Spouse's forgetfulness
March 20, 2013 8:17 PM   Subscribe

My spouse's forgetfulness is a never ending source of intermittent random stressful events. I respond with panic and frustration. Hoping I can get some help with my reaction to these events.

I love and am committed to my spouse with every ounce of my being. For brevity's sake, I won't expand on all his wonderful qualities but they are countless.

But he is are very very forgetful, and not good planner. We as a couple and he himself have a variety of strategies, tools, and other things we work with to minimize problems. For as long as I've known him and for his whole life according to him he has dealt with this, I have no illusions that his problems with this will ever go away.

He does well in life generally, gets accepted to his top schools, makes good grades, excels in his research and gets promoted at work. That said, it's inevitable that on a somewhat regular basis, an absolute emergency panic situation is created by his forgetfulness.

Most recently, he was working on a paper he had gotten an extension on already all day long without saving the document. Of course the computer crashed and life was turned upside down. He texts me freaking out. I call him and the whole time I am fighting the urge to shout "ARE YOU SERIOUS, HOW COULD YOU WORK ON SOMETHING ALL DAY AND NEVER SAVE IT?!!?!" (he usually does save stuff as he's working, he just randomly forgot to do that today, i can never predict what form the next emergency will take). the rest of myt day is ruined as I am alone panicking for him, alternately being furious with him for doing something so silly, or filled with tons of sorrow and dread for him. Cortisol and stress hormones in my body through the roof.

So I'm not looking for help for him, I'm looking for help for me. I don't forget things (for the most part). I have a planner, I plan things, for the most part I don't let this sort of thing happen to myself. So when it happens to him, I get sick and nauseous and terrified of what the consequences may be for him- most of the time he scrapes through alright, but more than once there are pretty bad consequences. The worst is when there is nothing I can do. If I can get to work and help him repair the damage, that's better but quite often I can't and so I just have to watch a terrible situation unfold.

It's hard to think of ways I can deal with this without creating distance between us which is absolutely not what I want. So if people have dealt with similar things than strategies you have found useful would be appreciated.

FYI: I am thankfully familiar with and already use different mindfulness/breathing techniques but if you have a very specific one you think is great please suggest. If our budget and my schedule allowed me to see a therapist I would, but it is not an option.

Also, part of my frustration is I can't really talk to anyone about this. I just can't imagine being able to call someone and vent about this, because I love him and am protective of what other people think about him, so I could never effectively vent to anyone even though I imagine it might help a lot.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Why don't you tell him to not call you in a panic and instead tell you after he has found (and acted on) a solution. He is a grown-up, he can solve his own problems without making his spouse frantic.
posted by saucysault at 8:32 PM on March 20, 2013 [39 favorites]

Can you advise him to shield you a bit from the situations?

I'm pretty disorganised, and always have been. If I had, say, the file-save issue going on, I wouldn't tell my SO. I've been like this my whole life, so I am adapted to this sort of thing, and won't freak out at the lack of control. She can't help. Her knowing doesn't help.

So, yeah, sort of what saucysault has said.
posted by pompomtom at 8:34 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I can get to work and help him repair the damage, that's better but quite often I can't and so I just have to watch a terrible situation unfold.

I have a partner with a very similar problem. I am not married to my partner and that may be the different between my situation and yours. It seems like there are a few steps here that may not be changeable and a few that are

- You love and support your partner is a given
- Your partner is forgetful/absentminded to a degree that is problematic (maybe not fixable, maybe is, let's assume it's not but don't rule it out entirely)
- Your partner gets into mishaps where he freaks out (likely more manageable, perhaps he has anxiety or other issues, either way this is his problem to manage more than it is yours. Accidents may happen, freaking out about accidents does not have to happen.)
- You try to show up and make it all better (I was unclear on this part, you go to his work and try to fix his work, or the two of you work together?) which implies to me that your partner gets into these situations but you get you out of them. This is no good, stop doing that. I understand that marriage is a team situation, but it should not be your job to set your life aside to keep your husband a functioning employed human being. If he can not do that on his own you have to face some realities about the type of man you are married to.
- Debrief... do you debrief? do the two of you talk about ways these situations could go better between you. How he could freak out less and how you could freak out less?

It seems to me, being a person on the outside of this, whose partner has, on occasion forgotten presents I have given to them the day before and also forgotten what religion I was, that you keeping his bad memory a secret isn't doing anyone any favors. It needs to be an out in the open thing and you need to not only talk about it together but also talk about it with other people your husband may need to interact with. And that when these things happen you don't have to be like "OH HOW COULD YOU??" but you can be like "This is another example of your bad memory and the resultant panic causing more drama in my life than I am comfortable with. What are we going to do about that?" And for me I had to face the fact that if I could deal with the fact that my guy was a bit of an absentminded perfesser (who now exercises more and takes antidepressants sometimes in the winter which helps with his ADD a lot) then I shouldn't be with him. That if all I wanted was the me-enhanced version of him, that wasn't really fair to him or to me.

And as for me, I stay busy doing things and get a lot of exercise and eat well and don't have coffee after 5 pm. If he has a freak out thing when I am not available, that's just how things go. I turn off my phone at night and he can call my landlady if there's some actual emergency but it does cut down on the late night panic emails/texts that were part of our routine beforehand. My mantra is that he has to have more of a safety net than just me and the only way he can build this up is by not having me there to always do the bailout. I'm not sure from your post whether these are like "Someone could lose their job or get hurt" emergencies or "I feel really agita about this even though what's really at state is getting a B instead of an A" sorts of things. Learning to triage between the former and the latter and gently giving him more room to fail on his own if it's the latter is a good start. And if you really are getting a lot of the former types of emergencies, figuring out ways to mitigate before they get to that part.
posted by jessamyn at 8:34 PM on March 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

This is SO familiar to me. And there is a solution. One that's easy for me to say and plenty hard to actually do, but it is the path out of the wilderness.

***There is a difference between boundaries and distance.***

Right now you're thinking that getting upset about/for him shows how close you are. Not getting upset would be pulling away. Not true. Your current distress is not about his problems, it's about your reactions to his problems.

The solution is not to "tell him" to do anything differently. The solution is for you to stop acting as if the problem -- whatever it is he's done -- is yours. It's not. There are lots of ways to work on boundary issues -- all of the involving YOU, not him. One thing that helps me is remembering that you getting upset over his mistake makes it harder for him. Not only has he fucked up, he's freaked you out -- again.

The first steps in establishing boundaries are the hardest. You might try a little self-examination, and see if there were people in your past, particularly your parents, who destroyed your sense of boundaries early on. If that did happen, once you see it, your desire to strengthen your boundaries is a lot stronger.
posted by kestralwing at 8:42 PM on March 20, 2013 [9 favorites]

You could try to change his behavior by your current methods or you could change your tack entirely and try what Shamu teaches about a happy marriage.
posted by diode at 8:50 PM on March 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

"I'm sorry that this happened, do you need me to do anything? No? Okay, well keep me updated."
posted by empath at 8:54 PM on March 20, 2013 [10 favorites]

I am willing to bet that none of these things that he's had a panic over forgetting has ever been fatal. Ever.

So start from there. You're not going to die of it. He's not going to die of it. Some people might think a little less of him sometimes, but you know him and love him and that's the important part, isn't it?

So, this happens. Encourage him to let his superior/professor know that he's been delayed because he lost his document when his computer crashed, do what you can to encourage him through catching up the work that's behind, but remember that nobody's going to die, nobody's life is going to be totally destroyed. It feels huge at the time, but put it in context. Everybody has some failures.

It will be okay. Tell yourself that, then remind him of that, then disengage until you have time/energy to deal with more.

Now, I know you didn't ask for help for him, but if he's forgetting stuff when he's already needed an extension on a paper, etc, I'm going to ask: Has he had ADD screening? Does he have meds? I have the working memory of a goldfish. I spent most of my life not realizing that this was actually a sign of ADD because I didn't feel distractable, I just felt like my brain was not recording events as they happened. I do much better with meds. It's still not perfect, but it helps, and being more organized in general means that the lapses are less of a big deal.
posted by Ex-Wastrel at 8:57 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm quite like this (your partner, that is). I think it might help for you to keep in mind that for someone who is like this, while the crises are, of course, stressful, they acquire a certain...familiarity. If your spouse is otherwise as successful in his endeavors as he sounds, then he knows from experience that despite these hiccups, his life will go on, and it will work out somehow (or it won't and that will be ok). Being a high-functioning scatterbrain is pretty self-perpetuating, because you fuck up, and then notice that in spite of the stress things tend to turn out okay anyway*, so there's really no incentive to change your behavior, and you're conditioned to keep the same habits and just deal with the consequences.

*In my experience many high-functioning people with actual ADD and ADD-like personalities also tend, either because of or in spite of their challenges, to have particularly strong improvisational abilities and social instincts for damage control.
posted by threeants at 9:29 PM on March 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

is there no autosave feature you could turn on? i am absentminded, and this has saved my bacon more times than i can count.
posted by messiahwannabe at 9:40 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have enough faith in him to believe that he can solve this without you. Without your listening ear, without your input, without your advice, without your fix it can do abilities. He can, really. It may seem precarious, and poorly organized, like watching a car skid around a curve way too fast, but whatever his way is, he can handle it. Really.

And if you didn't exist, he would handle it. He wouldn't text you, vent, panic, or whatever he does when he gets in a jam, and he'd still figure it out. You are not important to that process. The fact that he made it to adulthood suggests that he has the ability to get himself in and out of jams just fine. So that's not the problem.

So if the problem is that witnessing his panic is messing with your equilibrium and well being, then stop witnessing it. Ask him, at least for the next 3-6 months, to not call you when he is in some sort of emergency panic, unless it's a hospital or jail thing. Tell him that the anxiety rush and frustration is not good for you, and you want to see what it's like not to experience it for a while. And then, have him contact you only after he's fixed it, or has come up with some type of solution.

I do think Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart is good, in terms of being mindful in the face of crisis, but I think there is something else here, which is to not take on his crisis. To let him have his crisis.

Look, perhaps the stress of situations like these are in fact what drive you to be a planner. You've organized yourself to avoid last minute forgetful drama things like this, and the up front cost of planning is worth it to you for the peace of mind it brings. Assuming this isn't a mental health or ADHD issue, the up front cost and time of planning isn't worth it to him, so occasionally he gets in a jam. He's invested his time differently, so let him live with the joys and freedoms of that choice - and manage the problems. Whatever you have to do - send back a text message that says, I'm sorry this is happening, I know you can handle it - do it. But don't intervene. It isn't healthy for plannerific people to step in an intervene in non-plannerific people's problems. The burnout is just going to be higher for you, unless you disengage.

When my less plannerish partner gets into a jam, I repeat to myself that people are creative, resourceful and whole, and that I have to give him a chance to solve his own problem, and remind myself that the stress of his problem hits me harder than him. Finally, after time seventy five of him looking around the house for his keys, I literally had to decide to leave the room and to not step in for about the next ten times, other than saying that I support him, to prove to myself that he could figure it out. And he did. Every. Single. Time. With solutions I could not have thought of, and outcomes that he really could live with. Time number eleven, as I sat on the couch as he looked around, I realized I was calm, and I didn't even look up from my book other than to mumble, 'let me know if I can help'. The man now has a a key ring and chain he attaches to his belt. And it's so big he rarely loses it, so it works like a charm. But it took about eleven times for me to let go of trying to fix it for him before I could stop jumping up and just sit in a room and let him check under furniture for his keys. But I did, and that worked like a charm as well.

So stop jumping in front of his bullet. It's stopping both of you from realizing he is resilient enough to solve his own problems, and/or live with the consequences if he can't. Don't figure it out for him or together, don't change your plans, don't walk him through it, don't be part of the implementation problem unless he specifically asks for something, don't stay on the phone with him venting, and if he sends a stressful tweet, tell him you believe he can handle it, and then give him the space to try. In short, do not emotionally or physically carry this and do whatever you have to do to to distract yourself. Including telling your friends. Not that he's careless, but how hard it is for you not to step in when someone you care about is flailing, but that you know you need to not do so.

And if you have a couple extra moments, try to figure out why it is emotionally so difficult for you to let your partner have his own experience, even if it's to fail. It's only in our troubles that we figure out how to do things differently in a way that works for us, and in failures that we discover how many of our worst fears we really can face. I suggest to you that being his partner isn't cushioning his fall (by scrambling to soften the blow), it's about letting him have his experience, and letting him grow through them. Don't try to stop feeling stressed. Just don't try to avoid the feeling of stress and panic by jumping in and helping him.

So, next time he's in a jam, everybody should try to play their position as long as they can. Him, solving problem. You, just letting yourself feel what you feel - worry, panic, etc. - and going on about your day without changing your plans. Doing whatever you have to to accept yourself, with mantras of people being creative, resourceful and whole, or mindfulness, or whatever. Just don't go deeper into the vortex by beating yourself up for feeling worried, or stressed, or panicked, or guilty or whatever you feel. Just let yourself be you and realize you are also creative, resourceful and whole enough to weather those feelings. I think that's how it's supposed to work.
posted by anitanita at 9:58 PM on March 20, 2013 [15 favorites]

Ha! I am you, but for a slightly different reason. My husband likes to re-arrange where common items end up, like, a total re-organization of files, tools, the linen closet - you name it - without telling me. So the next time I'm running late or on a business call, suddenly I can't find the pens, an important document, a screw driver, or whatever else I need.

We got married very quickly, I did not know he was like this. It is his only fault. And since I am the forgetful one, not being able to find xyz dependably in the same spot because that's where I put it last ... *shudder*

I become incendiary. Apoplectic. In short, I go mad.

(In my defense, it is totally crazy-making to reach for something and find it's not there. I imagine it is totally crazy-making when everything is sailing along and then *BAM* you're at the airport and husband forgot his passport or wallet at home. I get it.)

This was a BIG issue in our marriage, the way that your husband's habit causes a BIG issue in your marriage.

Three things solve this type of issue, whatever the cause:

#1. Place a Hard Boundary on the worst offense.

For you, it might be that he not call you with dramas while you are at work. For me, it is that my kitchen, my closet, and my car are not ever ever ever to be interferred with. Pick your boundary. Enforce it.

#2. Remember (often, like make it a habit to keep this in mind) that your spouse is the most special person on Earth who loves you like no one else ever has.

This one really helps. When these "husband-made-emergencies" crop up, they don't seem as dire if you are already in the head/heart space of feeling love for your guy.

#3. Try to remember that everything is solvable, it isn't the end of the world. It's all about perspective.

You are totally correct that it is all about your reaction and perspective.

It's a lot easier to remain calm and respond with kindness and patience if you are already feeling that for your spouse when this bullshit crops up.

This is the magic technique.

posted by jbenben at 10:50 PM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I recommend completely ignoring this type of behavior from your spouse. It might go away.

I read an article (Slate - several years ago) that recommended ignoring spouses who were panicking about things like lost keys and wallets. This article stated that any attention - positively helping or negatively yelling - simply reinforced the spouse to involve you with the situation.

Since I started ignoring any discussions of lost phones, keys or wallets my spouse has almost completely stopped bringing me into these situations. I do miss the drama that comes from seeing complete panic (my keys are lost, I have to tell my boss, they will charge me to change all the locks on the building, we are broke, our life is ruined) transform into absolute euphoria (the keys are back, my life is saved, this is the best day ever) within a few minutes.
posted by jazh at 2:31 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a super-forgetful person, and my husband is not. So I have dealt with this but not from the perspective you have.

That said, it sounds like the main issue here is that you're processing his forgetfulness through the lens of your own non-forgetfulness. If you got yourself into one of these scrapes, it would be exceptional and rare and probably symptomatic of your planning system having unexpectedly and massively let you down, so you'd respond as if it was a major drop-everything-and-fix-it emergency - because it would be, for you. But it's not for him.

Here's what I mean: When he gets into one of these situations, your stress hormones go "through the roof" - because you're responding in the same ALL PANIC SYSTEMS TO DEFCON-1 way that you would if this happened to you. You "get sick and nauseous and terrified of what the consequences may be for him" - because for you, those consequences are something you've made sure you don't have to face, and therefore something massive and fearful and to be dreaded. The rest of your day "is ruined as I am alone panicking for him" - because, again, this would be a major lifechanging event if it happened to you, so that's how you react when it happens to him. You drop everything to help him (possibly including going to his work to help him? yeah, stop doing that) and devote your day to fixing his situation, and you can't think of an alternative way to deal "without creating distance between us" - because for you, this would be an exceptional emergency situation, and of course it would create distance between you for him to fail to rush to your rescue in an exceptional emergency situation. You don't want to vent to someone about the situation "because I love him and am protective of what other people think about him" - because for you to be this forgetful and disorganised would mean you not bothering to plan carefully and remember things, and therefore you believe that if you describe the situation to someone else, they'll think the same way about him.

But he's not you. These aren't exceptional emergency panic situations for him, they're business as usual. He has found ways of coping with them. And probably his ways of coping do involve some degree of panic and stress, and do involve having to face unpleasant consequences sometimes, yes. But, he is coping. You're reacting as though he's constantly teetering on the edge of catastrophe, and would plummet to his doom if you didn't rush in to save things, but you said yourself that he "gets accepted to his top schools, makes good grades, excels in his research and gets promoted at work". Even if he has to face bad consequences sometimes, even if for you those consequences would be unthinkably awful, they don't seem to be endangering his prospects of continued success and employment. He doesn't need you to ride in like the cavalry, even if he's acting as though he does.

So I think the main thing you need to do here is break the dynamic where you're doing the work of these situations, whether that's the practical drop-everything-and-come-fix-the-problem work (which maybe needs doing, although it's probably something he can do by himself and even if it doesn't get done it probably won't cause total life-ruining catastrophe) or it's the emotional ARGH OH NO PANIC work (which might be something he needs to do to get by, possibly, but certainly isn't something you need to do for him). Remind yourself that this is not an exceptional life-threatening emergency, that the dire consequences you fear probably won't happen and probably won't be all that dire even if they do, and that this is not as big a problem for him as it would be for you. And you absolutely can vent about this to your friends, because it is not a major emergency and he is not a person on the edge of catastrophe.

Also, you need to stop rushing to fix things. It's difficult to tell from your question whether you do this because he expects you to, or because you think it's the correct response, or whether you've been thinking it's the correct response for so long that he now expects you to, but whatever the reason you need to stop doing it unless it really is an exceptional emergency. He texts you saying "Help, I've broken my leg and can't get through to emergency services!", you go and help. He texts you saying "Help, I've accidentally lost a paper I hadn't saved!", your response is "Oh no! *hugs*" and then going back to your day. Maybe he'll get another extension, maybe he'll have to stay up all night writing it, but one way or the other he'll sort it out without serious injury or death. It isn't good for either of you if you're always the one to do damage control when he screws things up.

To give a practical example from my own relationship: a few years ago, I had to catch a plane. I remembered to take my wallet but forgot that I had taken all my credit and debit cards out of it the night before (why? who knows), and only had a little bit of cash with me. I only realised this once I was already at the airport - at 5am, with no time to get back home, with a long as-yet-unpaid-for train ride between my destination airport and the city I was going to. ARGH. At the time my relationship was still new, and my well-organised boyfriend was still seeing it as his job to fix all the scrapes I got myself into through disorganisation and forgetfulness, and I found myself thinking "I know, I'll call him! He'll know what to do!" And then I thought, no. He will panic. He will see this as a serious serious major problem, rather than the way I'm seeing it (wildly oscillating between "OH GOD ALL IS RUINED" and "this is going to be a hilarious story one day"). And it will become just the way this relationship works, that I rely on him to fix stuff for me, that I can't look after myself the way I've always managed somehow, and I do not want that to happen. So I dealt with it by myself instead (scraped together enough coins to get train fare to destination city, called bank to see where nearest branch was in destination city, used passport to withdraw money, told boyfriend later as a funny story once situation was fixed), and it was fine.

So now it works out. If I need something specific, I call him and ask for it ("hey, I forgot my wallet, if you're going into town at lunchtime could you take it with you and I'll meet you to get it?"), but I don't call him with generic "fix this situation for me" panic. If he's there when I forget something or otherwise screw it up, he accepts that a certain amount of panic and self-flagellation is just how I deal with it, and doesn't get caught up in the chaos beyond "hey, it'll be fine, you are not in fact a total failure" type of reassurance. And on the rare occasions when he forgets something major, and goes into full-on panic station mode because he just doesn't do that and so doesn't have a well-practiced routine for how to cope with it, I can reassure him - because after all, I'm the expert on coping with this!

I can take care of myself, and your husband can take care of himself, too. But he won't do it if neither of you believe he can.
posted by Catseye at 3:44 AM on March 21, 2013 [15 favorites]

I know a couple of people like this and my theory is that they actually enjoy the drama and excitement on some level. I, like you, would never ever want to lock my keys in my car for example or have my phone die at the most important moment ever so I go to great pains to avoid these things. Maybe it's subconscious or maybe I am viewing your husband 'through my own lens' but losing his work was easily avoidable and he took a slightly thrilling gamble and lost on not saving it. Maybe he also enjoys your caring reactions? I know you don't want to disengage but having stress hormones flood through you is not fun. I would definitely tell him not to call you at work in these pickles if there is nothing you can do. He needs to just tell you about the problem's resolution when you get home. I know I can't handle vicarious stress so that would be my plan.
posted by bquarters at 4:06 AM on March 21, 2013

This is like dog training. Your husband is getting some reinforcement every time you fix his problems. Whether you're going to the extent to actually find the autosaved file or just offering extreme amounts of sympathy for losing his keys, he's getting the treat every time. So why should he offer a different behavior?

Try giving nothing in exchange for his panic. No treat. No reaction. "That sucks. I guess you'll have to recreate the paper. Or maybe ask your IT staff if there's a tape backup that might be accessible. Btw, do you need anything from the store? I'll add it to my list." This is not punishment or distancing yourself; it's protecting yourself from the preventable panics your husband is creating.

My husband has a similar problem on a smaller scale. When he "forgets" and throws the plastic spoon into the sink and I don't see it until it's already ground up in the disposal, do you think I stand there with my hands in the hole and pull out the pieces? No, I do not. I calmly say "Hey, since you put the spoon in the sink, how about you come over here and pull it out?" I'm also fond of saying things like "I'll be waiting in the car while you're looking for your wallet." And then, in times of calm, I say things like "It's annoying/makes us late/costs us money when you lose xyz. Can you think of a better system of managing that?"

I know you said you already practice breathing and mindfulness techniques, so I just want to add to that: If you don't already have a daily passage meditation practice, you might try it. Even 15 minutes every day could possibly help to find grounding and patience to deal with this.

Lastly, I think you have to admit to your friends or whomever you're close to that your husband has this forgetfulness problem. He's not a child molester; he just has this flaw that drives you nuts. You're not on the road to divorce. You're married to someone you love who has a very human problem. It's not fatal to your marriage. But holding in all these negative feelings without some vent to let in the air will let the feelings build up until you've gone from being affected to being really angry about it. And that, over time, can indeed be fatal to a marriage.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:48 AM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

He texted you freaking out. That's the problem. He needs to stop sharing the misery of his problem with you because 1) it stresses you out, and 2) it feeds that dynamic where you are protective of him because he's acting less than fully grown up.
posted by Dansaman at 5:15 AM on March 21, 2013

I'm a forgetful person, and I could not agree more with Catseye's comment.

Some of what's going on here is that you need to pull back from his drama, as others have said. I think that provided you tell him ahead of time that you are done with coming to his rescue it's not putting an unnatural distance between you to say, "Unless there is blood, I do not get a panicked phone call at work."

Also, I'm a little concerned by this:
I just can't imagine being able to call someone and vent about this, because I love him and am protective of what other people think about him
I mean, yes, there are some forgetfulness-related things that I'm embarrassed to talk about - usually the ones that involve late fees (seriously, will I ever remember to pay my excise tax on time?). But forgetful people in your circle will get it, and not-forgetful people will be able to relate to your frustration.

While forgetfulness isn't necessarily fun to be around (or fun to be, generally), it's also not a character flaw or something to be ashamed of. Resolve to get rid of the shame, vent about it without judgment of his character, and unless you have particularly judgy friends they will take their cue from you and not think less of him. And hopefully you will be less stressed out overall.
posted by camyram at 6:47 AM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

It sounds like the panic reaction is what's getting to you more than the forgetfulness itself. That is a completely reasonable boundary. Tell him that when he panics it is not something you can handle and while you are willing to give specific help on fixing-an-actual-problem, you are not willing to join him in panic-about-problems. He will need to do that part on his own. Like literally without you in the room or on the phone or whatever.

There are a number of such behaviors my wife and I have come to understand as "acceptable for you to do, but not acceptable for you to draw me into", and when they happen we just acknowledge it tersely, explain why we have to step away, and spend the next little while apart while the other one freaks out / gets drunk / sobs / rushes-about / etc. Since they're discussed and understood before they happen and there's an agreement that we can each step aside when it gets to be too much, it has worked out ok for us.
posted by ead at 8:31 AM on March 21, 2013

I think you need to create some distance between you two in regards to his forgetfulness and your panic.

For whatever it's worth, I am just like your spouse. I lose everything all the time, I forget everything, resulting in short-term panic and freaking out. My partner is super-organized, meticulous, never loses anything, and is supportive and caring and will drop everything at the drop of a hat to help me solve my problems. But often the duration of his stress and panic about my situation far surpasses mine. I might panic and cry and be furious at myself for doing something so stupid yet again, but at the same time, I've been untangling my own mistakes for my entire life.

the rest of myt day is ruined as I am alone panicking for him, alternately being furious with him for doing something so silly, or filled with tons of sorrow and dread for him.

Is your husband's entire day ruined by whatever situation creates these feelings for you? Or does he have a relatively shorter period of freaking out and panicking before he moves on with his day, coping with whatever situation he is in? I honestly did not realize for a long time just how much my partner was taken on my stress and panic in ways that were much different from mine. When I told him about some issue I was freaking out about, he switched immediately into problem-solving mode, when sometimes I was just looking for someone to tell me that I should just take a deep breath and that everything was going to be fine. Have you two discussed how much this is affecting you?

Separate yourself from the situations where you can't (or don't want to) do anything to help him. From what you have described, he seems to be a functioning and successful adult, remember that he is capable of solving his own problems and dealing with the fallout when he can't. Let him go through the process of panicking on his own.

Your reluctance to talk to other people about this makes me wonder if you see this as a seriously negative character flaw that he should be ashamed of.
posted by inertia at 9:02 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

First off, she said it frustrates her if she can't "get to work and help solve the problem." Not GO TO HIS WORK as in his job - she's saying if she can't do something about it, in general, she feels helpless and panicked. I think some people are misreading/overblowing this statement.

Now. A few thoughts.

(1) Echoing camyram, I'm perplexed why you see this as something that would be wrong to vent about. While I know this is a frustrating trait in a partner, it is not actually a character flaw, as you seem to think; and it is a perfectly normal thing to complain about - nobody is going to change their deep-set opinions of your husband because you tell them he can be scatterbrained. Saying "argh, my husband would forget his head if it weren't attached to his body! Can you believe ___?" is not nearly on the same level of character-attack-defaming-a-loved-one as, say, telling them how he sucks in bed or annoying personal habits that you know he would be mortified to have told anyone else. You really aren't doing anyone a huge favor by martyring yourself over this, and I think you should maybe think about your philosophy on that a bit.

(2) On a similar note, I get the feeling that you think forgetfulness is a character flaw, and a fairly bad one at that. For example, when I was in college (and I graduated with a 4.0, so I was not a lazy student by any means), I definitely had an occasion or two where I forgot to save updates on a paper and something crashed and I lost tons of work. It was horrible. However, here's the thing: it happened to basically everyone I knew at some point. So if it has never happened to you, I honestly think you should count yourself as the exception, not the rule.

Now, I know this falls on a continuum, and some people definitely have a lot more forgetfulness-induced emergencies than others. I believe you when you say that your husband lies on the more-forgetful end, but I think you might also want to take note that you are not average, either; you are probably what some people might call picky, or uptight, or tend to put a lot of effort into what some people might consider insignificant details. If you can't see any type of mishap ever happening to you, then you may not have much sympathy for things that most people actually do experience - if not perhaps as often as your husband, at least sometimes.

(3) Some people are suggesting you ignore your husband. Don't do this. I agree that you probably have to manage your emotional responses and level of involvement better, but if my long-term partner ignored or ditched me when I (for example) lost my keys in the grocery store at 10 pm and called them crying and needing help or a ride home, or told me "oh, sorry. But I told you that you should have put them in your pocket, I guess you'll have to call a taxi," I would do it, and then we'd either be in counseling the next day or on the road to divorce. On a smaller note, if I was late to a doctor appointment and frantically trying to find the keys at home, and my partner sat on his ass watching tv and shrugged and refused to like, look under the couch cushions for me, we would also be having some serious words. Luckily, my partner (while he has plenty of other issues, ha!) does not do that. It would be a dealbreaker for me in terms of callousness and refusing to share each other's burdens.

Now. Of course, "sharing burdens" does not mean that I get to dump my burdens on my partner, not handle them myself, and not work on making them lighter. If your husband is doing this, he needs to cut it out. But if he's simply venting to you because he's upset, I strongly suggest you show an appropriate amount of sympathy; help out if it's something you can do that he can not do himself; and otherwise let it be. If he deleted his paper, you say "oh my god, that's awful, ugh that sucks, I know, finals are stressful (or whatever), what are you going to do now?" He's probably already kicking himself for not saving the draft - rubbing that in is IN NO WAY going to help him. Nor is saying "told you so, sorry" and hanging up.

To sum up: My most helpful friends/partners in crisis have been the ones who (A) don't freak out at my freakouts; (B) are good with concrete solutions, or with gently bringing me down to earth so that I can think of a solution myself - which, once past the initial panic, I usually can; (C) don't abandon me or use the opportunity to rub in my face what an irresponsible no good flake I am (oh hi, mom). If you can manage to build some sympathy for him and maintain your cool while he flames and rants, you will help him more than you can imagine. Fwiw, I am a lot more balanced and less-flamey-flakey now at 30 than I was at 25, and I see the trend continuing in a positive direction.
posted by celtalitha at 1:08 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the NYTimes article What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage is what someone's referring to above. It's not ignoring him if he gets locked out of his car at midnight in a bad part of town, but just.. not engaging in, say, the daily hunt for the lost keys. Maybe it will also help you relax, since you will be doing something productive (training him).
posted by anaelith at 10:50 AM on March 24, 2013

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