for more peace.
posted by freshwater at 9:42 AM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

You Can't Say That To Me - by Suzette Elgin -
is a great book for dealing with your situation
posted by Flood at 9:49 AM on May 6, 2011

He feels he needs to vent his real annoyance when he notices something not to his satisfaction.

Except that is in no way what he is doing. He is not venting annoyance but rather telling you how he would rather you have acted in order to stave off his annoyance. He is not taking any responsibility for the cause of his annoyance, or thinking about how he can resolve the situation, but rather putting all of the responsibility on you. The diaper bags should be where he wants them; you do not get a say in where they should go.

So you need to remind him that your choices and actions and even your mistakes are just as valid as his and have every right to exist in your house. The things in bold are the things that are 100% perfectly fine reasons for things to happen in your home, and for which you do not need to apologize. They could constitute the end of the discussion, or be a launching point for negotiations.

Him: Hey, where did you hide* those diaper trash bags?
You: (deep mental and/or physical breath) Hide them? Hahaha, what do you mean? Why would I hide them? You’re so strange sometimes!
Him: Oh hahaha, I was just kidding, a figure of speech. Where are they? They’re supposed to be in the cabinet.
You: I decided to put them under the changing table.
Him: Well I think they should go in the cabinet.
You: Okay, I don’t mind if you want to take some of the ones from under the changing table to keep in the cabinet so that you can remember where they are. But when I change the diaper bag it’s easier for me if they’re under the changing table.

Him (aggrieved): These dishes are clean, and the sign's not turned!
Me: Oh yeah, whoops, I forgot to turn it. (And then walk out of the kitchen.)

Him: Hey, looks like somebody left the knife out again.
You: Oh yeah, I did.
Him: Well you leave it out all the time!
You: Yeah, you're right... Maybe I'll get a new block to keep closer to the cutting boards so it's easier for me to put them away.

Him: Why did you serve those new bananas with breakfast? There were some strawberries on the verge of expiration in the fridge. We should be practicing stock rotation.
You: I felt like having bananas. I didn’t want strawberries. But you’re right, they are going to bad soon. Maybe you should take some for lunch with you today!

Now, if he instead said something like “Ugh, I feel so guilty sometimes about food going bad. I don’t know, food waste just really gets me,” or “Ack!! I’ve been running around for 5 minutes trying to find the diaper bags, I’m so frustrated!! Did you put them in a new place?” or “Oh, man, I just got tomato sauce on some of the clean dishes in here [proceeding to wash said now-dirty dish]” in a genuine, non-accusatory way, you probably wouldn’t feel so defensive. That would be just “venting his annoyance.” When you vent to someone, it usually implies that it's just to make you feel better and not to incite some action on their part.

I think he is being the big control-freak meanie, but you also have to be the one to stand up for yourself, in a confident, assertive, non-angry and non-resentful way.

The best response I've found for the "Why is this not the way I think it ought to be" approach is just to fire back "Because it isn't" or "Because this is the way that I want it" or "Because I didn't feel like doing it that way." If you try to apologize and defend yourself, you are justifying his interpretation of the situation, wherein he dictates from on-high the state of all the things. It usually will not get beyond that point because often the person only needs to be reminded that they are being unreasonable. They might initially be flabbergasted by your unashamed effrontery, especially the first few times, but then they'll realize that they'd seem silly saying out loud "Well you should do it the way I want it because I say so." Because that is not how grown ups behave toward their equals.
posted by thebazilist at 10:09 AM on May 6, 2011 [57 favorites]

I think the easiest place to start is with your own reaction. Polite, polite, explode is obviously not the way you want to be handling things. I would suggest an combination of
1 Agree with humor.
I can't believe you found those diapers - I thought I hid them so cunningly. or
Sorry about the sign (assuming it was your fault) I'm glad your observant enough to figure out that the dishes were dirty anyway.

2. Let him know when you need him to ease up -
I'm doing the best I can/I had a bad day/I have a lot on my mind and, you need to give me break on the small stuff. (If he argues with this one, say "I can't handle this now, let's talk about it when I can really listen to you.)

3. If the actual request is reasonable (put the lid back on the diaper pail), ignore the tone of voice, apologize or agree and then LET GO OF IT.

3. If he really cares and you don't, let him take over. If it is your job, you get to decide how it is done. (There are several variations of this above) You say, calmly and reasonably, "if you have a problem with it, do it yourself. If you want me to do it, you need to accept my way of doing it." If he complains again, stop in the middle and invite him (calmly and reasonably) to finish it so it is done to his liking.
posted by metahawk at 10:15 AM on May 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

FWIW, I could not live under the regime of passive aggression you are describing. I realise full well that my domestic life is more chaotic than the ideal, but giving you stick because you didn't turn a sign on the clean dishes? In my house, having clean dishes is an accomplishment. Unloading the dishwasher is a major triumph. Turning a sign? Fuck that.

My new mantra would be "I'm sorry; I need you to re-phrase that." 27 times a day if necessary. And if he complains, remind him that treating you respectfully and with regard is much, much important that the strawberries.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:58 AM on May 6, 2011 [14 favorites]

I think you really have to consider the possibility that he cannot change. Book a few sessions with a therapist to get his/her take. My own experience is that this kind of stuff is related to perfectionism and runs in families. If your husband was criticized constantly as a child, then, just like child abuse, it gets propagated through the generations. If you want to read something that is fairly short and to the point, I like "Your Perfect Right", which is about assertiveness. It has suggestions on how to deal with various situations. As the book points out, expect resistance from him, if you try some of the strategies outlined above. That is something you need to be prepared for.
posted by PickeringPete at 10:59 AM on May 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have said "Please don't nag me" or "Please don't speak to me like that" or "You're talking to me like I'm one of the kids; I'm a grownup."

I don't like saying any of those in front of the kids, so sometimes I just walk away without saying anything and then bring it up later. Maybe passive aggressive, initially, but I haven't figured out a better way around it.

I grew up being criticized a LOT so I think I tend to be more defensive than some, but still I don't think nagging is ever acceptable between adults. The same kinds of things can be communicated with, "Maybe it's just me, and I'm sorry if this is a silly pet peeve, but it kinda drives me nuts when you do blahblah." This is respectful, can be said in front of kids, and gets the point across while being unlikely to make the other person angry.

I like the bazilist's suggestions a lot. I do think it's important to express to your husband why you bristle at the nagging--i.e., it's not that you're unable to accept a differing viewpoint from yours, it's that you'd like to be treated with respect.
posted by torticat at 11:14 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think this is just one of the prices we have to pay when we live with someone else. (Stuff being not exactly the way we like it, I mean.) I'd have a discussion about how these are just things that will happen as a consequence of living with other people. Eventually your kids will be doing stuff like this too. Not through any maliciousness on anyone's part, but just because people sometimes forget stuff or don't do things exactly the way you would have done them. I think if he agrees that that's the case, you might both agree that when he makes one of these comments that hurts your feelings you'll make a response that harks back to this conversation to remind him why these things aren't important in the bigger picture. I'd go with something like "The consequences of living in the middle of a loving family!", which could eventually be shortened to just "consequences," said with a smile. This doesn't mean you can't apologize for forgetting something, but "oh! I'm sorry I forgot. Consequences!" followed by a smile, would probably go a long way toward dissolving his (and your) irritation. This only works as long as he acknowledges in the discussion you have at the beginning that these issues really ARE inconsequential, and that he's only lashing out in the irritation of the moment.
posted by MsMolly at 11:50 AM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lots of good ideas here.

Since you mentioned that you have had plenty of discussions about this already, I would recommend having the discussion again, using many of the points here, with the new addition that next time he makes a passive-aggressive comment to you that irritates you, regardless of the reason for his comment, you will say a word or phrase to signal to him that he is doing That Thing That Bothers You That You've Discussed Multiple Times. This is to help snap him out of it and be able to look past the missing trash bags, unturned sign, or left-out knife and remember that you two are indeed on the same team and he doesn't want to set off a chain of suppressed rage in you that will culminate in a GRAR FIGHT.

I really like DarlingBri's idea of "I need you to rephrase that." If you don't like that tactic, you could go with the approach of a made up or silly word that symbolizes this situation: "Honey, you're hippopotamusing. Can we take a step back?"

Even though in the moment, these "little criticisms" seem small, it's important to nip this passive aggressive shit in the bud. The little moments are what make a marriage/relationship/home/life.
posted by pupstocks at 11:52 AM on May 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Despite my own "do not respond" advice, I can't resist this one:

Him (aggrieved): These dishes are clean, and the sign's not turned!
Me: Oh, since you noticed they are clean, I guess we don't need the sign. (Toss in trash.)
posted by The Deej at 11:54 AM on May 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Honey, you're hippopotamusing. Can we take a step back?"

This is both hilarious and potentially workable.

Kinda harks back to the "ding training" that's been referenced many times on Ask. Personally I am NOT a fan of ding training, as my close group of friends in college (20+ years ago) tried it and it backfired in a terrible way. The person being dinged felt constantly attacked. "Ding" (well, we used a different but similar word) came to signify, "You just pissed me off," or "Shut up"--with no greater context provided. That's not good communication.

However, I think the humor in "you're hippopotamusing," plus the inherent intimacy of having a friendly code, could be an effective way to defuse these situations. And it's obviously could be used in front of kids, which is a plus.
posted by torticat at 12:10 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like bazilist's suggestions. 

I'd try putting negative labels on what you guys are doing. It just sounds like you have different methods and preferences. It sounds like you both are doing what comes naturally to you, but is at odds with the other person. 

What may be hard to remember for one, may feel purposely disrespectful to the other. Especially b/c it happens repeatedly. You guys just have different habits. Operating "against the grain" is difficult. 

It sounds like you guys need to acknowledge is that different people have different methods of doing things and tailor compromises. 

In a prior relationship we zoned off the house. He tended to keep things put away and lined up in a certain order, and I tended to like to have everything out in piles ("out of sight, out of mind" is very true for me). Not to mention I have an absent minded habit of randomly placing things whenever I change tasks. 

The rules were: 
1) nothing of mine on his desk. If I put something on his desk that didn't belong he would move it without comment. 
2) if a pile overflowed my zone, he would remind me of the agreement and I would stop and fix it. 
3) he was not allowed to comment on how I should be organizing my stuff. If he did I could remind him of the agreement. 

That actually saved us se trouble. 

However in relationships it seems it's not the differences, but how you handle them. If anything kills a relationship, it's negativity and contempt. 

You guys may want to talk about that. I don't know if you guys use "I feel" and "it seems to me" statements, that can dissipate a lot of tension. 

And I guess the usual therapy recommendation applies. It really sounds to me that you guys need to practice some new skills and strategies for healthier communication and handling your differences. 
posted by mbird at 12:20 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mr. Getawaysticks can be a little... terse, and due to my upbringing I always feel like he is attacking me, even if he's not - which is the case most of the time. I try to think "We are on the same team" and take a breath when he says something that could go either way, and not snap right back at him. It's a hard skill to learn because defensiveness is something that is very engrained in me, but I think it helps when I can pull it off. And most of the time, he's not meaning anything by it - so taking care with my response diffuses it.
posted by getawaysticks at 12:45 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the best rules we have in my marriage (along the lines of what Eyebrows McGee said) is that the person who is not doing the chore/task, doesn't get to dictate how it is done unless asked. If my husband does something I would prefer done another way, then it is my responsibility to do it. Sometimes we forget, but the standard response every time is, "If you would prefer it done that way, you are certainly welcome to take over/do it next time/be in charge of this."

Note: This rule was mostly for me, my husband is really easy going and I tend to be more controlling especially when stressed out. And lord bless him, he usually just gives me a blank stare when I try to control him because he knows that whenever I recognize the behavior I apologize or make a joke about it and it's over.

This has worked out very well for us because it's a reminder, as others have said, that even if it's not done exactly the way we'd want it, it still qualifies as a valid contribution.
posted by Kimberly at 1:23 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm the critical one, and he's the defensive one. I find lots of little things set me off (more so if I feel like I've repeated it a bunch of times and nothing's changed, or if I'm having a bad day already I'm more likely to nitpick at everything), and he gets defensive hearing things "harped on" (repeated) and sometimes even hears me being critical when I don't feel or mean to be critical at all. Also he gets automatically defensive even when he's actually at fault and tries to go on the offense (blame me for it). And I will blame him for things that aren't really his fault or are sort of my fault just because I'm cold-and-cutting sometimes when I'm mad, or I'll bring up long-past infractions.

We read a few self-help books (actually I read them and then I read them out loud to him and we discussed them), particularly John Gottman's work, and we were really struck by his finding that "active contempt" was a big sign that a couple would eventually divorce. We realized we were lapsing into being contemptuous of each other when we fought and it wasn't a good thing at all - it was disconnecting us. We tried to get back to how we fought the first year or so of our relationship - our fights were healthier then; we tried to figure out why. We realized it was because we didn't assume the worst about each other then.

We try to stop when we notice the cycle, or script, starting; and say things like:
*"I can't pay attention to what you're saying right now because I'm reacting to your tone. Can you bring it down a bit? You sound very contemptuous right now and it's making me upset."
*"How important is this to you - is this something you've said before, or is this because you're already worked up and you're snowballing?" ("Snowballing" is his term for how I'll pile on one little thing after another until by, say, the fifth thing, I'm gotten myself super-worked-up and I'm overreacting to the smallest things as if they're the Worst Thing Ever, Perfect Example Of Why My Life Sucks So Much.)
*Sometimes we even rate our reactions to each other on a scale of 1 to 10 - "where does this rank for you right now? why? do you feel that upset about it because you're in a bad mood? do you feel I'm criticizing you unfairly?"
*We try very hard not to use "always" or "never" statements ("you always do this!").
*We really try to communicate that we hear each other's point by repeating it back to the other person.
*We make sure to actually apologize sincerely when something IS our fault (and let go the feeling that this is "proving" the other person "won").

We try to keep reminding each other we're on the same side. He will often put his hands on my shoulders and say "whoa, stop, take a breath!" when I start up, and he'll hug me, which feels awkward at first but then I start to relax, and he'll say "try that again, please, I don't want you to be so upset, I want to help you fix this". (I do this to him too.) We'll crack jokes at each other to defuse the situation - this is tricky, you have to be in sync enough to know what humor will work.

Things that emphatically do NOT work for us:
*being told to "do it yourself if you don't like how I'm doing it"
*being aggressively told to calm down or quit yelling; for both of us that's like gasoline on a fire
*disengaging and walking away, or ignoring it once it starts

Obviously, communication is key, and we had to do a lot of talking to each other to really get this to work consistently. But I hope this might help, because the things we say are things you can try saying to him even if you haven't discussed this with him yet.

(Also, if you've never read the Moral High Ground "relationship hack" comment, share it with your husband! Maybe something like this can become your ongoing defusing joke with each other.)
posted by flex at 3:41 PM on May 6, 2011 [13 favorites]

One thing that you can do is 'translate what he says', so that you simply rephrase what he says-- maybe even out loud!-- but definitely in your mind, in a kinder, more considerate way. Do this before you respond, after he says something. For instance:

Him: Where did you hide those diaper trash bags?
New Him: Hey, d'you know where those diaper bags went to?

Him: Hey, looks like -somebody- left the knife out again.
New Him: Hey, can you take care of this knife or would you like me to do it?

Assuming you're rephrasing out loud: I don't think this is passive-aggressive if you are genuinely trying to teach him how to communicate with you better. One thing that may be empowering is to think that he is rude because he doesn't know how to communicate effectively-- this is actually usually true. It's not that he's meaning to drive you nuts, but that he doesn't modulate his expression in the right way. So I think it's empowering and balances the power in the relationship to suggest you can help him express himself correctly as he thinks he's prodding you to organize/manage the household more efficiently. If he can prod you on one area, you can prod him on the other-- fair's fair. You have to be careful to monitor and learn to listen to the *actual* level and flavor of emotion being exchanged, rather than the tone he says things in, though.

At the end of the day, being contemptuous or dismissive is a big red flag and isn't something to simply correct but rather confront directly. Simply being uptight, critical or having a superiority complex isn't the same level of offense.

I know I don't always watch how I say things, and it's difficult to always say things correctly, and I rarely *mean* to hurt anyone's feelings or be passive-aggressive (usually). It's hard to regulate one's appearance to others without a lot of practice and value invested. It's a difficult thing to learn. It also depends how he is with others-- if he's only picking on you, it's a real issue. If he's super-picky with everyone, you have a high hill to climb, but it's actually probably easier. Anyway, it's not just about you: he has to learn to let go/relax more on the little stuff as much as you have to learn let go of his language and look at his real meaning.
posted by reenka at 6:42 PM on May 6, 2011

If he says something to you in a way that pisses you off without realizing it, tell him how he could say it in a different way that isn't insulting or belittling or frustrating to you. Explain how his behavior is affecting you emotionally and physically, and especially if it's a specific word or time of day that's the problem, deal with the main issue first and the petty bickering will taper off.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:43 PM on May 6, 2011

He's treating you like an employee whose performance is not satisfactory. Except you aren't his employee and he has absolutely no right to decide what the acceptable execution of your household tasks are. If he wants everything done to his exacting specifications he can do them himself or pay a housekeeper to do so. Stop trying to pacify him. His behavior is unacceptable.

If he wants to eat the strawberries he should say "hey how about we have the strawberries too they are about to go bad."

If he can't find the diaper bag he should ask, "hey where did you put the diapers?" and then he should say thank you after you tell him.

If you leave the knife out, he should say nothing at all and should instead clean it and put it away and then see what else needs to be done around the house, because it is his home too and he should contribute without complaint or resentment.
posted by whoaali at 11:44 AM on May 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

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