Do not speak to me in the imperative mood.
August 7, 2012 7:39 AM   Subscribe

My partner sometimes speaks or writes to me in the imperative mood ("Do this, then do that." "Take the car to the shop.") It is an issue because I feel she is speaking to the staff, and I am not the staff. I have objected to this behavior continuously over several years. We are in couples' counseling, but it does not seem to be working. We're apparently at an impasse.

We're in couples' counseling at my instigation, because I do not seem to be heard when we argue, and I have raised this as an issue in the counseling. It has got worse, not better. I do not want to be addressed as an underling and have had enough of it.

I am about ready to end the relationship over a few things, but it is this being addressed as the staff that rankles the most even though it is nothing like physical violence. The couples' counseling has advised us to say "When you x, I feel y" where x = the behavior complained of; y = hurt, fear, (other basic emotion). I've done it, quite a bit. It hasn't worked. The behavior has become more frequent and more egregious.

I would like advice on what else, if anything, to try. I am entirely willing to give up and start over if there is nothing further to be done.

The relationship is of over a decade's standing and when my partner is not busy telling me what to do I find her intelligent and fun. On the negative side she cannot bother to treat me even as well as she would a stranger or casual acquaintance. I would miss her a lot if we ended our relationship. I feel as though she is taking advantage of the fact I like her to have her way a lot and it doesn't feel like a partnership any more.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (47 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure she isn't doing it to intentionally rankle you because she knows it bothers you so much? I don't see any other plausible reason for the behavior to worsen the more you ask her to stop.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:42 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you have an exit plan? Meaning, are you both financially able to separate? From now you describe it, she sounds pretty indifferent to whether you are happy or not.

I wish you luck.
posted by Danf at 7:43 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You have my permission to end the relationship right now.

The best case outcome here is that you get your partner to stop speaking in the imperative tense. Even if that happens, I have a suspicion that won't be enough. Changing how your partner speaks won't change how your partner treats you, and I read that how she treats you is at least as important as how she speaks to you. Since there are undescribed other "few things", I think the speaking tense just happens to be the most obvious symptom of a larger underlying problem.

I'm saying this because I actually have a preference to speak in direct, imperative phrasing and for others to do so to me. It is possible to be direct with other people and still treat them kindly. Your partner is not doing that, which suggests that the problem is quite distinct from how statements are phrased.
posted by saeculorum at 7:45 AM on August 7, 2012 [13 favorites]

Are you in individual therapy? Because, you can be. And I think it's a good idea. You can sort out what it is you want in the relationship, or how you want to get out of the relationship.

Be advised that your couples counselor will not (or should not, anyway) be willing to see half of the couple privately. You'll have to find a second therapist/counselor.
posted by bilabial at 7:45 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can be pretty bossy and controlling, but only when I'm stressed or not paying attention. The second someone calls me on it, (I think) I get nicer pretty quickly.

You've told her how you feel. Not only has she not stopped, she's gotten worse.

She sounds like a jerk. If you need someone else's permission to leave the relationship, you have mine.
posted by phunniemee at 7:46 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The behavior has become more frequent and more egregious.

What does your partner SAY about this when you bring it up?
How do you respond in the moment?
posted by endless_forms at 7:48 AM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Have you tried anything behavioral to get her to stop? I am reminded of the article What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage. The author talks about using animal training techniques to get her husband to act differently.

If you reply to each and every imperative by saying, "I will not do X because you've asked me in the imperative tone you know I don't like," she'll get the message after a few weeks, I'm sure. If you stick with and actually don't do what she says!

If you want to get the message across that she's not the boss of you, stop acting like she is the boss of you.
posted by kellybird at 7:49 AM on August 7, 2012 [23 favorites]

Have you had a very explicit "Come to Jesus"/ultimatum talk with her? That is, not saying, "I'm unhappy with the state of our relationship and think we should try to fix it," but rather, "This thing you do, ordering me around, is a deal-breaker for me; it needs to stop or we need to separate."

Because at some point all you can do is say what you need, say what will happen if she does or doesn't change her behavior, and then follow through. You can give a timeline--"I'm marking our calendar for three months from now, at that point we're going to evaluate how things are going, and if you're still ordering me around, I'm out."--rather than leaving it either open-ended or immediate.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:49 AM on August 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

On the negative side she cannot bother to treat me even as well as she would a stranger or casual acquaintance.

How is this person "fun"? I think you are being emotionally abused but you aren't admitting it.
posted by desjardins at 7:50 AM on August 7, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'm a huge advocate for couples counseling, but it only works when both parties want to work together to solve problems and move forward. Based on what you've told us, it doesn't sound like she wants to move forward at all. My counselor would not just recommend expressing your emotions in that moment, but find ways to solve the problem together. This means you making some compromises and changes, too. That may just be being more understanding when she slips, but then she would have to be making an effort to change her behavior, too.

I hope it works out, but it does take two.
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:50 AM on August 7, 2012

I'm not sure this is good advice, but:
in my experience therapy talk doesn't work with everyone. One alternative is to get back in your partner's face. Look over your shoulder for the servant that the command must have been meant for, since you don't step and fetch. Laugh and refuse. Etc.

It may feel too unnatural or not worth it to go down this road: I come from a family that had a lot of constant conflict and taught me to respond in kind or be trampled. I'm not sure its a dynamic worth pursuing, if you have to do it permanently. But perhaps you can jolt your partner's awareness in a way that counseling isn't doing.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:51 AM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Does your partner know you are ready to end the relationship? If she does, and the behaviour is worsening then she's showing you she doesn't care to save the marriage and it's time to leave.
posted by sadtomato at 7:51 AM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

You know how I taught my kids their Ps and Qs? By ignoring them when they didn't use them. Try that: she barks an order, you go about your business like she never said anything. She repeats, you say, "I'm sorry, did you say something? I didn't hear a 'please'." She'll get the message pretty quickly.
posted by Dragonness at 7:53 AM on August 7, 2012 [16 favorites]

I agree with endless_forms. It's impossible to give advice when you have said a lot about how you feel about her actions, but virtually nothing about her actual actions.

All I know is that "My partner sometimes speaks or writes to me in the imperative mood." and "The behavior has become more frequent and more egregious."

That could describe a scenario in which she used to forget to say please once a month and now forgets twice a month, and in which she apologizes sincerely when it happens.

Or it could describe a scenario in which she orders you around every 5 minutes and yells at you when you object.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:56 AM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

My boyfriend talks to me like this sometimes.
Here is an example:

Him: Give me the lighter
Him: (laughs) Sorry. I meant, please.

So... in our case, my boyfriend doesn't realize he's doing it until I say something. And since I know he's not trying to be jerk, I have a sense of humor about it. I have no idea why he doesn't have manners.

But. I guess after reading your post again, it is actually an ongoing issue which she refuses to (or is unable to) fix.
Is she like this with others?
If so, this is probably part of her personality... and it will probably be a hard thing to change. Just as one is sarcastic, blunt, sensitive, etc. - it will probably be hard.
If it's just toward you - then I'm thinking ... well... it may be time to move on.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:03 AM on August 7, 2012 [14 favorites]

In your shoes, I might try just responding with a caring hug and a simple and non-judgemental "no."

It might make sense to take a break from I statements until you get the sense she wants to know how her actions are affecting you. (but maybe if you're thinking of doing that, bring it up in the couples' session.)

I think I'd find the "didn't hear a please" condescending (and easy to escalate/game, by letting it become too literal a request.)

Also look at the Shamu article in detail. I think the best advice there is about very subtle sorts of shaping that might even go unnoticed by the, um, animal..
posted by spbmp at 8:03 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would like advice on what else, if anything, to try.

I've never had luck getting people who issued commands to hear "i" statements.

- Try completely ignoring anything your partner says in the imperative.
- Try saying "do not talk to me like that" every time your partner uses the imperative. (Your partner will eventually figure out that this is hypocritical. Just say that this is the only situation where you'll talk that way.)
posted by salvia at 8:04 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can be pretty bossy and controlling, but only when I'm stressed or not paying attention. The second someone calls me on it, (I think) I get nicer pretty quickly.

I am also a "Do this then that" person, usually it's because I want to get out of a stressful situation with haste and/or I'm distracted and have forgotten my usual manners. I see it as a suboptimal way of communication but not in dealbreaker territory [i.e. I try not to do it but I don't try that hard] However, if my partner said that this behavior was really upsetting to him or otherwise making him dislike the relationship we had, I would work my ass off to try to do this differently even though it's some level of normal for me.

So, I think, as with many relationship things, you need to determine dealbreakerness and have an honest conversation with your partner about it at that level. Not "When you say this I feel unappreciated and bossed around like a servant" but "When you speak to me this way it makes me very unhappy and not wanting to be in this relationship."

And you also need to have a conversation about it with yourself, about whether you don't like the implications that you feel in what she's saying [i.e. that you are unequal, that she doesn't respect you, whatever] or if it's just not okay for her to talk that way to you even if you two find some other way to assure you that she's not disrespecting you. This is where things with the "You do this, I feel that" can break down, because a person can say "Well I don't mean it that way" and you're both just left glaring at each other.
posted by jessamyn at 8:07 AM on August 7, 2012 [8 favorites]

Here is how the conversation needs to go:

HER: Take the car to the shop
YOU: You've asked told me that in the way I don't like, so I am not taking the car to the shop. I'm sorry. No second chances. Next time you ask me something, and you want it done, you'll have to ask differently
YOU: [Stays calm and doesn't take the car to the shop.]

HER: Make me dinner
YOU: You've asked me that in the way I don't like, so I am not making dinner. I'm sorry. No second chances. Next time you ask me something, and you want it done, you'll have to ask differently
YOU: [Stays calm and doesn't make dinner.]

... Eventually:

HER: [I really want anonymous to make me shine my shoes... maybe I'll tell him to, muahaha... OH WAIT]
HER: Hey anonymous, would you please shine my shoes?
YOU: Sure sweetie, I have time for that at the moment (half the time) and Sorry sweetie, I don't feel like it (half the time).
HER: [Mind blown. Life changes. Probably relapses a few times, but anonymous sticks to not doing what she asks, and eventually she does it right 95% of the time.]

What is probably happening now is this:
HER: Take the car to the shop
YOU: I hate when you ask me like that!
YOU: [Takes the car to the shop.]
HER: [Learns absolutely no lesson.]

My source? I worked training animals for several years. And I have been around children. Let a person grumble and get upset, but stick to your guns. I disagree with the posters that you should dump her based on this, because it seems so eminently solvable.

That said, a larger problem might be that she is asking you to do things she can do her own damn self. That problem can also be solved behaviorally but it is a little more insidious because there is some implied disrespect for your time and autonomy. That said, I'd start with solving your current problem about the imperative tone, and see how you feel afterward. Break-ups really suck.

If you fix this and still want to dump her, maybe go for it then.
posted by kellybird at 8:08 AM on August 7, 2012 [46 favorites]

My wife does this.

First - don't take it personally. Honestly, some people are just very direct and it doesn't really imply anything in particular about you.

I appreciate it sometimes, though, because I don't have to guess as to what she wants or would like. And yeah, it can be really infuriatingly insulting sometimes, too.

We've had a few fights about it, and this is what worked for me :

I asked my wife to smile more when she talked to me - that actually helped for her to check that her expression actually matched her inner state.

I asked my wife to include more of her thoughts - less "take out the garbage" more "I would like for you to take out the garbage".

That sort of thing.

FWIW, my wife has the opposite complaint about me - that I'm very cerebral and I don't tend to express what I want or think. She often feels like she has to guess as my expectations and that I am not direct enough.

It's hard for me to change that - it's sort of who I am - but I try because she's right. And I try to give her the same credit, because I think she's climbing the other side of that same hill.

Hope that helps.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:09 AM on August 7, 2012 [12 favorites]

This sounds sadly like your ship is already sinking. Yeah, sure you'll miss her, but do you realize what this means: (although you've objected for several years...) "she cannot bother to treat me even as well as she would a stranger or casual acquaintance."
She cannot bother, period, is what this means. This does not seem to be a place for you to stay. Sorry.
posted by Namlit at 8:11 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you pull your weight in the relationship? I don't mean to blame you for her rude behavior, but it may help to take a closer look at your own behavior and how she is interpreting this. I tend to get this way when there are a million things to do and I feel like I'm the only one taking action.

Honestly, maybe she's sick of ordering you around and wishes you could take some initiative. Does the grass need cutting? Don't wait for her to tell you to do it. When she does ask nicely, do you do what she asked when she asked? Or do you wait 2 weeks to do it?

I find what works for me is an electronically shared to do list. I know I tend to bear the burden of our day-to-day house managing, so I get it all put there so we are always on the same page. He adds to it too. I expect him to do some of the stuff and I of course will tackle some other items. I find that the list cuts down on nagging/ordering because it's for both of us-- not one of us dictating terms to the other.

Being polite and loving is important, but I really don't think I should ask sweetly ten times for my partner to do something. Maybe this is where she is coming from.
posted by murfed13 at 8:20 AM on August 7, 2012 [18 favorites]

You are in a Relationship Cold War.

This happens sometimes in long-term things. You've been together for ten years and your argument/disagreement styles clash enough that resentment got in and spread like mold. Open hostilities are out of the question, so the Relationship Cold War settles in.

This basically involves passive-aggressive behaviors designed to create the appearance of acting in good faith. Eventually the latter quality slips away, and anything short of saying "Fuck you, you're so annoying" is fair game.

The commanding behavior has become more frequent and egregious because you have demonstrated that it bothers you. If your girlfriend respected you, or wanted to make this work in good faith, they might at the very least apologize or try to stop or say "Oops, sorry!" when they do it. Your girlfriend does not. They increase the frequency of this thing that upsets you.

I say girlfriend because this person is emphatically not a partner. They are treating you with contempt. I can't tell you what to do, but I can tell you that if I were in your situation, I'd accept that I'd done as much as I could and tried to make it work, I'd accept that it is no longer in my power to change whether or not I am treated with contempt by this person, and then I would leave.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:26 AM on August 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Try saying "do not talk to me like that" every time your partner uses the imperative. (Your partner will eventually figure out that this is hypocritical. Just say that this is the only situation where you'll talk that way.)

A non-hypocritical way to say this is "I will not be talked to like that" and then walk away.
posted by desjardins at 8:28 AM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

When my ex was a platoon seargent who barked orders all day long, he would sometimes come home and talk to me like he was still barking orders. I would look at him funny and say "I have been sleeping with you since we were both seventeen. I don't take orders. If you want to talk like that, go back to work."

He would go sit at his computer for an hour with his mouth shut until he could ask convivially something like "So what are you cooking, dear?" instead of growling at me something like "Where's my dinner, woman?" It was a bad habit. He wasn't trying to mistreat me. He mostly did this right after work.

The way you say she treats you "like the staff" makes me wonder if she has a job where she has a staff and, perhaps like my ex, maybe she is not really thinking about it. If so, you need to be very firm about not doing as you are told and reminding her you aren't the staff. But try to view it as simple habit, not something malicious or intentionally disrespectful, and remind her (firmly) this isn't the appropriate time and place for that. I wasn't bitchy or anything with my husband. I just reminded him we had a relationship of equals rooted in intimacy -- I was the person he took his clothes off with at night and this had been true since well before he had any career accomplishents -- not a relationship of superior and inferior.
posted by Michele in California at 8:31 AM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, there may be a way to meet in the middle if suffixing "please" to everything is the sticking point. I tend to be a fairly direct person, but I try to say "would you" or "could you" or "honey,..." before speaking in the imperative. And I use a tone of voice that makes what would appear to be a command on paper into a request. (i.e. slight hesitation, rising intonation.)

The exception to this is when I'm cooking us dinner, since I'm the cook, and my SO is sitting at the breakfast table having a cocktail. I will absolutely point and say "hand me X" or "move" etc. because, hey, it's a small kitchen and I'm rattling pots and pans while you hang out. So sometimes its contextual. But even then I try not to be too abrupt...

A non-hypocritical way to say this is "I will not be talked to like that" and then walk away.
Or, "I'm sorry, are you talking to me?" or "I don't work for you" or just "no--you can ask me nicely or you can do it yourself."

Is this something that your partner is insensitive to directed at her? Can you speak to her in the imperative all day, without it bothering her? (Perhaps because she just mentally translates commands into requests? I kind of do that.) That can make it tough for someone to understand just how much a behavior rankles you.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:33 AM on August 7, 2012

I would agree with the CBT people in addition to the counseling that you're already doing.

She tells you to do something? "No." "Why?" "You didn't ask nicely." "Please X?" "No." "Why not?!" "Because I would like you to remember to ask nicely in future, and the best way I know how to do that is to say no when you don't ask nicely the first time. I'm sorry my need for being treated like a valued friend and peer is inconveniencing you at the moment, but that's where we are right now."

Just don't do things you're ordered to do. And prepare an exit plan.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:50 AM on August 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Are there other examples of how "she cannot bother to treat [you] even as well as she would a stranger or casual acquaintance"? Does your partner have any reason to resent you? Do you have any reason to be ultra-sensitive about this? Does she work/earn/do more than you do? I realize you're anonymous and can't really readily answer these questions, but I'm left wondering WHY she would treat you this way. And my standard ruminative exercise is to work out what part I play in the whole scenario.

It sounds like you are pretty certain that this is the only way that you can ever be shown respect, and while I celebrate your right to your own feelings, I worry that you're leaving your partner no safe place to be herself and respect you in her own way. (Absent any other evidence, I have a very hard time taking a grammatical quirk all the way to abuse. That's not to say it can't be. But I can just think of a million reasons for this grammatical tick to show up in someone's usage, and "Disrespecting My Partner" is a drop in that particular bucket of potential options.) Sure, the ultimate question is whether you are happy. But the second part of that question is whether you are giving your partner the opportunity to help you be happy.

I know, you're thinking "Maybe she should just be polite to me!" Sure. But what if that's just not part of her repertoire? Here are a handful of reasons someone might choose to use a grammatical construction that you find displeasing:

- They are not a native speaker of the language.
- They are a native speaker of the language, but their linguistic skills are not strong, and they therefore miss the nuance.
- They speak another language in addition to the language that you use to communicate, and in order to simplify their multiple language usage, they use non-standard grammatical quirks as mnemonic devices. (I'm not describing this terribly well, but my cousin does this when she speaks English, and I do this in French. I'm much more apt to use "anticiper" in French to mean "anticipation" although it does not carry the same connotation in that language as it does in English, and ultimately makes me harder to understand.)
- They work in a profession where they feel marginalized and are working on developing a commanding presence in order to assert themselves.
- They work in a profession that requires that they assert themselves.
- Their sub-culture taught them (either explicitly or through observation) that this was the appropriate way to interact.
- They just don't care about your feelings.
posted by jph at 8:50 AM on August 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Are you in this relationship because of a sunk cost fallacy? "We've been together 10 years, if I dump her now, I'll have wasted all that time."

If that's the case, cut your losses and get out. Sure she's intelligent and fun to be around. Is that 90% of the time, 20% of the time or .005% of the time? Knowing that is understanding the magnitude of this problem.

If you're happy in your relationship 60% or more of the time, it's salvageable using some of the techniques mentioned above. If you're unhappy 60% or more of the time, it's time to bounce.

It was a good run while it lasted, but ultimately it was time to move on.

Most things in life are simple. This is simple. Either you're mostly happy or mostly unhappy. Everything else is negotiable.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:53 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Three little words, to preface every imperative: "Hey, can you..."

You're not being treated like the staff: people shouldn't be speaking to the staff that way. She seems like an obnoxious person.

There's a great "All in the Family" episode where Edith bugs out at Archie for speaking to her this way: "I ain't taking no orders."
posted by moammargaret at 8:53 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

because I do not seem to be heard when we argue,

This is the hardest part of what you have described. It makes one feel invisible and not worthy of simple human respect to be consistently talked over, and sometimes even more imperiously. I just asked a client to resign, though there's another month to go on the contract, because there was no negotiation happening at the table, simply "jackhammering" of what I should be doing, this, that and the other. You are in a long term intimate relationship and this will be more difficult to disentangle, but when I found that it was this critical aspect of this project that was wearing me down and making me miserable - that my wishes, heck, I wasn't even being respected enough to be asked if I wanted to do something and I'm not an employee but an advisor - I walked.

Explore this element of your interactions with your partner, particularly if you have your own counsellor or therapist. Identify how it makes you feel and whether elements of this are showing up in other ways... subtler ways... all of which go towards making you feel like a nothing, being ridden roughshod over. It doesn't always have to be just words and it can often be a sign of an extremely self centered personality who is completely incapable of seeing things from any other person's point of view or perspective.
posted by infini at 9:07 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since your partner's reaction to having this rude behavior pointed out to her is to ESCALATE it, I'm afraid it's probable that she is now doing it KNOWING how much it rubs you wrong. She knows exactly what she is doing, whether she is doing is as a)a power trip, proving SHE is in charge; or b)a conscious effort to make YOU take the blame for breaking up your relationship, not innocent-left-behind her.

I'm very sorry, but it seems your relationship IS drawing to an end; please get into individual therapy to help you through this.
posted by easily confused at 9:19 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing that it sounds like the real problem is not that she tells and not asks. That's a symptom and not the disease. It sounds like the real problem is that she treats you poorly and refuses to change.

I'm going to make some wild guesses here, based on some similar dynamics I've seen in other relationships. Essentially, she doesn't respect you any more. You almost always do it her way because you want to make her happy. You're trying to be nice.

Unfortunately, the way that's played out is that she sees you as a doormat. This doesn't have to be a conscious decision she's made. It's something she's learned over the course of your relationship. She's learned that she never has to do it your way and doesn't have to even treat you well, because you will eventually back down. She may not be a bully, but you're being bullied.

You've tried talking and compromise, and they haven't worked. You have two choices, as I see it. The first is to start pushing back. When she gives you an order, you refuse. You say, "I don't respond to orders. You can ask. Nicely." This is only one example, because remember, the orders are only the symptom. You have to start stating your opinion, doing it your way, and stop taking orders. I get that this is not your natural way of being, and frankly, I don't think it's likely to permanently change the relationship dynamic. But I do think it's the only way to re-balance the relationship. If you have any chance of saving the relationship, you have to stand up for yourself.

Your other choice is to end the relationship. Based on what you've said, this would be my advice. You have someone that has refused to treat you better. Leaving is extraordinarily difficult after such a long relationship, but if you take anything at all away from this answer, take this:
There is someone else out there who will treat you the way you treat her.
You can be happy in a relationship, and be treated very well, but probably not by this person.
posted by cnc at 9:37 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

You basically need to pull rank. You don't outrank her, of course, but she doesn't outrank you either. The appropriate response when she gives you an order is a look of amusement mixed with incredulity and something like, "Excuse me?" or "Would you like to rephrase that?"

I don't agree with those who are advocating for punishing her bad behavior by refusing to do whatever she's ordering even after she changes it to a request. You just need to internalize the idea that she doesn't have the right to order you around and then it won't bother you as much when she does. If you do it right, she will also eventually (it could take a while) start to feel silly giving you orders.

So say, "Excuse me?" And if she then asks nicely, go ahead and respond the same way as you would have if she had started out asking nicely.

Your target is not her rational mind, it's her lizard mind. You want her to recognize you on a deep, gut level as someone she can't order around. Don't argue and ask her to change her ways, just don't let her pull that shit with you anymore.
posted by callmejay at 9:38 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was going to post the Shamu article! I am 100% in favor of refusing to respond to orders from others. Not asking them to rephrase, even, just refusing to respond until they reframe the order as a request.

Your wife sounds like a jerk. She must have lots of other great qualities to make up for this, unless you feel like you can't do better. If she doesn't have lots of other great qualities to make up for this, you can do better.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:42 AM on August 7, 2012

One's beloved shouldn't speak to one this way. End of discussion. If things are getting worse, it's time to punt.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:49 AM on August 7, 2012

This shouldn't be a big deal for her to change if she actually wants to change it. I had a coworker pull me up short for doing this to him a while back, and it was not a big deal. It went like this:

ME: Trent, come over here and help me get these guys' cigars packed up. Then go to the humidor and restock the Rothschilds, then talk to those folks over at the bench.

Trent does all this, and then pulls me aside once things have calmed down and there aren't customers around.

TRENT: Man, I understand that you've been here longer than I have but that was disrespectful. I'm not a dog, don't give me commands. Ask me to do something and it'll get done, but you need to speak more respectfully to me.

ME: Oh shit man, I'm sorry. I just got a little overwhelmed because we were slammed back there. You're right, I wasn't being respectful. I try to treat people better than that. Thank you for pulling me up, I won't talk to you like that again. We cool?

TRENT: Yeah, we cool.

Trent and I shake hands. Curtain closes.

That was that. I didn't talk to him like that again and he didn't hold a grudge against me. The problem was solved. If your partner isn't able to do this with you then either she needs to talk to a counselor to help her work on her interpersonal issues (which would require her to actually geniunely see that she has a problem and have a desire to fix it) or else maybe you need to just not be with this woman. I'm sure she's got many wonderful qualities but if this is a constant bone of contention and nothing is happening to fix this despite couple's counseling (I think she really needs to be seeing her own counselor for this specific problem, and she needs to be doing it because she wants to fix her problem, not because you're making her do it) then you need to either make your own peace with it and learn to let it roll off your back, or else move on with your life and leave her behind.
posted by Scientist at 10:11 AM on August 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

You don't sound well-matched as a couple. Were this, say, 2 guys in a bar, you'd assume one was deliberately trying to provoke the other, probably to be able to claim the provokee had started a fight.

Your 'partner' is being disrespectful, deliberately so. She wants a reaction, perhaps she wants you to stand up to her, perhaps she wants you to initiate a breakup.
posted by epo at 10:24 AM on August 7, 2012

"Do such-and-such."
kiss cheek.
"No. Not unless you ask me properly/ not with that attitude/ not if you're going to be rude/ not if you speak to me like that/not if you keep forgetting your manners/ etc". (Gently and happily)... or even just "no, sweetie". In response to "what! Why not!?": smile. Kiss cheek. Walk away.

Repeat as necessary for a few months. Do not get angry. Do not start a discussion or fight Anger is reinforcement.

I think that if she's going to act like a child, she can handle being dealt with like one. Or you could date someone who doesn't leave you feeling badly.
posted by windykites at 11:06 AM on August 7, 2012

I'd keep it even simpler.

Her:"Do this, then do that." "Take the car to the shop."
You: "No."
posted by jmmpangaea at 11:21 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, man. I have spent the last few years slowly and arduously working my way out of an impasse with my husband that shares some similarities to what you describe (though I'm the bossy one---and also the one that demanded change/therapy.)

What has been touched on in the answers, but not really explicitly addressed, is that these kind of impasses arise because *both* partners are caught up in the dynamic. I am NOT blaming you here, merely pointing out that you are very likely pressing *her* buttons just as hard as she is pressing yours.

That she's escalating as you are dealing with this in therapy is what catches my eye here. Does she otherwise love you? Does she say she wants to be with you? Do you believe that, on any level? Then the reason she's speaking this way is because, from her perspective, it's the right way (or maybe just the effective way) to address her issue. Because she's doing MORE of it, it means that she is working harder to solve HER problem in HER style.

What does she say about why she's speaking that way? A few people have suggested potential reasons. In counseling, is she expressing frustrations that you aren't hearing? The way she's acting suggests to me that she, too, doesn't feel like she's being heard or respected--that she needs to literally command it.

In essence, what she is trying to convey is very different from what you receive. Spanning that gap, arriving at mutual understanding, is what's going to solve that problem.

It's so, so hard to step away from the conflict when it's pushing your buttons so hard. But honestly, if you start to cultivate this as a curious phenomenon you need to understand (want to understand, lovingly approach), you will do much, much better. Of course for this to be successful she needs to come around to the same sympathetic and curious perspective--you can't force her to, but you can take the lead and be the good example. Someone needs to start it--it can be you.

I often recommend Terry Real's New Rules of Marriage, here on Metafilter, and I'll recommend it here too. The part about CNI (Core Negative Image) is right on target here....

MeMail if you'd like a sounding board, or for some examples of how my husband and I got into a seemingly intractable mess--but have been working out way out, slowly but surely.

Hang in there. Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 12:40 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

it is this being addressed as the staff that rankles the most even though it is nothing like physical violence. The couples' counseling has advised us to say "When you x, I feel y" where x = the behavior complained of; y = hurt, fear, (other basic emotion). I've done it, quite a bit. It hasn't worked. The behavior has become more frequent and more egregious.

This is just my experience, and obviously, yours is different, but what happened to me was: it began with exactly the behavior you describe, and eventually she escalated to physical violence - once we started going to therapy, actually.

I'm not at all suggesting one will always lead to the other, but just pointing out that the way she speaks to you is actually very like physical violence. It may not be illegal, but given that you've asked her to do something most young children learn fairly easily and she has refused, the odds are high that she's intentionally being abusive, or she is suffering from an emotional or mental disorder of some kind.
posted by eustacescrubb at 2:01 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the negative side she cannot bother to treat me even as well as she would a stranger or casual acquaintance.

This is a red flag.

I would miss her a lot if we ended our relationship.

Familiarity makes us smooth over all kinds of things just for the sake of keeping everything normal. You can miss someone and know you shouldn't be with them.

I feel as though she is taking advantage of the fact I like her to have her way a lot and it doesn't feel like a partnership any more.

Trust your feelings.
posted by heyjude at 3:46 PM on August 7, 2012

I've been there.
she cannot bother to treat me even as well as she would a stranger or casual acquaintance
Momentary glitches in the relationship are resolvable if they're against a background of caring about you and what you want. But this points in my mind to a lack of caring about you.
Also some people feel that if they give in a millimeter in a situation that they'll lose the whole fight. Especially in a relationship since in a relationship you share some 'territory'. This is the 'cold war' aspect that was mentioned above. In that case any of the interventions mentioned above will be recognised as what they are; trying to change her, and will be battled more. Often under a cover of social acceptability and going through the motions of resolving this. An escalation of wits.
I've come away with the conclusion that couples counseling, which I tried as well, etc can only work if there's a foundation of caring what the other wants.
Also some people lack the reflexive qualities to recognise what they're doing and snap out of it.

In my case it painfully didn't work out. But we hadn't been together for 10 yrs.
'Your mileage may vary' as the american saying goes.
posted by joost de vries at 9:58 PM on August 7, 2012

Rather than continuing to tell her you don't like her imperatives, or her tone, just don't respond to her when she does it. Once she realizes she won't be getting her way, she may try a softer approach, which will be rewarded with your enthusiasm to help her in any way you can. When I tell me 4 year old to stop whining, I'm met with more whining. When I tell her "mommy doesn't understand whiny, so when you start talking in your normal and polite voice, I will help you". I get decent results, mostly.
posted by waving at 12:44 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're ready to leave, and if so then I think you ought to do so. You're in therapy and you feel it's not working, what else is there? You'll miss her sure, it would be strange if you didn't, but it sounds like what you're telling us is that you've tried everything and now you want to leave. In addition to everyone else up there you've got my permission too.
posted by blue_bicycle at 3:01 PM on August 8, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
Thank you, folks. I realize this relationship is odds-on to founder. It wouldn't have been right to not try everything and there are lots of ideas that are of help. kellybird has it down, and I shall try that advice before giving up. cnc is right as well, there are obvious marks of disrespect or scorn and it took that comment for me to understand it.

If the young rope-rider should put a vertical bar between "I like her" and "to have her way a lot" then the odd construction might make more sense. You're right, the sentence needed a different structure, but when I wrote it I was a bit raw and it's usually a lucky accident when I can create such a sentence.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:48 PM on August 8, 2012

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