How do I cherish her?
May 1, 2008 8:38 AM   Subscribe

I have a great girlfriend. She's beautiful, intelligent, funny, thoughtful, open-minded and communicative. Her future is bright and I am happy to be with her even in our worst moments. How is it, then, that I spend so much of our time together bringing her down over small things she says or arguing over minor issues?

I think I have a habit of finding flaw with people once I get to know them. I start to notice the imperfections and either try to get away from them or nitpick at them until they no longer want to be around me. When I do try to be good to people it's either too little too late or too much at exactly the wrong time.

This is one relationship I really don't want to mess up, though I'm afraid it may be too late already. I've begun seeing a therapist and that helps but progress is slow. How can I learn to focus on what I love about my girlfriend and communicate that to her when we are together? How can I keep from relapsing back into nitpick mode? And, as an aside, are there any good books on the subject?
posted by mockdeep to Human Relations (39 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know. I find I do the same thing sometimes, and I've thought long and hard about why I do it. Are you maybe threatened or somehow jealous of her? Do you maybe subconsciously bring her down because you feel like she's that much above *you*?
posted by kbanas at 8:46 AM on May 1, 2008

Response by poster: The thing is, I do this with everybody, friends, family, coworkers. For some reason I always focus on the things that make them more difficult to deal with.
posted by mockdeep at 8:49 AM on May 1, 2008

How is it, then, that I spend so much of our time together bringing her down over small things she says or arguing over minor issues?

Why don't you just stop doing that? I mean, if you feel annoyed or irritated about something minor, just keep it to yourself. If you catch yourself doing it, stop and apologize. That doesn't seem very difficult.
posted by delmoi at 8:50 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I do this when at my core I don't feel I deserve happiness. I'm uncomfortable when things are peaceful and calm because I'm not used to it. Something must be wrong if I'm happy, so I nitpick until I make something wrong. It's good that you're aware of this because you can learn to stop yourself before you say something nitpicky. I may be 100% justified in my nitpick (he was late to dinner with my boss, he left his dirty socks on the floor when we have company coming over), but no matter how justified I am, nitpicking does not further my goal of a happy relationship.
posted by desjardins at 8:55 AM on May 1, 2008 [8 favorites]

You are at least conscious of this and that's the first step. Now you need to STOP and THINK before you open your mouth and nitpick. Ask yourself if the comment you are about to make really needs to be said. Ask if it's unnecessarily mean, or just unnecessary, and if there is any good that will come of it to outweigh the harm or hurt the comment may cause. Once you slow down and think before you speak you'll find that there are a lot of thoughts that go through your head that really don't need to be communicated.
posted by amro at 8:56 AM on May 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Anytime you want to nitpick, think about whether it's really important. I almost crabbed one day about how the towels were being folded in the bathroom (because, OMG, they were being folded in HALF when everyone knows you fold them in THIRDS), and then I realized, it really doesn't matter and I really don't care. The towels are folded in half and the world goes on. On preview, what amro said.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:57 AM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Don't be afraid to apologize to her for what you have done.

It's not about her. It's about you. As much as you may have convinced yourself otherwise

Notice when you start doing this in your head and in her presence. Tell her immediately that you find yourself building a case against her and that you don't want to do this anymore.

See what happens. I found that when I realized this avenues of communication and possibilities opened. You won't know what these are until you do this sincerely.

This skill will be indispensable to you in dealing with your lover and others for the rest of your life. And yes, I am bragging. I am prouder than all git' out that I got to this point. Good luck.
posted by goalyeehah at 8:59 AM on May 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I do this a lot with g/fs and friends and family. Everyone I feel "close to" is fair game, and while the kind of honesty I bring to people can be refreshing, the truth hurts, and some are stronger than others when it comes to accepting this kind of criticism.

The advice I'm given time and time again is, my criticism and high standards I hold for others are a reflection of how I hold myself. I'm very critical of myself, constantly trying to make myself better, smarter, more eloquent, etc. And the advice is: go easy on yourself, and you'll go easy on others. Accept your own shortcomings, accept yourself, accept your humanity, and suddenly the world's flaws will matter less.

Truth be told I'm not even close to fully embracing this advice. But I do accept it as true, because when I'm happy, truly happy, I like making others happy. And you don't make others happy by telling them about all their flaws all the time. Healthy criticism once in a while can be okay, but when you feel like you're going overboard, it should be a warning sign that you're likely being overly critical of yourself as well. Or that's the case for me, anyway.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 9:03 AM on May 1, 2008 [12 favorites]

Look, this issue boils down to feelings vs. action. Sure you may feel resentful and angry, but you dont have to act on it. Too tough to not act on it? Then go take a walk or find a distraction when you start feeling negative. Some people are pretty emotional inside, they need to find ways to control it. After you stop acting on these feelings for a long while then you might find that they arent as strong.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:04 AM on May 1, 2008

Let her know you have this weird tendency to be overtly critical, and a dick. And it doesn't mean you don't love her.

And then work on shutting up. Remember how they taught you in kindergarten? If you've got nothing nice to say, don't say anything.
posted by crunch buttsteak at 9:06 AM on May 1, 2008

Pause. And then respond. That moment of hesitation will allow you to consider whether what she's done matters or not; to understand that in almost all cases it doesn't, because we're all imperfect; and to realise that by criticising, you are probably, as kittens for breakfast noted, being a dick.

Any high standards that you might hold against yourself don't count, and aren't helpful. They're getting in the way of you learning to accept yourself, and they make you see your own imperfections in the people around you. Hopefully your therapist is helping you work that one through. But without wishing to trivialise, this isn't rocket science, and it's not the greatest personal hurdle to overcome. Just commit to letting it go, and work on it until you've lost the habit, because that's all it is, no matter what the source is.
posted by dowcrag at 9:14 AM on May 1, 2008

Does she know that you realize you have this habit and are getting help for it? Tell her, because it'll accomplish a lot. She'll know that you realize it's a problem and are actively trying to solve it. She'll also know that you're willing to work hard on the relationship and aren't taking her for granted. She also might get the courage to stand up for herself when you do start to nitpick, which might help your progress.
posted by aswego at 9:17 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's amazing how many of us deal with this personality flaw. My wife calls it micromanaging, but I'll admit it's more of a general 'dick-iness.' I am getting better at it but it's going to be a life-long struggle, I fear. I have this joke I always tell my wife: "I'm not micromanaging, I'm just macromanaging on a small scale."

But you must try to stop. And tell her you're trying. Because it hurts them.
posted by resurrexit at 9:28 AM on May 1, 2008

Practice asking yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Doesn't mean everything you say has to be all three--two out of three is fine--but it's a pretty good set of criteria to work with as you try to retrain yourself.

And everything aswego said.
posted by hippugeek at 9:40 AM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm the same way. When it becomes an issue, I go for compromise.

You try to stop being so critical and they stop trying to be sensitive about it. The idea is to meet halfway.
posted by kpmcguire at 9:43 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have you heard the advice that when you want to bring up a complaint or something, you should always phrase it around how you feel, as opposed to what the person is doing? So, instead of saying, "You're always so whiny and petty!" you say, "I feel very frustrated when you make comments like that." Instead of saying, "Can't you ever clean up after yourself? You're such a slob!" you say, "I feel like I am the only one who works to keep the house clean, when you leave dirty dishes in the sink like that." It's a way to make your feelings known, to present the issue that you believe needs resolving, while also avoiding attacking the other person and making them defensive.

It may help you to start phrasing more of your comments in this way. It will help you focus more on what you are feeling and why you feel that a certain criticism needs to be made, and less on the behaviors you find deserve the criticism. You'll learn more about your side of this equation -- the side that keeps feeling compelled to hurt people over negligible issues -- and perhaps you'll end up making comments that are less hurtful.

I'm not suggesting that it's a cure, or that phrasing is the key to this issue. You certainly should keep up the therapy, and I agree with other posters that your problem is probably related to how you view your self-worth and so on. But this, at least, may help in the short-term.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:54 AM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Before you open your mouth to knock her down, consider why you want to knock her down. You have control over what comes out of your mouth and you can choose to not say hurtful and unnecessary things. Exercise your internal editor.
posted by fenriq at 9:57 AM on May 1, 2008

Following up on aswego...
If you have problems realizing you're doing it at the time, what has helped it be open with the g/f. Be blunt and tell her you hate that you do this and to have her help you with it. Let her know the next time you're bringing her down, that she has full authority to tell your "STFU, n00b." Important to note that you can't get pissed at her for telling you to STFU, either.
posted by jmd82 at 9:59 AM on May 1, 2008

I find that when you're trying to break yourself of a bad habit, it often helps to replace it with something else.

So, here's something to experiment with: The next time you find yourself about to nitpick over something petty, stop for a second, look at her, and instead tell her something you like about her. The way her eyes look, the way she laughs, whatever it is about her that attracts you.

See if it helps.
posted by JDHarper at 10:00 AM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Others have hinted at this, but I had this problem and the root of it is hidden until you look carefully.

We all feel awkward, bad, and tired at times. Without being conscious of it, we either internalize it (depression) or externalize it (try to make others feel bad). Through careful observation, you can make it conscious and allow it to arise and pass (as all things do) without allowing the bad feeling to move your mouth or body in an unskillful way.

Another way I have seen this is as a internal coping mechanism. I feel bad. I can't fix my problems, but your problems are so simple you can fix them, let me show you how. I am distracted from my issues by working on yours. (Is this the essence of AskMetafilter?) Problem is, unless you are skilled/trained in helping others, you help will sound naggy, cause conflict, and likely fail.

As others have said above, it can be helpful to warn her when a negative state is likely to make you say something unskillful and apologize when you see that you have said/done something unskillful.

Meditation and the work of Jack Kornfield has been helpful in my understanding of how this works.
posted by sisquoc15 at 10:01 AM on May 1, 2008 [9 favorites]

It sounds like you are insecure and you are projecting that insecurity onto her, and everyone around you to avoid having to fix yourself.

What concerns me is that at no point in this question or followup responses do you note this behavior or your mindset as wrong. You acknowledge negative results of your actions, and remorse for making people feel bad, but it sounds like you feel this line of thinking is justified, and I'd wager you don't respond to similar criticism well when it's directed at you.

Acknowledging your actions are harmful is good, therapy is good, communication with your partner is good, but the first step is coming to terms with your own fallibility.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:18 AM on May 1, 2008

Try slowing down your thought-->speech process somewhat. For example, when you're about to say something nit-picky or otherwise condescending, allow the thought to form completely in your head, review it, and ask yourself, "Does saying this improve our relationship? Is this going to help me? Does saying this convey my respect and love for my partner?" Note that it is possible to criticize or debate with somebody you care about and love with respect- this is an essential part of any relationship's dialog, but it becomes poisonous when you don't convey your concerns with respect and love. Otherwise you're just being cutting, which is hurtful and will have ruinous consequences.
posted by baphomet at 10:35 AM on May 1, 2008

Best answer: We do this kind of thing innately when we don't trust the world to not cause us pain. So instead, we focus on controlling our world in ways that we know how. Sometimes this is by criticizing other people, sometimes it's by getting angry, or defensive, or manipulative. For some people it's overt, and for some it's more subtle.

The problem of course is that it's impossible to control every variable in life that could possibly hurt us. Instead of learning to control other people and things around us that could cause us pain, we need to learn to control our responses to things. In the end, it's about us, not other people.

I have a tendency to be defensive if I perceive that I'm being criticized. This has caused pain in my relationships, especially if people are being genuinely helpful. I've had to learn to reprogram how I interpret the variables in my life around me. I've been learning to do this by first, not responding immediately. And secondly, before I respond, by asking myself key questions that may allow me to interpret the situation in a genuinely better light. For example, instead of asking whether people are offering advice because they see me as someone who is incompetent and can't figure something out on his own, perhaps their intentions are good and they are simply trying to be helpful? When I do this repeatedly over time, I find that I actually habituate different responses, simply by changing the way that I think and meditate about them.

I suspect that if you spent regular and concerted time pausing before speaking, and also making a regular list of things that you appreciate about the people who you love, this may make it easier to focus intentionally on those things in your interactions with them. It's about making a different learned response a habit, so that after awhile, you don't even think about it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:46 AM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm dealing with this a lot. People tell me that this and other behavior come from "not loving yourself enough". I think there is an element of truth to that.

I'm a perfectionist and quite hard on myself sometimes, and I want other people to be the same way. One thing to remember is that your friend/girlfriend/whatever might be a perfectionist too, but have different values in it than yourself. Like, say I'm a photographer (I am) and my friend is a classical singer. She might show me a picture she took on a trip, and if I were to take that picture, I would be embarressed by it, because it wouldn't be up to my standards (it would be, say, a bland picture of a beach in the Phillipines). My tendency would be to mock her, or say something critical about the picture. Or even to laugh. Make a joke or something.

But the thing is, my friend could do the same thing to me when I try to sing. Because she's a singer and that's what she does, and she's effing really good. And I'm finding my way singing, and trying different things, and haven't been doing it that long. And I'm cutting myself some slack to learn. I want her to listen to me. I might even want her criticism, but I don't want disdain.

Anyway, just trying to say that the things you are picking on your gf about, are they really important to her? She may not give a crap about knowing world events. You might. Or vice versa.

Not sure if that makes any sense.

It's also tough for me, because I really do enjoy a friendship where we can joke around hard about everything. That's kind of the way I grew up, and I love it when someone gives me a really affectionate hard time. I know that when I'm in a bad mood, the jokey affectionate things I might say just come out as mean biting remarks, and I must remember to shut my mouth. It's tough if you are a kind of funny person and like joking around, it can get you into trouble.

Totally out of left field, but the book Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo, is an extended study of a guy like this. I really recomend reading it. It's a novel but you might learn something from it. I've read it many times. It deals particularly with this kind of picky criticism and what it does.
posted by sully75 at 11:30 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here are a few things to think about and act upon when you can:

You are Other to each other and that is the beauty part.

Conquer the deadly combo of big ego, low self esteem which, in my experience, afflicts many men. Know and love yourself -- and don't worry, it takes a lifetime to accomplish that.

Definitely let her know you are conscious of your challenge, it's not new, you are working on it, request her patience and -- extremely important to women -- grant her permission to point out when you're being too intense and hyperfocused and hurtful.

Play a sport together, even better if you learn it together. You sound competitive and it helps enormously to burn through it on the tennis court, or with a friendly fitness challenge. Board, card and video games don't count -- these can actually become another nit-picky battleground.

Don't drink too much when you are together unless you have made progress in your (noble) quest and she has commented on your marked improvement. Alcohol makes this kind of behavior deadly and can cause the relationship to spiral downward rapidly.

Sometimes it's not so easy to just "edit" and keep quiet. Train yourself to see it happening. Stop and notice the tightening or welling or building up of feeling just as you are about to say something hurtful. If you notice how you feel physically you will be able to know when it's coming on. I actually get hot ears -- that's almost always an indicator that I should change my focus.

Create a comfort thought or mantra or a physical act (I go and empty or load the dishwasher) that you return to when you find yourself jumping on the I-am-relentless train. Distract yourself the second you are aware things are headed south.

Keep in mind that life delivers plenty of unbidden knocks and take-downs and disappointments and pain and hardship and oh yes, loneliness, when you least expect it. Do not -- repeat -- do not Ask For Trouble.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:08 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

enlist her--this will really prove how much you want to fix this for her. if you nitpick more than X times in an hour, you put $5 into a jar. at the end of each month, take her out to a lovely dinner. aim to work your way down to a hot dog and an ice cream cone.

(decide on a code word you can use in front of other people, so she doesn't have to call you on it in front of your friends, and embarrass you.)
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:29 PM on May 1, 2008

I could have written this question. In fact, I was recently considering an AskMe that started, "How do I stop myself from being a bitch?" My behavior has roots in my childhood, but that doesn't matter now, really. It's hard for me to stop and think before I speak, but that's really the key to controlling it. That, and I've learned that apologizing later helps tremendously.

I also try to think about who I really want to be -- and that person is NOT a control-freaky nit-picker.
posted by chowflap at 12:40 PM on May 1, 2008

Tons of people, like me, do this. As to why, I can think of several possible reasons: (1) you spend lots of time with the person, so her capacity to irritate increases; (2) you can indulge your inner asshole, because you sense she will tolerate it or because you feel at ease being yourself; (3) you are unhappy and just taking it out on someone, or dislike yourself and subconsciously trying to screw yourself; (4) you have misgivings about the relationship and this is the way your doubts surface.

Here's the thing of it: this kind of behavior is pretty common, and I imagine it occurs for very different reasons, and so it's kind of hard for anyone not knowing you to say why it's happening . . . which makes it hard to suggest how to stop it.

All this said, generic solutions like pausing, apologizing, and fining are pretty good. FWIW, here are two standards I try to internalize, though in some it might backfire:

(1) Would I say what I am about to say in an email? I have internalized a fair amount of self-control in this regard, so it helps me make concrete the pause that others have extolled.

(2) Imagine (as appropriate) that there's someone else in the room. I have sometimes caught myself sniping in ways that I would NEVER do if someone else were listening.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 12:58 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm willing to buy all this "it's because you don't love yourself enough" stuff, but in my experience the people who are like this are the people for whom it is important to be right. In fact, it's very important to be most right. These are the kids who were, by and large, praised for very little besides being smart and/or verbal.

Either way, the filter you need between your brain and your mouth is the Does It Really Matter? filter. In the course of spending 50 years with someone, does it matter that the way they slice onions is stupid? Does it really matter, on a day to day basis in your life, if Pearl Harbor was on December 7th or December 9th? Does it really make a difference which way the toilet paper is set on the roll, or if the seat is left up or down?

In relationship battles, there are no winners. It's a team event and there is no scorecard because you are supposed to argue towards resolution, not victory. So pick your battles and don't sweat the small stuff.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:00 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tell the people around you that you want to change... tell them to say "I thought you were going to focus on the positive" when they hear you focus on the negative.

Or, accept yourself for who you are. Find someone who ignores your criticisms and loves you anyway.
posted by ewkpates at 1:02 PM on May 1, 2008

The advice here is all good -- especially the ones that tell you to take a breath and think before opening your mouth.

I do this too and, while my gf is generally a saint about it, I really don't want to be that way. The above advice helps on a micro, in-the-moment level. In a macro sense, though, it's helped me to realize that nitpicking was perfectly expected in my home growing up. If the towels were folded wrong, my mom would correct me. I'm in my mid-30s and she still does it. It's just the way she is, and I've inherited the okay-ness of pointing out that, no, the dish soap goes on the left side of the sink, not the right! Sheesh!

What helps is realizing that the nit-picking was acceptable in that setting, and in that family, but I don't want it to become de rigueur in *this* family.

That's the big picture. Training yourself not to care about the little stuff, or to pick your battles, is harder.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:35 PM on May 1, 2008

Wait a second. Mockdeep, it says on your profile that you're the "friend met sweetheart" of Ria, asker of this question. Are y'all messing with our heads? What's going on here?
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:05 PM on May 1, 2008 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Haha, I was wondering if someone would catch on to that. Oh, well. As you can guess, we are very open with each other. We talked about the issue in her post last night and my diagnosis was similar to some of the responses there: that looks were not the issue. I'm no "Adonis" but I also know that I am not that bad to look at. She pointed out guy X to me yesterday (as long as you're poking through our profiles) and I was a little surprised at how plain he looked. We discussed her attraction to him and it seemed more to come down to the way he talked rather than the way he looked. He makes people feel important when he talks to them. I, on the other hand, have a knack for making people feel inadequate. I think this is probably my greatest flaw and I desperately want to learn to make others feel good about themselves and to make them feel as important as I truly believe they are.
posted by mockdeep at 3:22 PM on May 1, 2008

Wow. This feels... icky.

Anyway, given her three previous questions, I'd agree that, as you say, looks are not the issue. Neither is your 'nitpicking.'

How is it, then, that I spend so much of our time together bringing her down over small things she says or arguing over minor issues?

She's publicly asking internet strangers if she should dump you for someone hotter -- on the same day that you're asking how to be a better boyfriend -- and THIS is your concern?

I say get over it. Sounds like you have the perfect relationship: Muddy shoe-wiper and willing doormat.

posted by mudpuppie at 3:30 PM on May 1, 2008 [8 favorites]

It made me feel good just to read this. I think it would take a lot of insight to even realize that you're bringing her down and you don't want to do that. I think that means there's a lot of hope.

So, there have been lots of good suggestions. I just wanted to give some positive feedback. If you even saw that you were being overly critical or hurting her feelings and you care, it means that you can stop it pretty easily. And you two can have a great, happy future together.
posted by ASterling at 4:45 PM on May 1, 2008

Mod note: metadiscussion goes to lalalalala METATALK
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:36 PM on May 1, 2008

Based on her question alone, I would advise you to DTMFA.
posted by misha at 8:06 AM on May 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a member of Team DTMFA, I concur wholeheartedly. Her wayward eye isn't going to stop anytime soon, and you don't sound like you're looking, only full of understanding why SHE's looking. Just to be contrarian, maybe you're right about her. Those little things are stupid, annoying, insipid, and maybe she's not as hot as you once thought. There. You're a viking at at laserlike criticism! Now go find some woman who can appreciate unending haranguing.
posted by Busithoth at 3:25 PM on May 3, 2008

How is it, then, that I spend so much of our time together bringing her down over small things she says or arguing over minor issues?

Are you sure that you actually do these things, or is it possible that you are uncritically accepting your girlfriend's worldview -- which may not necessarily be a reasonable one?

Firstly, you can't argue in isolation. It takes two people to argue, so you should only bear half of the responsibility for this. If your girlfriend feels that you argue too much, the obvious way to deal with it is for *her* to stop arguing back with you.

The bringing her down thing: I find it very interesting that many women feel entitled to be critical of men -- the way that they look, the way that they spend their spare time, their relationship with their friends, etc. etc. -- and they cast their sense of entitlement when it comes to sharing these criticisms as 'being honest', and talk about how it's 'important for our relationship to address these issues'.

However, when the boot is on the other foot, and it's a man sharing similar issues in the opposite direction, then we're 'bringing her down', 'eroding her self-esteem', 'being petty or obsessive', etc.

Me? I'd DTMFA and find someone who didn't have so many issues.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:51 PM on May 3, 2008

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