How to control erratic pet peeves so as to not destroy my relationship?
December 11, 2015 7:31 AM   Subscribe

I make inconsistent demands of my wife regarding details about cleaning and whatnot. It drives her nuts but she mostly puts up with it until she is tired of dealing with it, and we argue. It breaks my heart that I'm putting her through this but I also feel angry that she doesn't try to negotiate with me somehow. Not sure if what I'm asking for is fair or not but I'd like to resolve this so we can both feel satisfied and happy.

I have a lot of internal logic about what is acceptable and what is not--for example, I can't abide by putting pot holders in a clean dish but leaving the microwave relatively dirty is okay (example my wife pointed out in our most recent argument). It's inconsistent and it drives her nuts, and I get why it would. She also complains that the way I express things is emotional and puts her off, makes her feel like I'm upset and implying she's a dirty person. To be clear, I sincerely *do not* feel this way--I think she's totally clean and 100% right about my quirks. And it is entirely an emotional thing for me--I get this mild OCD twitchiness where I feel like if I don't address this the world is going to end and I'm always going to be thinking about that dirty thing that didn't get cleaned up properly.

So I don't know how to counter that. However, I feel like I'd do better if she got mad or even tried to negotiate with me and simply told me up front at the time I complained--I would be better able to explain my logic and maybe figure out a compromise with her. However I think the real thing that bugs me is that she holds this in, patiently dealing with it until she can't deal with it any more and it's just too annoying and then we have a fight. I end up hurt and bewildered that it was such a big deal and that she didn't tell me, and she is pissed off that I'm such a controlling freak about this stupid little stuff all the time.

I totally get that she doesn't want to deal with every little thing I bring up. But I'm also incredibly hurt that she actively tries to guess what is going to make me angry or upset and then tries to avoid doing that thing (and she is often wrong, adding to her frustration, because she is not privy to my internal narrative). The reason I'm incredibly hurt, I think, is not because of her but because this exposes my behavior as the perfect pathological mixture of my mom's weird obsessive quirks and my dad's "random things set me off" badness. In particular, I spent a lot of time when I was a child trying to guess what would set my dad off and repeatedly failing--I hate that part of him tremendously. So, I got incredibly angry and upset after our last fight, saying things like it would be better if we weren't together if that's how things were going to be--and the reason is that I was terrified that I was exhibiting all the behaviors my parents have always exhibited that I swore to *never* put another person through. I want to fix this, like yesterday.

In other words, please help! Thank you folks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (54 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Much of this comes down to a communication difficulty and this would be the ideal situation for couples therapy.
posted by grouse at 7:34 AM on December 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

Therapy, yes.

But why are you making "demands" of your wife at all? Why are you telling her how to clean things rather than just cleaning them yourself? I'd suggest that if it's just this one specific issue bothering you, you could fix it by doing all the cleaning in the house yourself. Remove your wife from the equation - stop expecting her to clean or tidy anything, ever. Just have it be your thing. That means that if she makes a mess and doesn't clean it up to your specifications, that's okay, because she didn't have to actually clean any of it up at all.

That said, I doubt it's really just this one specific issue that needs to be addressed, and that you would benefit from therapy, so I hope you will consider it.
posted by something something at 7:39 AM on December 11, 2015 [114 favorites]

Couples therapy would help with the communication, with when to ask and when to assume, and the other problems between the two of you.

Individual (focused) therapy would help you come to terms with your own self. You're trying to control her reaction to something you're not satisfied with about yourself.
posted by RainyJay at 7:40 AM on December 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

And it is entirely an emotional thing for me--I get this mild OCD twitchiness where I feel like if I don't address this the world is going to end and I'm always going to be thinking about that dirty thing that didn't get cleaned up properly.

It's a communication thing, but I think you need individual therapy to get to the bottom of these feelings.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:40 AM on December 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

Therapy is great for this stuff, and you're self-aware enough that individual talk therapy for you would probably help pretty quickly. It's great to feel like you're not repeating parental mistakes anymore and that you have control over your own pet peeves and quirks - I know from personal experience!
posted by ldthomps at 7:41 AM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

As gently as possible, reactions in this conflict are far past anything that would pass for healthy. Ask is not going to be able to help you. Even if we could suggest new communication patterns, you yourself are the one highlighting that this is not just about communication patterns, but about childhood issues writ large across your adult life.

The two of you absolutely need some professional help here. Couples therapy at a minimum, but I would also encourage you to see an individual therapist and also perhaps consider an assessment for anxiety.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:42 AM on December 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

Professional therapy, couples and individual, definitely. I'd suggest the possibility that feeling like the world will end if something is not put away "properly" may be more than just "a mild OCD twitchiness."
posted by PussKillian at 7:45 AM on December 11, 2015 [14 favorites]

Long term: couple therapy for communication issues and individual therapy as needed.

Immediately: take ownership of your self-admitted over-the-top quirks. A general rule of thumb in my house is that the one to whom it matters more is responsible for maintaining the standard. Therefore, for kitchen cleanliness, he cleans up to his standard during the day and I do the final walk through at night. I will hassle about sweeping crumbs from the counter into the sink and rinsing the sink but not otherwise. Microwave gets cleaned by the person who made the mess because that mess is best cleaned up before it hardens.

And congrats on recognizing this is a multi-layer issue requiring multiple steps to solve.
posted by beaning at 7:45 AM on December 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

As someone with similar issues here's what you need to know: You are training her to live in fear of your quirks.

The best way to handle this is CBT to learn how to deal with your anxiety/obsessiveness. Communication therapy can help too, but for most people pot holders in pots are not so fraught. And dealing with your childhood-induced shame by threatening to end your marriage is pretty toxic.

Techniques to try in the meantime:

- set a time-out phrase like "snowflakes" where you agree to stop discussing whatever anxiety-produced upset is going on for a few hours to give you time to calm down and her time to find your voice
- establish one are of your home that is yours to have how you want it (and one for her) so you have a OCD-friendly area
posted by warriorqueen at 7:46 AM on December 11, 2015 [53 favorites]

Try to negotiate territory. "This is her clean. This here is my clean." Stay out of each other's way a little more.

For anything that doesn't fit into this division, my rule would be "whatever you need to be cleaner, just clean it." Cleaning isn't about making demands, it's about just doing it.

It's also useful to realise that one's own actions are not something disembodied that just floats around and happens. If you're able to see that your demands are "inconsistent" and to understand why they "drive her nuts" after it's being pointed out to you, you're technically also able to see these things before they happen and prevent them from happening on your own steam. It's a matter of owning stuff instead of waiting until someone says that it has happened again, somehow.
posted by Namlit at 7:46 AM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

I forget where I heard this bit of married life wisdom (probably Carolyn Hax), but it was something along the lines of: if something really bugs you, but not your partner, it's on you do/fix it, you don't put that burden on your partner.

There's balance in it, but, for example if you hate dirty dishes in the sink, you don't yell at partner to clean them, you STFU, put on your adult underwear and wash them. You can ask partner not to do something (eg don't pile them in sink, put in dishwasher etc), but you get one or two times, and after that, decide what's more important: peeve or partner.
posted by k5.user at 7:47 AM on December 11, 2015 [16 favorites]

I used to do things like load the dishwasher, but my girlfriend would then unload it and reload it "properly." Then I would get a lecture about how it should be done. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. So from my viewpoint I was never going to meet her standard. From hers I was apparently incapable of learning. Note, I will say I didn't see the point of some of her way of doing things or I believed my way was better, so I didn't always follow her directions. I'm a grown assed adult that knows how to load a dishwasher. There didn't need to be negotiating and explanations of logic and fights. The dishes needed done and a button needed pushed. The lecturing was unneeded and unwanted and so was reloading it. That was just undoing my work and saying what I'd done was worthless effort. So we'd fight about it. Eventually I stopped doing it. That's her chore now.

When I'm being honest it also wasn't my favorite chore. And when she's being honest there was never going to be a way I could do it to her specifications where she wouldn't redo the work. So again, it's her chore now.

But that meant I picked up something she hates doing to balance that work out. We don't fight about the dishwasher and I don't abide criticism of the chore I picked up (cooking).

I'm going to suggest you don't need couple's therapy. My reading is this is your problem, not hers. So deal with it. Ask her if you can take over those chores and if you have something you want to give up to balance that out then great.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:49 AM on December 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

However I think the real thing that bugs me is that she holds this in, patiently dealing with it until she can't deal with it any more and it's just too annoying and then we have a fight.

Data point: I hold stuff in with some people. Why? Because if I speak my mind every time there's a problem, I'll get in trouble for being too negative "all the time." I can't win no matter what I do. Lots of good suggestions here on how to deal with that.
posted by Melismata at 7:50 AM on December 11, 2015 [28 favorites]

In particular, I spent a lot of time when I was a child trying to guess what would set my dad off and repeatedly failing--I hate that part of him tremendously.

Hey you are me! This is me! I am like this! There is one way to put dishes in the dish drainer! Every other way makes me physically uncomfortable! I am ridiculous! My partner hates it! He gets timid trying to help me and I hate that! My parents were jerks!

But ... we've been together a long time and have mostly worked around it. However, we do not live together. The things that have helped a lot are

- Me being responsible for my own anxieties about things and doing a really serious job trying to determine if there is a reason for things (i.e. he does stack breakables in a teetery manner and that's not really okay) or not (scissors can hang either way and even though I feel there is a right way deep in my bones, I am wrong)
- Him giving me feedback if he feels I am being barky or unreasonable or asking/telling "Gee that's inconvenient for me, is there a way to do it another way"
- Me being responsible for some chores/activities that I can't really have someone else do
- Him being good natured about my weirdness and us both being friendly about the fact that at some level I can't help this and he loves me and this is part of me
- Me being apologetic if I'm just having a bad time of it and get barky, this includes being sorry for being barky but also my stress making me rigid and a taskmaster. Legit "I am working on this and I am sorry when I slip" apologies are worthwhile because they set expectations about desired behavior even if we can't always live up to them.

the reason is that I was terrified that I was exhibiting all the behaviors my parents have always exhibited that I swore to *never* put another person through. I want to fix this, like yesterday.

I hope you've communicated this to her. If you had stupid jerk parents like mine you probably spent a lot of time being fearful but also learning (as warriorqueen states) to manage through fear. This sucks and you have to unlearn this. You also have to get better at letting go of being mad at your partner the way your folks got mad at you, even if this means just "rolling over and showing your belly" (as me and my SO call it) about a conflict you are in.

The big deal is being aware that your rigid feelings about how a thing SHOULD be are just those, feelings and even though they seem like The Most Important Thing (and therapy and CBT can help with this) you need to find a way to remind yourself that your longstanding feelings for your partner should be more important that a dispute over the dishes. And let go of your idea of yourself as a bad person. You feel what you feel, you can work on your external responses to how you feel and you can manage your own discontent that you can't change your wife's feelings but you can help her understand yours.
posted by jessamyn at 7:57 AM on December 11, 2015 [31 favorites]

Recovering from hold-it-in-itis is a process which involves both parties. The hold-it-in party needs to express their grievance earlier while the why-did-you-hold-it-in party needs to actively avoid reacting badly to the party who held it in, because that's partially why they're holding it in in the first place. This is achievable - my wife and I have been through this process and are light years ahead of where we were when we first started dating - but it takes time and, more importantly, trust. Also forgiveness when one or the other party slips up. It can be achieved with or without couple's therapy - which, by the way, also requires trust. So if you're in a position in your relationship where the trust level is low, that's where you should start.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:00 AM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

You describe yourself as the hurt victim here? You're angry that she doesn't try to fix you for you? I cannot wrap my brain around some of what you're expressing.

You are passively and codependently dumping things onto your wife in ways that seriously are hard to keep track of. It breaks your heart that you are compelled to be an ass, and then you're angry at her for not reacting right? You'd do better if she got mad? My mind is just spinning. Seriously, do your own emotional work.

You really need to work out how to recognize and express your own feelings and needs in a way that is separate from what you expect of her, and allows her to be an autonomous human with her own feelings and needs.
posted by Dashy at 8:02 AM on December 11, 2015 [107 favorites]

Just do the cleaning yourself instead of bitching at her about it.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:04 AM on December 11, 2015 [18 favorites]

I feel that if you need things to be a certain way (cleaning, organizing, planning), then you have to be the one to do the thing you have the demands about. Saying, "My wife doesn't clean the way I want her to," sounds so...abusive (and I don't want to use that word, but it does sound like it) or maybe just privileged. I mean, you can have ways of cleaning things that are the only ways that will satisfy you. I have that! I require the bed linens to be cleaned every week and the mattress to be flipped every week, but I DO THAT. I can't stand the hand towels in the bathroom to stay up for more than a week, so I WASH THEM. My partner doesn't care about this at all, so I don't think it's his job to do it.

There are a lot of communication issues that you mention here, as well, and for that, I think couples therapy is definitely in order. If your wife is scared to talk to you or scared that she's "doing something wrong" in cleaning the wrong way? That's not good. But I fail to see how it's someone else's job to clean the way you want them to.
posted by xingcat at 8:07 AM on December 11, 2015 [28 favorites]

Sometimes its like the therapists' trade association in here. Please don't go and tell your wife your Mefi friends all recommend therapy to sort out her problems.

I'd suggest:

- recognise that if someone is doing something they do it their way, and
- learn not to comment in the voice of authority as if you were a parent or supervisor. It's way easier to have productive discussions if you ask rather than tell; give rational reasons why you think something is best done a certain way; and accept that there might be other reasons and other ways.
posted by Segundus at 8:15 AM on December 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

How about instead of getting angry at her for not standing up to your line-crossing behavior you just assume that nobody likes being badgered, stop criticizing her cleaning, and do it yourself? Not every task needs to be shared, especially when it's a weird trigger issue for only one of you.

You may need therapy for other issues, but this one is actually really simple. Save your co-pay and buy your wife some flowers while you're at it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:15 AM on December 11, 2015 [18 favorites]

She's probably holding it in and generously dealing with it because she would prefer to just humor you instead of having to endure another long explanation of why her way is not quite right and yours, by virtue of "logic", is correct. Or, she'd prefer to temporarily maintain the illusion that she's not married to a controlling man who thinks her function is to learn to do everything with his comfort in mind regardless of whether it matters in the larger picture.

Your OCD-ish stuff as well as your family history is best resolved in individual therapy. Right now is sounds like your "quirks" are damaging your wife's ease at home and you're recreating the damaging dynamic of your childhood home (you taking the role of your mother and pushing your wife into your father's role) in your own marriage and home.
posted by quince at 8:17 AM on December 11, 2015 [37 favorites]

I spent a lot of time when I was a child trying to guess what would set my dad off and repeatedly failing--I hate that part of him tremendously.

This is the crux. The situation is fraught and painful for you because you are in fact coming close to making your wife feel awful in very similar ways to the ways your dad made you feel awful. What his mental issues did to you, your issues are starting to do to your wife.

I'm sure that the distress and guilt are overwhelming to cope with in the moment and it's tempting to push down those feelings and circle around with logic. I have a little strain of yuck-i-phobia myself, and I don't think it can be dealt with with logic.

Your partner can watch you cook and clean sometime and you can narrate how you are feeling and what motivates you each time you stop and wash your hands. (My thing.) Don't try to have a problem solving discussion while your partner is trying to cook dinner. (Maybe breakfast if people are less cranky at that time of day.)
posted by puddledork at 8:19 AM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am hoping you have explained all of this to your wife.

That said, it seems like you want her to IMMEDIATELY stop reacting to you in the way that you used to react to your parents. It seems as though you are convinced that once you convey to her that you know this is YOUR problem, then her instincts and behaviors will automatically change to something that makes you feel better.

This is impossible. You are asking her to do something that is impossible. She can’t stop trying to guess what is going to set you off. Maybe, over time, and if you change, and get some excellent therapy, she will be able to change. Eventually. Probably partially at most.

So, for example, I live with a family member who used to respond explosively to tiny household details. This was a state of affairs for years and years and years. It shaped me. It made me react in certain ways.

Now, at some point, this family member realized that this behavior was hurtful and irrational, and stopped doing it. That is great! It is wonderful when people change and heal and try to show their love and kindness by avoiding destructive patterns.

The thing is, though, my instincts are not turned off because of this person’s progress. When this person snaps at something, I freeze up. My hands go cold. My pulse speeds up. I know with my head that this person is no longer going to blame me, or scream, or say hurtful things. But my visceral learned reaction is fear and “not my fault please don’t let this one be my fault.”

It hurts this person’s feelings that I still react with fear. This person has changed, why can’t I see that? I mean, I DO see it. And I am grateful for it. But seeing it doesn’t make it easier to rewire instincts that I have been using to protect myself for years and years of my life. This person wants me to be bolder and unaffected by these outbursts out of confidence that I know these outbursts are not about me. But while I can try to enact that belief in low-stakes environments, I absolutely cannot shut off my instantaneous somatic responses and instincts.

I am sure that it makes you very sad and angry that your wife is suffering because of your own history of pain. But you are compounding her suffering by asking her to never show that your behavior hurts her. You are asking an impossibility, and doing so is unkind. You need to find a way to respect that her responses are not intentional, and they are not intended to hurt you, just as your own issues are not intended to hurt her.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:22 AM on December 11, 2015 [48 favorites]

I am also here to say that couple's therapy is not for this, not when you have an unmanaged mental health issue that is not your wife's problem to manage or take on as her own so you don't have to manage it.

If you are unable to have a dialogue with yourself that goes "the potholders aren't hurting the clean dish or vice versa, she's likely putting them there because that's the place where an important safety item is quickly and easily within her reach and my wife not burning her own fingerprints off is in fact more important than my feelings* about where potholders go", you need to get there.

*Also, a thing men in particular are socialized to believe, and people with dysfunctional fathers often get reinforced to a dysfunctional degree is that all head-of-household feelings are important feelings and all opinions must be voiced and heard and valued at a higher rate than others. They're not, and they don't need to. You are also not due a "compromise" (read: getting your way) on every feeling you have that she does not share.

CBT can help with that.

And this:

But I'm also incredibly hurt that she actively tries to guess what is going to make me angry or upset and then tries to avoid doing that thing

Is chapter and verse from the abuser's handbook. Your wife is acting the way people do to survive when they are being abused, and you're incredibly hurt? She calls you out for it and you threaten to leave? If you hate making your wife feel the way you did as a child, it's not her obligation to make you feel good about it.

Now maybe the hurts and the threatening to leave are an anxiety reaction because you're afraid she's going to say it out loud: you are unreasonable, you are abusive, you are your father. Maybe it's not quite true, or not as bad, but you're so very afraid and it's not how you want to be. This anxiety is also your responsibility alone to fix.

If that's not who you want to be, you should be making phone calls right now.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:23 AM on December 11, 2015 [102 favorites]

*oh, and just to clarify regarding my comment above: I love this person dearly, and always have. We have always been close. I am not comparing you to a fundamentally scary person, just someone with similar quirks. I want to make it clear that even in relatively healthy relationships, getting over old patterns is extremely, EXTREMELY difficult. Asking people to do it quickly is unjust.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:24 AM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Everything that Lyn Never said.

Please seek out individual therapy before you hurt your wife any further.
posted by jaguar at 8:38 AM on December 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

However, I feel like I'd do better if she got mad or even tried to negotiate with me and simply told me up front at the time I complained--I would be better able to explain my logic and maybe figure out a compromise with her.

as an anxious person who is married to an anxious person i'm here to tell you that arguing with an anxious person about things their anxiety is controlling is EXHAUSTING. you think this could all be worked out if she just reacted in the moment and you got to explain your reasoning and she's logically see the importance and then poof, solved! but that's not the way it works. the way it works is she reacts, you tell her the "right" way, and she either gets to escalate or acquiesce and you're in exactly the same position where she'll blow up about it later except you front loaded the fight too.

i think you know you're blaming her for your failings and that you're getting angry at her as a stand in for yourself when you were younger. this isn't ok to put at her feet. you need to figure out how to manage your anxieties - that may be taking more of the chore load, or (individual) therapy, or meditation, or some combination of those things. you also need to work on that scared=angry impulse. that doesn't have to be the automatic reaction. you can change that.
posted by nadawi at 9:01 AM on December 11, 2015 [26 favorites]

My now-ex partner getting treatment for his OCD solved this type of problem for us. (Although I should note, to be fair to him, that he basically took on all of the cleaning, arranging, etc. himself but I would get annoyed at my things being moved and thrown away).

Your controlling behavior is the result of your anxiety. You're not even going to care what she does or doesn't do in reaction to you when your anxiety is successfully managed.

Generally, too, you need to work on distress tolerance. Meaning, you need to work on accepting the fact that you will feel bad sometimes, and that you don't necessarily need to change anything about your environment (i.e. your wife) just because you feel bad.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:31 AM on December 11, 2015 [15 favorites]

You sound like my father at home, especially when he was younger. Here is the secret to handling an argument about something he feels anxious and controlling about: nothing. There is nothing we can do, and no way in which we can respond that fixes whatever he is feeling, but he always wants that thing to exist. When one way of "fixing" it didn't change his feelings, then we had to find a new "rule" to fix his reactions. There is nothing we can do to change how he feels inside: it exists inside of him.

Please go to individual and possibly group (not couples) therapy for anxiety and obsessive behaviors. You may find one of the behavioral therapies helpful (CBT has been suggested. There is also Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy in particular if you find yourself unable to tolerate distress, or find yourself trying to reassign your own responsibilities in interpersonal relationships. More and more men's groups exist for DBT, and you don't have to have borderline personality or borderline traits to benefit). Please don't hold your wife responsible for your quirks, or for your reactions.

I love my father dearly, anon. I am so proud of his kindness and strength and giving in the community, and of his very essential goodness. He loves his family very much. His behaviors and upset at being treated the way he and his sister treated his abusive parents (obsessive/OCPD and critical mother; alcoholic, angry and unpredictable father) sound very similar to your problem. I grieve every day that behaviors and anxiety like yours mean that I don't completely relax or feel safe with him, and that on some level he knows this distance exists, and that he can't cope with facing and accepting how painful those behaviors are and were for other people--the first step to decreasing that distance.
posted by Naamah at 9:42 AM on December 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

Definitely you need individual therapy to deal with your anxiety about random cleaning issues - if you feel like the world is going to end because there is a pot holder in a clean dish, that is 100% on you to fix, not on your wife to manage.

Beyond that, I think it would help if BOTH of you could identify areas of housework where you care a lot more than the other person, and then take that on. For example, my husband is a perfectly servicable cook, but the way he cooks drives me NUTS. So I do 90% of the cooking and we are both happy. And conversely, there are other tasks that he cares WAY more about than me (such as keeping the bathroom clean), and so he takes those things on and does not need to nag me about whether the bathtub is actually clean enough. The only time this breaks down is when one of us is sick/injured in such a way that they can't really do housework, but those are obviously temporary and so we can be a bit more lax/forgiving for those periods.
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:42 AM on December 11, 2015

What you describe sounds like anxiety/OCD. It's a medical issue, not something you can fix by negotiating the way you and your wife handle chores. Medication might help. Or therapy. Or both. Anxiety is miserable to deal with. I'm sorry you feel so bad.
posted by ilovewinter at 9:43 AM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

If the boyfriend I had that was like you had gone to individual therapy and taken some good, long looks at himself and worked on himself, taking it as seriously as you say you want to take it? Well, maybe I would not have left him, or at least maybe I wouldn't be quite as much of a mess-up in my other intimate relationships (both with friends and with romantic partners) as I am today.

This is not a couples problem. This is a you problem. Couples therapy comes at things as joint problems to solve. This is not a joint problem to solve.

I also like the suggestion of leaving your wife out of the cleaning entirely. Why is this her problem? Why is she in your mental equation at all? My current boyfriend does all kind of funny little things that I would never do, but whatever. It's how he is, and I can either put up or shut up. I cannot make him change the fact that he will never, ever put away the cutting board. In fact, the kitchen looks a little nicer with the cutting board out, because I appreciate him and love him and when it's out it reminds me of him. And his presence in my life is more than worth having a cutting board with crumbs on it out once in awhile.
posted by sockermom at 10:04 AM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

She can't fix it and she can't help you. Not by guessing what is going to set you off and not by demanding explanations, not by getting mad in the moment, not by magically doing everything right. You're never going to feel comfortable about this because it's the OCD and the past trauma that are controlling your behavior and, in turn, you are trying to control your wife.

You need therapy. Just you, for now. This is not something to negotiate in couple's therapy, this is your responsibility to tackle on your end first. Get to a comfortable place with your emotions and your past and if you're still having issues communicating your feelings to your wife then you can consider joint sessions down the line.

Call a therapist today, get the process started, find some help for your anxiety. Good luck.
posted by lydhre at 10:20 AM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

I definitely have some mild OCD issues about stuff at home -- which way the chairs by the computer have to be arranged before I leave the house, which way the bathroom towels hang, how the water glasses have to face on top of the fridge -- and will sometimes bug my boyfriend about it. "Why did you put the toothpaste back upside down?" I'll ask, to which he responds, "That's your crazy." And it is my crazy. He puts up with it because it's really NBD in the grand scheme of things couples who live together have to deal with, but it's on me to make sure my keys face the right way and the pillows on the couch have their tags all tucked in nicely because if the world ends because they weren't put back right THAT WAS MY FAULT! Like everyone else has said, stop making "demands" of your wife. This is your crazy, either own it and handle things yourself or get therapy to deal with it.
posted by jabes at 10:37 AM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

So, a mantra for these rules you have: "My way is not the right way" or if you absolutely can't help it, "My way is not the only right way."

I agree with everyone else that individual therapy would help you tremendously, but part of this is that you need to fully believe and live that your way does not necessarily correspond to the right way.
posted by mchorn at 10:42 AM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you should stop trying to control your wife's behavior and focus on controlling your own. If it is upsetting to you that you're repeating destructive patterns from your parents, then you should go to therapy and figure out how to stop doing that. Getting upset at your wife for walking on eggshells around you and trying not to set you off is totally unreasonable, because you are the cause of that behavior. Instead of getting upset and angry at her, use that feeling to motivate you to go to a therapist and work this stuff out.
posted by colfax at 10:44 AM on December 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

If you have a version of clean that is different from what is considered normal, then it's on you to clean it, not her. Stop putting it on her.

As for you being upset with her keeping it all in, well, this just made me mad reading it. I'm sorry, but if you poke the hornets nest enough, you're going to get stung. Maybe each individual poke doesn't require a response, because you're also not acting rationally when you're making such demands, but damnit, after awhile something has to give and I'm not surprised it's her patience.

I mean, you can appreciate why she wouldn't want to have a discussion every single time you make an unreasonable demand of her, right?

So stop demanding anything and clean stuff yourself. You'll both be happier.
posted by inturnaround at 10:46 AM on December 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

My mom used to drive my brother and I completely nuts when we were growing up over her standards for cleaning not just being cleaner than we wanted but requiring things being done a specific way. Otherwise, they were Wrong and things being Wrong tending to cause her to, say, get noticeably upset because the silverware was the wrong direction in the dishwasher--even though it had come out perfectly clean. When I moved back in with her in college, things weren't perfect, but they were so much improved that I wondered if I'd totally imagined everything we'd been through growing up. It turned out that she'd started taking an SSRI. Go talk to someone about this. Meds aren't the only options, I only mean to say, this isn't "haha sorta like OCD" kind of OCD, this is quite possibly just plain OCD kind of OCD. You don't have to be to the Howard Hughes point to get help for it.
posted by Sequence at 10:49 AM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

only mean to say, this isn't "haha sorta like OCD" kind of OCD, this is quite possibly just plain OCD kind of OCD. You don't have to be to the Howard Hughes point to get help for it.

I came here to say this. You seem to be using OCD in the colloquial sense, but it sounds like you actually have some form of OCD/Anxiety/ASD. That's ok! Mental health issues are extremely common and there's no shame in having them, as long as you don't make them the problem of the people around you. Right now, that's what you're doing. You have some form of compulsion that controls your behavior and makes you react to things in ways that you admit make no sense. You have to be the one to manage this - preferably with the help of a trained professional. Right now, you're kinda just trying to "deal with it," which practically means that you're making your wife manage it. And she's managing it the best way she can, which is to tiptoe around you so that she doesn't have to have another goddamn fight about the potholders.

You're not a monster or anything, what you're doing is something that a lot of people with mental health problems do. But it's tremendously counter-productive. If you broke your leg, you wouldn't just make your wife carry you around, you'd go to the doctor and get a cast. I suggest you do the same here.
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:45 AM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

So I don't know how to counter that. However, I feel like I'd do better if she got mad or even tried to negotiate with me and simply told me up front at the time I complained--I would be better able to explain my logic and maybe figure out a compromise with her.

I don't know why you feel this way but it's worth noting that just because that's how you FEEL it'll go, or should go, doesn't mean that's how it will ACTUALLY go. In my experience, it's more like a really good way to just basically end up in a screaming fight every single day of your life.

In the potholder situation: I don't need to hear "logic"* or try to negotiate a compromise while I have hot pans and open flames to contend with. I need to get the fucking meal cooked without burning myself or the food. That means i need to be able to grab a potholder fast. If you don't want a potholder to touch a clean dish, it's your job to make sure that there are dish-free spots for me to set down a potholder, within easy reach.

What you do when you try to explain your "logic" on the spot is, unintentionally, transfer your discomfort and anxiety level to her. You make sure SHE feels on edge and on eggshells so that YOU won't have to anymore. (It doesn't work, any more than giving someone else the flu will cure yours.)

So basically you can solve 90% of this problem by getting a handle on your anxiety, whether through therapy or exercises or medication. (The other 10% will involve rebuilding the trust in your relationship, and possibly some effort on your girlfriend's part not to fight back or "get mad" but to assert herself when you're overstepping your bounds.)

*Not to get pedantic but this is a pretty inaccurate term for what you yourself admit is a completely irrational impulse and not rooted in logic very much at all, hm? Words aren't everything but they shape our thinking, and right now you're still using words that structure you as "right" and her as "wrong" when in fact this is not remotely the case.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:04 PM on December 11, 2015 [23 favorites]

However, I feel like I'd do better if she got mad or even tried to negotiate with me and simply told me up front.

She is getting mad at you, but not on your preferred time scale? Another thing she can't do to your satisfaction.

And I'm not sure if her pushing back would really help anyways. You say if she pushed back you could "explain my logic and maybe figure out a compromise with her." But how does that really benefit her? I think by logic you mean your own personal reasoning, which you admit can be idiosyncratic, but it probably still feels a bit like a lecture. And how often is there an acceptable (to your OCD) compromise that is in between your two ways of doing something? If shes getting push back on a lot of stuff, then it's probably just easier to do it your way than feel like she's getting lectured or negotiating all the time. But like someone said, its like poking the hornets nest.

I'm not entirely unsympathetic. I don't think you mean to be controlling, you acknowledge that your way isn't necessarily logical, and you can see how you are contributing to the tension (all good self-aware things to know about yourself). But when your thought process includes "she should get angry at me then, not now!" I suspect that there really isn't a way for you guys to compromise out of this.

Compromising won't fix the anxiety/OCD*. Maybe it could paper over it for a while, and your wife, who loves you and believes you aren't deliberately being a jerk will keep being patient until she can't. And then you're back here, or you manage to contain your OCD, but are miserable the whole time. Also not good.

*The reason why I'm agreeing with everyone saying that it's anxiety/OCD, is because if it isn't, and you have been nitpicking your wife about stuff (that you admit is a bit peculiar and idiosyncratic) that you could easily just do yourself, then you have been a thoughtless jerk.
posted by ghost phoneme at 12:40 PM on December 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

As someone with similar issues here's what you need to know: You are training her to live in fear of your quirks.

This. It's only natural. Everyone wants to do some work to maintain harmony at home. Everyone wants to please their loved ones. Everyone wants to minimize conflict. Given those goals, the mind does its thing, looking for patterns, creating aversions to behavior that produces bad results. When the bad results are unpredictable, the mind starts walking on eggshells.

However I think the real thing that bugs me is that she holds this in, patiently dealing with it until she can't deal with it any more and it's just too annoying and then we have a fight.

Here's what probably goes through her head in each instance:
- Do I push back and possibly ruin the mood right now? Start a potentially serious conflict? Is this how I want to spend my evening?
- Maybe I'm really being inflexible. It's a small request, it'll make him happy, I shouldn't be complicated, just do the thing.
- But wait, this is undignified, I'm an adult, WTH.
- If I push back, am I calm and centered enough to keep it above the belt, respectful, loving?
- Am I calm and centered enough to let this roll off my shoulders? If I try and I just end up stewing in resentment then I should say something. Or will I really be able to forget it in a minute?

Having one or more of these thoughts routinely knocking around your head, while trying to maintain a nice demeanor, is exhausting and crazy making.

How do I know? I was your wife, right down to the details, OCD-ish tendencies and everything. It was a slow boil but eventually it poisoned everything, turned us into adversaries, created elaborate layers of resentment. In other words, it killed our (amazing, precious) relationship dead. And it will probably do the same to yours if you let it.
posted by horsesock at 12:49 PM on December 11, 2015 [27 favorites]

If it needs to be done the way you want it done, you have to do it. Full stop. If it just needs to be done and her way is good enough (and you say that she is a clean person), then you bite your tongue and learn to deal with your own discomfort about it on your own.

So, yeah, this isn't a cleaning problem - it's a communications problem, which therapy will help.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 1:42 PM on December 11, 2015

I've been mulling this over all day because it really is something I think can be unlearned. Part of what was helpful for me and maybe it will be helpful for you was reminding myself that I chose this partner--someone not like me in a few fundamental ways--for a reason and that reason is important. And also that reason, or sets of reasons, will also lead to some conflict because of the fact that we are different. My guy is good-natured in a way I could only dream about or hope to impersonate. He is, at some deep level, truly good hearted and wants the best for everyone. He's an optimist. When he relaxes he is relaxed. He can turn his brain off. He can be okay with "good enough" and be really truly okay. He's not a scorekeeper. He loves every single day that he is alive in this world. And sometimes he's also absent-minded, not awesome at doing the dishes and a whole bunch of other petty things. We're a good team.

But my brain, my rigid "things have to be THIS WAY" brain (for which, also I've gotten some therapy and it was really helpful, and sometimes medicine) also finds a calmness and a center and a home being with him. I've been with people more like me. When there's something in your brain that looks at other people as less-good versions of yourself (Which I had to unlearn and it was long and painful because I thought I would get to grow up to be my dad and have everyone do MY bidding and it turns out that's a crappy way to be and a crappy thing to wish for but what can you do when you are six and unhappy and trapped. Poor kid me, that was hard.) you can think that might work.

Being with people like me was not what I wanted, for good reasons. But this means that I have to be prepared to compromise things that I feel are sort of central to me, and it turns out that working on compromise with someone who will work with me is incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. But also hard. Especially as your brain is lying to you and telling you that you will finally feel okay if the kitchen is cleaned right, if the shoes are put away right, if the coffee mug isn't left out in that way.... But all your brain will leave you is alone with your organized stuff and you won't feel any better.

So while you are working towards a better place with your partner, try to remember that other people aren't bad versions of you, but that you are okay too, you just need to give a little. It's easy to see these differences as being someone has the good trait and someone has the bad one. But it's a lot more complicated. You bring good things to the relationship and so does she. Finding ways to reconcile those, play to your strengths and not let your differences divide you is the next order of business. I wish you luck.
posted by jessamyn at 2:44 PM on December 11, 2015 [21 favorites]

So I don't know how to counter that.

There's a way. There's hope. Whatever there is, in your brain, that prickles when something isn't done "right" may always prickle a little bit. But there are ways to cope, deal with, and overcome compulsions and intrusive thoughts, by learning how to control your reaction to them.

It sounds like you know that how you're currently reacting now is not fair to your wife. Expecting her to be the one who teaches you this massive, life skill, coping-tool-box brain retraining is also not fair.

Many of us here on Metafilter have found help with this sort of stuff in therapy. That's why we recommend it. I just want to let you know, whatever path you choose, there is hope. Life is so much easier and happier when you have proper training in how to cope with compulsions and intrusive thoughts.
posted by Juliet Banana at 4:01 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I re-read my comment and I want to correct inadvertent heterosexism/gender implications: DBT is often targeted at women and feminine-presenting folk, because for various complicated reasons, including society/social norms, borderline traits are more often diagnosed in people who are read as feminine. I meant to broaden the comment to mention that DBT training can be useful for people of any gender identity/presentation, and supportive of men and masculine-presenting persons as well--not to imply that the OP has a particular gender identity.
posted by Naamah at 6:10 PM on December 11, 2015

All the advice here is really good. In the meantime, I would spend a week writing down whatever you would normally tell her to do rather than saying it when it pops into your head. Just either let it go in the moment or fix it yourself.

Then after a week you two can review and see if there's anything that actually needs to be changed in the way you do things or if you're just being nitpicky for no good reason.
posted by betsybetsy at 7:49 PM on December 11, 2015

There's a bit of a split in these answers between people who are used to partners having their own weird quirky things that are reasonably accommodated and people who have had abusive partners use the excuse or framing as "my own weird quirky thing" to insist that every single controlling impulse should be accommodated. None of us can know which side of the line you fall on, OP, but given your background, it's worth seeking an in-person professional opinion to help guide what happens next. If you were my partner, I would want you to seek individual counseling but also to sign a release so that I could talk to your therapist, and I would want your therapist to have background and training in both anxiety and abuse-perpetrator issues.

I have no idea if you are currently being abusive, but your description raises a ton of red flags for it. A therapist with training in working with abuse perpetrators may be able to help you sort through some of the issues you're having, and giving that therapist permission to talk to your partner will help with checks-and-balances. It may turn out that such precautions are unnecessary, which would be wonderful, but in my mind you're on the edge of a better-safe-than-sorry situation.
posted by jaguar at 8:14 PM on December 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

My boyfriend is you. I feel judged because he thinks the things I do are gross. On the other hand, I'm the one who's really forthright about my preferences, and he's the one who holds things in forever.

But I'm also incredibly hurt that she actively tries to guess what is going to make me angry or upset and then tries to avoid doing that thing

Is chapter and verse from the abuser's handbook.

As someone from a very manipulative guess-culture family, I don't think this is black and white. It can be very frustrating to have someone refuse to communicate with you directly. That can be abusive in itself.

I think that regardless of which one of you is being the most abusive, there are a few things you can do to take the pressure off:

1) Let your wife do what she does. If you don't like the pot holder in the dish, don't put it there. If she puts it there, wash the dish before you use it.

2) Have a sense of humor about the fact that you both have different standards of cleanliness. Not like a needling "YOU'RE DIRTY! HAHA!" sense of humor, obviously. Joke about the fact that you're being silly about arbitrary clean/dirtiness, and she might follow suit about her own hangups.

3) Go to therapy. This is the kind of situation where couples therapy can be really unhelpful, IMO. If there is an abusive party, they are usually good at manipulating the narrative. But you need to discover yourself and find out what unsettles you about this relationship.
posted by easter queen at 8:19 PM on December 11, 2015

Oh, and oh my god, if the therapist suggests you might be depressed and want to try an SSRI, and you can start at a low dose, try it. It took the edge off my particularity, for sure.
posted by easter queen at 8:20 PM on December 11, 2015

But I'm also incredibly hurt that she actively tries to guess what is going to make me angry or upset and then tries to avoid doing that thing (and she is often wrong, adding to her frustration, because she is not privy to my internal narrative).

Wow. You're saying she hurts you by not being able to read your mind and tries to anticipate what will upset you with the goal of keeping you happy? You need to find some perspective on this.
posted by bendy at 6:08 PM on December 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

My advice is to fucking stop it.

Your wife bears zero responsibility for this -- judging from what you say here. So there is nothing she needs to change, she doesn't need to be more or less assertive about responding to you, and your bullshit about how you have a problem with how she responds is exactly that: bullshit. It's pretty fucked up that you tried to complain about her, and about how you feel "hurt" that she attempts to try to anticipate and avoid doing the things that will set you off. Of course she does, anyone in her position would do that.

You need to knock it the fuck off. You don't need to compromise, you need to stop it. You don't need her help in this, you need to stop it. It's not easy, but it's simple. Practice makes it easier.
posted by mister pointy at 9:07 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

From the OP:
Thanks for your responses folks. I was writing from an emotional place at the time I originally posted (whoops), and I guess I should have been more clear that, when all is said and done, I understand my wife's perspective, think it is fully justified, and furthermore sincerely believe that my behavior is my own problem to fix. I screwed up last time we talked (right before I posted the question) with some of the things I said, but we just spoke again starting from a calm, happy place and it went a lot better: she acknowledged that my requests sometimes pushed emotional buttons for her (previous partners giving her shit for not being clean enough), whereas I tried to make it clear that I thought my behavior was problematic and I needed to take responsibility for it, again reiterated that it had nothing to do with her being dirty (I think she is cleaner than me, I just have weird rules about it) and told her I was looking into CBT. It actually helped her a lot to know that I thought my actions had a lot to do with OCD issues, and were really not about her. It was a very healing conversation and gave both of us a lot of hope I think.

In any case, I realize I wrote this poorly, so I understand why I got such a negative reaction from many of you--I'm sorry. Those of you who were regardless somehow able to piece together the different inconsistent emotional statements to get a coherent a sense of the whole, thanks--your nuanced responses were quite helpful. Ragged Richard, Jessamyn and Juliet Banana, in particular thank you for your comments, they were really great.

Thanks again--I'm sure I'll be dipping back into this thread again in the future for help, and hopefully others will find it useful as well.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:17 PM on December 14, 2015

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